Tag Archives: Chris-Huhne

even less EXCLUSIVE: Chris Huhne talks to Quaequam Blog! (part 2)

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.

Oh, and before I get any more comments, blog posts or emails, I do now know what the word amanuensis means now. Sheesh! Is my face red. But I digress.

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!

Drugs Policy

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.

Tory Coops?

David Cameron is launching the Conservative Cooperative Movement today:

He is set to announce the creation of the Conservative Co-operative Movement to help people form groups to take control of some local public services.

Chris Huhne has a head start on this. His policy review on public services made a big deal about mutuals running public services. He is also the only candidate in the leadership campaign to talk about the old Liberal idea of industrial democracy. I could already write his response to this new Tory initiative; what is Clegg’s?

Take it down, Chris (UPDATE)

Oh dear, and he was doing so well.

Linda Jack and Charlotte Gore have condemned Chris Huhne’s campaign for publishing an endorsement by Chris Clarke which contains a blatant attack on Nick Clegg, branding him a Tory (unless there is a third candidate of whom I was previously unaware). It’s negative. It’s untrue.

Up until now I’ve not been that fussed about the level of yah-boo in this contest. A lot of Chris’ attempts to define himself have been leapt upon by his opponents as implicit attacks on Nick Clegg. I don’t think that is fair, and having spoken to members of his campaign team I’m very conscious of how keen (at least some of them) are to make this a fair fight.

But as Charlotte says, this is crossing a line. It has handed Chris’ opponents to take the gloves off themselves. He ought to take that quote down immediately, and not use Chris Clarke on any of his subsequent publicity materials.

UPDATE: The offending quote has been taken down. I still think the damage has been done and that the whole post should be taken down as a symbolic gesture, but at least it suggests they’re listening. Power of the blog, eh?

UPDATE 2: Another comment has now been added acknowledging that the article has been edited and that Anna Werrin is taking responsibility, which is much better and will hopefully defuse the situation. As Sam writes below, it does seem to have been cock up rather than conspiracy (although as someone who has chronicled Team Clegg’s various cock ups over the weeks, I have to say such things shouldn’t be treated too lightly).

nonEXCLUSIVE: Chris Huhne talks to Quaequam Blog! (part 1)

The Millennium Elephant has been trying to organise a bloggers’ hustings for the leadership candidates and he kindly invited his two Daddies (Richard and Alex), Mary Reid, Paul Walter, Jonny Wright, Jonathan Calder, Stephen Tall and myself to take part (the link is that all of us were either shortlisted for the Lib Dem Blog of the Year 2007 awards, won one of the subcategories or won the big prize in 2006).

Anyway, today we interviewed Chris Huhne (sadly Jonathan and Stephen couldn’t make it, but hopefully next time) and I think the general view was that a worthwhile time was had by all. Without further ado I will report what was asked, how Chris answered, and my own view on his response.

Party Organisation
Daddy Richard kicked off by asking Chris what he would be doing to get the party back in the 20s in the opinion polls.

Apart from a quick joke about the two candidates having a jobshare on the basis that our polls have actually gone up during the interregnum period, Chris very quickly declared a specific target, that of us beating our high watermark in the 1983 general election – 23 per cent – and indeed to aim for a vote in excess of 25 per cent.

The way he proposed doing this was as follows: the win the air war and being “sharp elbowed” in terms of getting the liberal view heard. He paid tribute to both David Laws today and more generally the “phenomenal” Norman Baker in terms of being able to set the media agenda by finding specific stories which resonate more widely.

But more fundamentally, he also outlined an approach that would have the party organising with a view to, over the course of two Parliaments, building up enough support and seats in the Commons so that it will be “impossible to form a government without the Lib Dems being part of that government”. He was vague on exactly how many seats we would need for such a situation to arise – he mentioned 150 but only in passing as it was a figure that he said that Nick Clegg has cited. His idea is to set that target and then develop, in effect, a business plan, establishing what those target seats should be, what they would need, and focusing the party on delivering that.

He also said that in his view the party’s “air war” needed to be much more professional about defining our key messages and being strict about repeating them again and again. Those messages would have to be rigourously market researched.

On money, and specifically how to pay for all this, he was somewhat vague beyond saying that he was confident we could raise it.

He contrasted his approach with the existing “incrementalist” approach by the party which is opportunistic, focused on byelections and target seats but ultimately is based on “hoping for the best”.

Throughout the answer to this question, Chris drew on his experience as a journalist. His final point was to emphasise the importance of imagery; “a picture is worth a thousand words”. He related his experience in 2005 of proposing to the Parliamentary Party that as an act of solidarity to Maya Evans, they should repeat he “crime” and read out the names of the UK soldiers who had been killed in Iraq. “Wiser heads” he said prevailed, but he argued that such actions would symbolise our opposition to specific illiberal pieces of legislation.

