I meant to get this finished on Wednesday but I went to a meeting at the Telegraph offices to hear the usual suspects talk about political blogging instead – yet again I was the only Lib Dem in the village. The only one who didn’t seem enamoured with the Power Of The Blog was Alex Hilton who did a good presentation about what a blog through the medium of handing out newspapers in which he basically said that the best bloggers are infectious.
Overcoming the media narrative
My turn at last. After asking a cheeky question about whether herding politicians was closer to herding economists or journalists (answer: I haven’t been given the job yet; ask me after I’ve been elected!), I got onto more weighty matters. Journalists tell stories and the story they seem to have already decided upon if Chris gets elected is of those perfidious Liberal Democrats, having been given a golden opportunity to elect a great messiah in the form of Nick Clegg, out of their perversity instead opted for a greying economist who is unable to communicate. This isn’t my view, but it certainly seems to be the story that certain journalists seem intent on telling, and having seen Ming Campbell try and fail to escape the media preconceptions I’m concerned that Chris won’t be able to either.
Chris’ response was to point out that journalism has an “inbuilt balancing mechanism” – if a lot of people take one point of view then a lot of others will turn around and rubbish it. He cited Jackie Ashley’s column this week arguing against “pretty boys” leading political parties.
He went on to talk about Tony Blair, a politician who was always very good at presentation but incapable at delivery. By contrast, he suggested that what the public want is a party that is more about substance than style and who they can rely upon to deliver.
Alex Wilcock intervened and asked another supplemental, suggesting that another part of the media’s narrative about Chris is that he is rich, a former journalist and a politician from Brussels and this is at odds with his exhortation for the party to be anti-establishment.
Chris’ answer was to state that being anti-establishment (anti-establishmentarian?) is a frame of mind. Being establishment means ultimately being concerned more about running things and not rocking the boat. Looking at it from a business perspective, he argued, all successful businessmen are in one sense “anti-establisment” – Bill Gates taking on IBM being a good example.
Being anti-establishment is ultimately being about wanting change; the Lib Dems must be the little boy who points out that the Emperor has no clothes.
My view: he answered Alex’s question better than mine, and subsequently to a large degree addressed by concerns. He spoke with passion and articulately. Frankly this was the answer I wanted to hear and although I remain concerned that in the short term the party would be pillioried in the press for electing Chris and thus making the “wrong” decision, he has the wherewithal to address that swiftly and effectively.
The Tax Question
Richard asked the simple question: is it time we started saying it’s time to start cutting taxes?
Chris certainly agreed that the time has come to state that taxes should not increase further, and that as things moved on the case for tax cuts may increase. But ultimately, he asserted, this issue is more counter-productive than any other.
The debate which has been waged between Labour and the Tories over tax and spend over the last forty years has been set against a background in which taxation has by and large hovered at around 40%, give or take a bit.
The real debate, Chris argued, is about accountability rather than the level of taxation; that means decentralisation. And it is on this issue that the Lib Dems stand head and shoulders above the other two parties.
My response: a good, clear, succinct answer that turns the question around back onto firm Lib Dem turf. This was clearly a question that Chris has been asked a lot!
Jonny asked what, in practical terms, Chris would spell out a Lib Dem policy on drugs.
Chris answered that drugs policy should be based on scientific advice and that the present categorisation system should be reformed. Secondly, he said that we must take a more medical view on people addicted to hard drugs and that they should be able to access treatment rather than being forced to steal. Ultimately however, he didn’t go down the libertarian line of legalising all drugs although he respected that as a legitimate position to take, on the basis that he feels that drug users do fail the “harm principle” – tearing apart families and communities.
Jonny intervened, pointing out that although Chris was saying that policy should be based on medical advice, that would mean politicians following the advice not individuals themselves; how does that square with a commitment to decentralisation? Chris’ response was to reiterate that drug use can harm others, to which Jonny pointed out that the same could be said of alcohol.
Chris’ answer to that was to point out that alcohol has become socially accepted, for better or worse, in the way that the use of other drugs has not. He conceded that we need to rethink our approach to alcohol and ensure that people are aware of the dangers, particularly since the price of alcohol has been dropping as a percentage of real income (an issue that cannot easily be addressed due to how easy it is to avoid excise duties these days), but that ultimately it must be dealt with seperately from other drugs.
