Daily Archives: 4 November 2008

Lemby’s answers: the final salvo

One of the things about blogging that a lot of people just don’t seem to get is that the act has a tendency of heightening the author’s personality. I’ve probably written this before but a colleague of mine likes to relate how a Lib Dem activist came up to him once and said “You know James Graham? He’s a very angry man!” which didn’t accord with my colleague’s image of me as a cool, collected and reasonable person at all (what? Don’t laugh!). A lot of people who come across as quite extreme, uncompromising people are pussy cats in reality (in one of two cases I really hope that’s true anyway). It is therapeutic – a way of getting your frustrations out without leaving casualties.

What’s more, this heightening can act a tool for self-analysis at times. One such example of this is this blog’s continual return to the subject of Lembit Opik’s candidacy for President specifically and the work of the Lib Dem Federal Executive more generally.

The calm, collected person I am day-to-day knows this election doesn’t matter especially, has put his three years on the FE – an experience remarkably similar to headbutting a brick wall (imagine sticking with it for 17 years? Sheesh!) – behind him and believes that the real reforms that party needs to take will only ever happen by innovators and entrepreneurs working on the outside and influencing the party positively, not by getting elected onto an effing talking shop.

My reason for supporting Ros Scott is entirely related to that: I am content with the fact that of the three candidates she is promising the least. What she represents is not someone who is itching to leap onto the levers of power and to start “sorting things out” but rather someone who understands soft power, the power of narrative in political campaigning and the potential of new media. In some ways a victim of her own success, she is often described as the “establishment” candidate. Yet in a quiet way, she is far more subversive than either of her opponents could dream of being. If either of them had run their campaigns with even a tenth of her panache, I might have had a hard time deciding who to support. As it stands it is a done deal.

But for the angry, Mr Hyde of my personality, that is not enough. I can’t simply be pro-Ros – I have to be anti-Lembit (and to a lesser extent, anti-Chandila). I’ve broadly come to terms with this fact, but even then I felt the need to keep the animal caged for much of last week. I had a paper to write and the constant Lembit ravings in light of his bizarre claims to be a victim of a “conspiracy of mediocrity” were proving to be a distraction. Nonetheless, I’ve written that now and my response to Lembit’s answers to my questions is long overdue.

This has been complicated by Lembit’s extraordinary mea culpa (sort of) at the end of last week. What am I to make of that?

The first thing both this article and Linda Jack’s “tough questions” article raise is this debate over Lembit’s TV appearances. A lot of this is clever framing. By maintaining that 90% of the criticisms aimed at him are about this, and by restricting his participation in the debate to arenas where he can engage on his terms, he can make his opponents look irrational and conservative.

Personally speaking, while I have occasionally found his appearances on these shows grating, they don’t bother me too much. I don’t think they do the party or his personal standing any harm. I just don’t believe they do either of them any good either. If the only “problem” was that he appears on the telly, it wouldn’t be an issue.

No, although I’ve occasionally touched on this aspect of Lembit’s personality, my personal concerns have always been much more fundamental. At the start of the election I asked four key questions. Looking back at them, they aren’t the only questions I might have asked and some are weaker than others, but given the Herculean task in getting Lembit to address even these, I didn’t fancy my chances going any further. If you scroll down to the bottom of Linda’s article you can find these answers though, so here are my responses:

QUESTION: Since Lembit claims to have such great campaigning and communications skills, why have the Liberal Democrats in Wales stagnated in the last two assembly elections (sticking with six AMs in 1999, 2003 and 2007)?

ANSWER: No, the demarcation between the MPs and AMs in terms of leading the various election campaigns has been very clear in Wales since the Assembly was set up. In the Parliamentary General Election for which I WAS responsible as Leader, we doubled our seats from two to four. That was the result of superb local campaigns and I applaud what was achieved. A 100% increase doesn’t really qualify as stagnation, especially when the UK overall increase for the Party was only a fraction of this.

This is by far the weakest answer. If there is a clear demarcation between who leads the various campaigns it is neither spelt out in the Welsh Lib Dems’ manifesto (the pre-Autumn 2008 version of which I was reading this evening), nor does it appear to have worked at all well. Lembit wasn’t the leader of the Parliamentary Party – he was the leader of the whole party. If anyone is responsible for this “demarcation” it is him. And since the result was stagnation in the Assembly while gains were sustained in Parliament, it was clearly the wrong approach. None of this suggests a man who is capable of cutting through the bureaucracy and territorial warfare that a decent president must negotiate. Defending the siloisation of campaigning? At least it’s a first!