My view: I was very impressed with his answer here, which was specific and motivating as an activist. He did a very good job at selling to us his experience as a journalist and what that would bring to his role as leader.

I’m a little concerned about the party getting too specific in terms of numbers of target seats. We certainly can’t win them all and there is a danger in being too transparent. But his strategy does have the clear advantage of giving the targeting strategy a direction of travel and answers my previous complaint that we seem to be set on a goal of forming a government which will take us the best part of a century to reach on current performance. The aim to specifically go out to create a balanced Parliament is a compelling one, but it is one that would suggest mainly focusing on Labour-held seats.

Core message

Following on from Chris’s exhortation that we distill our campaigning down to a core message, Jonny Wright then asked Chris to complete the following sentence: “I should vote Liberal Democrat because…”

Chris’s answer was that the party stood for “a fairer society and a greener society where power is handed back to the communities around Britain.”

In terms of fairness, he defined that as “not being just about equality of opportunity,” suggesting that childhood poverty needed to be a priority.

On “green” he said he was proud of getting the party to sign up to the policy of a zero carbon Britain. He was keen to point out that according to Ipsos-MORI, the party has increased its lead over the other parties on this issue by 6 percentage points under his tenure as environment spokesperson. He said that he believed that “at some point” “the scales are going to fall from the public’s eyes on this issue” and it will leap up the political agenda (“like the Iraq moment”). Having a leader who is fully committed to this agenda would therefore be an advantage. In making this case he cited the examples of Australia and Canada where a bad drought and a mild winter have had a major effect on voting patterns and that PM John Howard – who opposed Kyoto – is now set to make Australia the first country in the world to ban the incandescent lightbulb.

My view: That’s certainly a list of priorities, but I’m not convinced that it is quite a core message for us on its own. His argument about there being a moment when the public will suddenly wake up to the importance of climate change as an issue may well be true, but it is a risk; it wasn’t clear what he was suggesting we should do in the meantime to ensure that this doesn’t become a damaging issue for us. Fundamentally, I don’t think he has satisfactorily answered Nick Clegg’s concerns which I believe are valid.

In terms of the polling evidence he cites, it is of course true. Up to a point. The flaw is that the 2006 data is from 31 August – 6 September while the 2007 data is from 20-26 September. The latter was immediately after the Lib Dem conference in which the environment was made a central issue. Nonetheless, it does undermine the Nicholas Blincoe argument that David Cameron is popularly regarded as the UK’s greenest politician and that this reflects badly on Huhne (incidently, I couldn’t resist looking at the equivalent law and order polling figures. According to these, the party has slipped 3 points under Clegg which when you consider this was also based on polling figures at the end of our party conference is not exactly stunning. Well, you started it Nick).

On equality, people will be unsurprised to learn that I approve of his position, but I have another article to write on that subject so I won’t go into it here. The localism agenda I also agree with.

It does leave one wondering where the freedom agenda lies however. If this is to be left off from our list of core priorities, and that we are to focus far more on our core priorities at the expense of other issues (including internationalism, Chris made explicit), where is the opening to do our tearing up of ID cards and protests about the DNA database? In retrospect this is a topic we should have probed him further on.

Communication Skills

Paul Walter pressed Chris on his reputation as being the less punchy of the two candidates and of, to use his memorable phrase “more sotto voce and approving of phrases like sotto voce“. As Paul pointed out, Chris’ first question when arriving and seeing Millennium Elephant was to ask where is emmanuensis was, a word so obscure that it defeats all the dictionaries I have to hand (including a two volume Oxford shorter) and even Google struggles to find more than two dozen references. The top result, it has to be pointed out, are the minutes of the Pembroke College Winnie the Pooh society (actually, it could be that the correct spelling is immanuensis, but that only gets four results – still at least they are about gods and not Pooh).

Chris’ answer was simply to “look at the Ipsos-MORI polling data”. He further pointed out that not only has David Cameron been concentrating on the environment as an issue but David Milliband, widely regarded as one of Labour’s greatest communicators, was also Environment Secretary until relatively recently and yet Huhne has managed to hold his own against both of them.

My view: I find Chris’ cerebral approach quite refreshing, and I also recall the Newsnight / Frank Luntz programme in the run up to the 2005 General Election which showed that Vince Cable polled incredibly well for the similar reason that he comes across as a big brain who knows what he’s talking about. The immanuensis/emmanuensis thing is a bit of a red herring as he didn’t even raise it in the interview itself.

With all that said, I still worry that he isn’t empathic enough. It still want to hear more from him about individuals daily lives. As leader he will need to reach that one step further and that means being both a big brain and someone with the common touch.

