The Liberal Democrats’ mark of Cain

Liberal Democrat Voice has transformed itself into the unofficial ‘sack Ming Campbell’ campaign. To be fair, I don’t blame the editors of Voice themselves for this – they are only posting the contributions they have received and if individuals such as myself choose to respond on their own blogs rather than on that site, it is hardly LDV’s fault.

I don’t particularly want to get into the detail of the argument because, to be frightfully honest, it bores me to tears. Like most sensible people, I see party leaders as a necessary evil (which I should emphasise is NOT the same thing as saying all party leaders are evil). They are necessary because you need a figurehead and you need someone in the driving seat; it is far better to have someone do this with a clear mandate than pretend you don’t have leaders in the way that the Green Party does and have lots of unelected demagogues jostling like cats in a sack. But they are bad because the leader themselves invariably develops a bunker mindset and even in a party such as the Lib Dems which has non-conformism and the importance of the individual flowing through its collective veins, a cult of personality invariably develops.

We should be sceptical when a leader is given credit for the party’s fortunes, while avoiding blind cynicism. Paddy Ashdown clearly did steady the ship and laid important foundations for the party which we continue to benefit from. Charles Kennedy’s contribution was much less so, and I say that despite the fact that in crude electoral terms his tenure was far more successful than his predecessor’s. There wasn’t much that I saw during his tenure that I could single out as an achievement: he took a number of brave stances on issues such as immigration and drugs legislation during his first two years as leader, earning him plaudits in the run up and immediately after the 2001 General Election. Then however, we only edged forward. In 2005, when we gained far more in terms of seats and votes, his contribution was minimal. Even his opposition to the Iraq War was a result of the various factions cajoling him into position, something which became painfully clear with his clumsy formulation of ‘opposing the war buy supporting the troops’ (itself not a bad position, but one he was extremely bad at articulating). The fact is that between 2001 and 2006, the real leader of the Liberal Democrats was not Charles Kennedy, but Chris Rennard.

But we ought to be sceptical when the perceived ‘failures’ of the party are pinned on the leader as well. And those failures need to be brought into some perspective. The truth is, the last set of elections do not suggest there is any rout going on from the Lib Dem cause. Certainly, our support base has stagnated. Certainly, that in itself is not good news. But most of us who have been around politics for more than 30 seconds know that the party has had far darker moments. Having a slight brush with mortality should not provoke the reaction that it has done.

So why is this? I don’t mean to go all biblical on you, but I can’t help but feel this has something to do with Original Sin. The regicide of Charles Kennedy has left its mark. The way he was dispatched helped to develop a narrative that the Lib Dems were failing. This was further entrenched by the improvisational and gaffe prone leadership election. And our more hysterical members have taken this as a cue to dramatise every subsequent event through the same prism.

If the criticism of Campbell is that he has failed to make an impact, then his predecessor should have gone years before he did. People romanticise his ‘blokishness’ now as if it was an unalloyed asset. It’s true that the electorate liked him. But it is also true that the electorate didn’t see him leading the country. By contrast, the electorate like Ming far less, but appear to respect him when they are left to their own devices and not being repeatedly assured by his critics (and, regrettably, occasionally himself) that being old is a mortal sin.

I had originally sought to describe this as the party going through its own Lord of the Flies moment, but having reminded myself of William Golding’s book with the help of Wikipedia, I think that is probably rather crass. I can’t however help but see some parallels between the tone of some of these anti-Ming pieces and a bunch of pre-adolescent boys running rampant on a desert island. It doesn’t get much more intellectual than ‘king must die because sun not shine’.

The point I’m trying to make is that the party is continuing to suffer the aftershocks of that political earthquake. The Conservatives took a decade and more to recover from their act of regicide; I don’t think we’ll struggle for anything like that amount of time, but the fact remains that Ming hasn’t been allowed anything like the sort of honeymoon period that leaders who have been elected in less precipitous circumstances. People seem to think that the circumstances of his election as leader gives them a license turn the party’s performance into his own personal psychodrama.