Nor can he really claim much credit for our Westminster gains. Cardiff Central was won off the back of the Assembly seat, which Lembit himself denies any responsibility over. Ceredigion was a campaign hard won over many years, the breakthrough being the 2000 by-election. As leader, his influence was far less than the local teams and campaigns professionals on the ground and the national leader and press professionals running the air war. Finally, doubling the number of seats was a fine achievement, but was only achieved in areas where we have been traditionally weaker. We doubled our MPs in the North West from 3 to 6 for instance, but didn’t need a special North West leader to deliver it.

QUESTION: Given the deep problems at the heart of the Kennedy leadership, wasn’t it an error of judgment to stand by him? Loyalty is easy – a nodding dog at the back of a car can do it. Don’t the “rebels” – including Nick Clegg and Vince Cable – deserve credit for taking a difficult decision that Lembit lacked the resolve to take?

Linda completely changes this question to:

Do you think it was an error of judgement to support Charles?

To which Lembit’s answer is:

ANSWER: No. I will never regret supporting Charles Kennedy when he was attacked for his drinking. I do regret to this day the way he was made to resign by the action of colleagues. In my view, we should have worked with him and supported him, especially given his candid and honest statements about it at that time. I judge people by results, and Charles delivered the best results we’d had for 8 decades, and had tremendous popularity. Had Charles been allowed to continue, I believe we could have de-stigmatised the question of alcoholism in the UK. That could have helped millions of people. That was an opportunity missed. Charles remains a great friend to me personally, and he has my loyalty as a colleague to this day.

To a degree this is a matter of view, but obviously I disagree. It was clear to me as far back as 2003 that Charles was no longer in the driving seat in the party – that job was being performed by the Lords Rennard and Razzall. To a real extent the drinking was an irrelevance; it was his resolve to lead that was the problem. While our 2001 campaign won praise, the 2005 one was greeted with cynicism with its 10-point plan and empty policy soundbites. With the right leader with a grander vision in place in 2005 I have no doubt that we would have done significantly better.

As I say, this is ultimately just a question of judgement. Where I think Lembit is in for more criticism is his decision to dredge this issue up at every opportunity. My initial questions were a reaction to Lembit’s manifesto in which he states:

And I’m a loyalist: I stood up for Charles Kennedy as leader right to the end because he didn’t deserve to be treated the way he was.

This isn’t positive campaigning – it is reopening old wounds. Nor is it presidential. And nor is it loyal: as my original question asked, don’t Clegg and Cable deserve credit for taking a difficult stand they believe in, for the good of the party? I handed Lembit an opportunity to make amends here and he rather threw it back in my face.

QUESTION: Why didn’t Lembit stand against Simon Hughes in 2006? Hughes presided over a string of failures, most notoriously watching the party’s membership fall by 10,000 members despite having pledged to treble the membership in two years. Again, doesn’t that suggest a lack of resolve?

ANSWER: Simon beat me for the Presidency in 2004, and I judged that my best contribution would be as Senior Vice President – Simon’s Number 2 basically. We work well together and I felt the right thing to do was to actively sign Simon’s nomination form in 2006 as a vote of confidence in his Presidency and for an effective team. He’s popular, hard working and I think the membership has enjoyed his incumbency a lot. I’m a democrat and I was happy to go along with what feels like a consensus. For me to have stood against him in 2006 would have been both pointless and vain glorious.

Well that’s a shame because had Lembit stood back then I would not only have voted for him but actively supported him. Indeed, it was this decision to not contest which gave me second thoughts about him.

What’s more, in early 2006, Lembit was still announcing an intention to stand. I remember him at the Blackpool conference in 2005, leading the fight against Simon Hughes’ proposals for ethnic minority shortlists. He was very keen to be seen to be opposing Simon then and if he was in awe of Simon’s mastery of the office of President while I was on the FE with the both of them (2004-2005), Lembit kept it pretty well hidden.

QUESTION: Why wasn’t Lembit’s campaign ready in Bournemouth? Frankly, it was a total mess. Ros Scott launched her campaign exactly 12 months before, so it isn’t as if Lembit didn’t know she was serious. Is this the level of professionalism we can expect from him? Don’t actions speak louder than words?