My view: a very wishy-washy answer I’m afraid. Didn’t address the issue of cannabis and other soft drugs at all. His justification for treating alcohol differently was completely at odds to his previous statement about basing drugs policy solely on scientific evidence. I’m afraid he didn’t appear to have thought through this answer at all.
Still, if he’d called for ecstasy to be legalised you can bet it would have been splashed all over the newspapers by now. From what I’ve seen, Nick Clegg’s answer would have been no different. This is a third rail issue and until it loses some of its poison (to mix a metaphor), politicians in their position will be wary of engaging with the issue in a meaningful manner. At least his monarchy answer was more robust however.
The EU Reform Treaty
Paul Walter asked whether, assuming the Lib Dems’ proposal for a referendum on EU membership was defeated in the House of Commons, the party should vote against the Conservative amendment calling for a referendum on the Reform Treaty.
Chris’ answer was yes. His argument is that because the UK has been so successful in negotiating opt-outs for itself, blocking the treaty now – and thus depriving the other member states of a treaty they support – would be “totally dishonest”. But he restated the Ming Campbell line of a referendum on EU membership on the basis that this would a ex post facto way of ratifying the Single European Act and the Maastricht Treaty which had a profoundly greater impact on British sovereignty.
He went on to point out that the party that has real problems over Europe is the Conservatives. David Cameron knows that he daren’t be drawn on the subject of whether he would call a referendum after Lisbon had been ratified because he knows he would either have to go down the messy route of renegotiation or support a referendum on EU membership which will split the Conservative Party top to bottom.
Alex intervened again at the point asking Chris whether he would support a referendum if a million people signed a petition calling for a referendum on the Reform Treaty given Chris’ support for a People’s Veto.
After a digression about the People’s Veto itself (preaching to the choir on this one), Chris’ answer was that if the People’s Veto was in place then such a referendum would have to happen but that his personal position remains to hold a referendum on the wider issue of membership.
My view: While I’ve argued extensively on this blog against this position (although I’m ultimately really not that fussed about the policy for holding a referendum on EU membership), I have to admit that Chris has a really strong argument here. If Ming had given a robust answer like this back in September, there would have been much less fallout. Once again I’m drawn to the fact that on a number of issues Chris has a clearly thought out, consistent answer. I might not wholly go along with it, but I can’t dismiss it. He could even change my mind. That’s a powerful skill.
Raising the Profile of Local Government
Mary asked what Chris would do to raise the profile of local government, particularly within the party.
Chris’ answer was simple: give them more power and control over public services.
He emphasised the number of Lib Dem group leaders that were supporting his campaign, suggesting that they did so because they respected his commitment to local government. He pledged to promote the party’s success in local government and pointed out that the party needed a strong local base to get MPs elected.
My view: not much new or of substance here.
The Elephant Question
Finally Richard asked whether the Bird of Liberty should be replaced by the elephant. After a bit of waffle, Chris answered by asking how the “Elephant of Liberty” managed to become such a preeminent part of the Liberal Democrats when his relatives in the United States are associated with the forces of darkness.
My view: a good ad lib there.
OVERALL: What mainly impressed me was the comprehensiveness and clarity of most of Chris’ answers. He managed to keep the waffle and evasiveness down to a minimum. I didn’t like his drugs answer but that is even less of a decisive factor for me than Trident. By contrast the way he handled the monarchy question and the question about the EU referendum was astute and to the point.
The most significant factor for me about this interview is that it massively reduced my fears about what would happen if we elected the candidate of whom the media did not approve. For all his criticisms for being too cerebral and lacking the popular touch, Chris demonstrated an ability to sell himself in a warm and passionate manner. Voting for him feels like a much less risky thing to do after this interview than it did beforehand.
I regret that we didn’t ask him about the wisdom of making Trident such a central issue, about Nick Clegg’s valid criticisms about the way we approach the environment and about how we can convince the public about the Lib Dem approach to law and order. Hopefully there is still time to have these issues addressed.