There comes a point when a political party just has to weather the storm. Aside from some misguided passages in his last conference speech which were poorly handled by a misguided press officer, I can’t actually point to anything Ming has done wrong. There are certainly additional things I’d like to see him do: a much greater emphasis on membership development and recruitment for example. But knowing how the party works I’m acutely aware that these sort of things are not under the direct control of the party leader. I’m certainly unconvinced that he deserves the onslaught of abuse and dismissals that he is receiving at the moment.

More to the point, I suspect anyone in the same position would receive the same attacks. A young leader would be accused of lacking experience. A female leader would have every item of clothing and application of makeup scrutinised in intense detail to ‘prove’ she couldn’t handle the stress. A leader with a big nose would be castigated for the size of their schnoz while a leader with no prominent features would be dismissed as being anonymous. After 15 months, the only mud to stick on Ming is caricature.

Ironically, I suspect that Ming’s greatest salvation will come in the form of Gordon Brown. Like Ming, Brown’s image doesn’t fit the Blair/Cameron ‘sun king’ archetype. Brown will be good for Ming because he will both draw the fire of the image-obsessives and reinforce the notion that post-Blair politics should be about substance. Add to that the fact that Cameron’s job can only get harder from now on and there is every reason for sticking with the leader that we’ve got.

This is a rope-a-dope. If Ming can stand his ground then sooner or later his detractors will run out of energy. With all the insults and knocks just so much chip paper by that point, I suspect that Ming will go on to have a rather good general election. I suspect he will have done more than either of his predecessors to articulate a clear Liberal Democrat vision that is about more than simplistic tactical considerations about playing right and left against each other. And the good thing about not being on a pedestal is that you aren’t in danger of being knocked off it.


  1. I’m so sorry to have disappointed you James as you are very much my favourite Blogger and I naturally respect your experience and standing within the party. However, whether childish or otherwise, I fully stand by my article which I would write all over again.

    My standpoint is of somebody outside the party (though since writing the article, I have joined the Lib Dems). What I believe quite passionately is that sometimes organisations have a wider responsibility than that which they clearly owe their members, shareholders, or whatever. I believe that at this moment we desperately need a strong third party, and that the whole country is being done a disservice by the present state of affairs; in much the same way that we were all harmed by Labour going awol in the eighties, and the Conservatives being in disarray during the last two parliaments. If the opposition is weak and ineffective then, in my view, it bears a heavy responsibility for the excesses of the governing party.

    Like you, I was not in the least impressed by Charles Kennedy, and so I must admit that I regarded his downfall as a fortuitous event. But speaking as an outsider, I was perplexed and dismayed by the election of Sir Ming, and began to wonder whether it might not be that some of the unreconstructed socialists in the party were simply unable to come to terms with Chris Huhne being a millionaire. For me, Huhne just ticked all the right boxes; Ming ticked hardly any of them. What followed has been exasperating beyond belief.

    I cannot share your optimism that things will improve under Gordon Brown. Sir Ming and Brown are friends, and I can’t bear to think of Ming’s attacks at PMQ’s becoming any weaker than they already are. Moreover, Ming has clearly got half an eye on a Lib-Lab coalition post the next election – something which, in my view, would make a mockery of our opposition to the war in Iraq. Brown signed the cheques, remember? And I really can’t see Cameron’s job getting harder either; frankly I think that from hereon in, he’s laughing all the way to the bank.

    I’m so sorry we disagree, but I have no regrets.

  2. Ouch.

    Clearly I can’t speak for any of the other authors or commentors on LDV, but I can defend my own piece.

    “Having a slight brush with mortality should not provoke the reaction that it has done.”

    As I’ve said elsewhere, my concern is more about what is to come rather than any one specific ‘incident’ in what has passed. So I didn’t wake up the morning after the local elections and throw my hands in the air wailing “we had a rough election, we’re all doooooomed!”, rather it was just another event which seemed to add weight to my ever hardening position which is that, outrageously talented though he is in the field of Foreign Affairs, he can’t hack it as a party figurehead in a general election campaign, and there’s a danger of major embarrassment. And that is where the real damage will be done.

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