ANSWER: My best friend, David Hamer, died on 6th August 2008 with no warning, aged 46. I’d also had some other very difficult personal news shortly before this. I had to deal with these emotional body blows first. This meant I didn’t have so much stuff organised at the Bournemouth conference. I’d also managed to contract something like bronchitis at the time, which I’m sure was a direct result of the emotional distress I was experiencing. These things happen and you can’t really plan for them. I’m glad I got through it as fast as I did. A lot of people have been hugely supportive over this period. I’m really grateful to have had this support – I can’t put my thanks into words really. Anyway, that’s why I didn’t have so many leaflets and all that at Conference.

That’s all fair enough, but at the risk of sounding like a heartless bastard, there are two problems with this answer:

Firstly, Ros was quite openly campaigning from the start of the Autumn Conference in 2007. It was quite clear how she was planning to play things. Lembit really needed to be getting his act together long before the summer. He didn’t.

Secondly, he did spend a considerable amount of time running his Segway campaign throughout September. Once again, it boils down to priorities.

My own view is that Lembit didn’t prepare adequately because he didn’t take Ros’ campaign seriously. It was pure hubris. Win or lose he has been forced to revise that opinion, which can only be a good thing.

Anyway, that’s my two-penneth. In hindsight, I probably ought to have pushed harder on why Lembit squandered his housing brief at a time when housing hasn’t been as high profile a portfolio in years, but I’ll have to let that one go. The ballots close at the end of the week and I think it’s fair to say I’ve well and truly had my say by now. My personal instinct is that it will be close: Lembit’s profile broadly helps him in an all-member ballot, but the lack of real fizz to the campaign makes it likely that turnout will be low – and that can only help Ros. If you haven’t voted yet, then bear in mind you could really make the difference.

Either way it has been a fascinating campaign. My fervent hope is that it points to a more vibrant style of internal elections to the ones we’ve had in the past and that 2006 will be the last occasion in which the election for Party President is uncontested. We’ll see in 2010!

From Smallville to Metropolis: how Obama represents the American Dream

I sincerely hope this post isn’t seen as being disrespectful to someone who was clearly a remarkable woman, but Madelyn Dunham’s death today has a weird kind of appositeness. I’m hardly the first person to point out the almost fictional-feeling narrative of Barack Obama’s election campaign. He has a background that is almost too perfect, pretty much ticking every box going. He is almost a living cliche. The death of his grandmother just hours before polling (formally) begins sort of caps that off.

The similarities to the West Wing Seasons 6-7 narrative have been well rehearsed (and of course, that plot features an emotionally charged death in the finishing stages as well – which again was a case of reality and art getting mixed up). What is less clearly recognised in the UK are the surreal similarities to the Superman narrative, although this is clearly something not lost on Obama himself. A strange visitor from another continent (work with me here, I’m paraphrasing), who never knew his father yet lives in his shadow, raised by an elderly couple in Kansas, who goes to the big city to make himself… just watch Superman: The Motion Picture (still the best telling of the origin story) to see what I mean. In fiction, everything has a price. It is necessary for Jonathan Kent to die so Clark can become Superman. If you believe in a creator, it is a pretty cruel one who makes Obama pay a similar price on (hopefully) the eve of his victory.

But of course the Superman narrative is about as American as it gets – the outsider who not only integrates into the culture but becomes its paragon. It’s the story that makes non-American cynics like myself capable of forgiving the young country every time. That same optimism that makes Donner’s film so evocative (and which Bryan Singer got so horribly wrong in his poorly-conceived sequel) is what fuels the Obama campaign. By contrast I can see nothing of the American Dream in the McCain-Palin campaign, just something much darker. Even Bush didn’t so self-consciously set out to divide his own country in the way that certainly the Palin camp has done. It is truly scandalous.

I have to admit that at the start of the summer I would enjoy going around winding lefties up by saying I really didn’t particularly mind who won; McCain or Obama. I wasn’t entirely joking – McCain really did represent something different: finance reform, respect for human rights, economic liberalism. At a stroke however he reversed all that by appointing Palin at the end of August and I was able to not so much come off the fence, but leap off it.

So good luck from me Barack. I still have my doubts about your substance, but what you represent is something pretty damn important. You really must win today.