Local Government

Mary Reid asked what should Liberal Democrat-run councils do that is distinctively Liberal Democrat.

Chris started by contrasting the Lib Dem approach to localism and Labour’s: the Lib Dems were interested in devolving control while Labour are only interested in devolving management responsibilities. He emphasised that the alienation people feel about politics at the moment is not just about the quality of public services but because people need someone they know, from their locality who is their way into the political process and who is in a position to make a difference.

He also critiqued the way the party has forgotten the real philosophy behind community politics; that it has become an election campaign tool rather than a way of empowering people from the bottom up. He called on the party to go back to the ideas of people such as Bernard Greaves and others in the 70s and start empowering people once again.

From this he developed his arguments on public service provision, arguing for an emphasis on localism. His argument against market based solutions seemed to be not so much an objection to such solutions per se, but the idea that such policies should be wheeled out at a national level. Rather than risking what he calls a “nationwide balls up” he is calling for a system that allows for local experimentation.

My view: The way Chris expressed his position on public service reform here was better than the rather dogmatic way his manifesto came across. Of course, not having a single nationwide system in place will restrict the ability to deliver certain policies (I certainly think that health insurance proposals fall foul of this), but at least he is taking less of a “public-control good, market-based bad” approach.

On the other points I can merely agree. I am encouraged by his critique of the way the party has forgotten the meaning of community politics.

I’m not convinced he actually answered the question though.

The Monarchy Question

Alex Wilcock asked, in essence, that given that Chris is in favour of so much democratisation, what is his position on abolishing the monarchy.

Chris’ answer was that he doesn’t believe in “fighting battles that aren’t really going to change things.” He argued that as radicals we should choose our fights carefully and that getting dragged into the monarchy debate would confuse the issue. To round things off, he said that he thought that the institution of a constitutional monarch has many advantages. In short, he’s against it.

My view: I’m an apathetic republican. I’m opposed a monarch in principle, but I can think of so many other issues I’d rather concentrate on before considering the issue to be even a low priority.

What’s the point of leadership?

Alex also asked Chris to outline what he believed the purpose of a leader to be.

Chris began by emphasising his experience in managing a team both as a journalist and in working in the city (apparently economists are easier to manage than journalists). He said that in his experience a leader must have an honest assessment of his/her strengths and weaknesses and to build an appropriate team around them.

Fundamentally however, a leader must be able to represent the party well and convey the idea that they are someone that the public is likely to be comfortable with having to lead the country. Naming no names, he suggested that some of the party’s previous leaders, while likeable, did not convey that image.

Finally, he emphasised that the leader should be able to convey the idea that she/he would be a good pair of hands to entrust the economy with, quoting Bill Clinton.

My view: a difficult question to answer, but I think he did quite well. Good on emphasising experience and his other selling points, which is fair enough.

…at this point I’m going to take a short break, ‘cos summarising all this stuff is doing my head in. My question is yet to come, as are everyone else’s second bite of the cherry and last but not least my final conclusion. More on this tomorrow!

Clegg and Huhne need to pare it down to basics

The Lib Dem leadership campaign is starting to get spiky. Good, it’s past time for a bit of frankness. And while Nicholas Blincoe’s attack on Chris Huhne over on Comment is Free is ad hominem enough to make even me blush (making up a pretend speech impediment and then taking the piss out of it is in the gutter even by my standards), his criticisms of Chris Huhne’s stance on the environment aren’t a million miles from my own yesterday.

But he is wrong to complain of Huhne being schismatic. Or rather, he is wrong to express exaggerated concerns about Huhne causing a split in the party. The party’s attempts at looking every which way and being all things to all people have got us nowhere. The fact that one of Clegg’s key advisers is openly calling for as much soft soap in this contest as possible (while reserving the right to put the boot in himself) confirms my worst fears about the mushy, safe “liberal future” he appears to be promising. So much for moving out of our comfort zone.

Huhne’s manifesto contains two core elements that he should push home as much as possible over the next few weeks. The first is the People’s Veto – a brilliant populist move which happens to also be a democratic one. The second is his defence of equality. The latter guarantees that the likes of Andy Mayer and Tristan Mills won’t vote for him, but it marks him out as a centre left politician and contrasts with Clegg’s emphasis on meritocracy. It is an issue of principle that he can stand or fall on. For me – and others – it makes Clegg’s exhortation of liberalism sound hollow.

Both of these topics evoke visceral responses which is what we need in a contest like this. We have serious issues that need to be resolved. Saying we must never try resolving internal philosophical differences for fear of scaring the horses is lamentable. We will be stronger for having had a robust debate, not weaker.

Everything else in that manifesto should be junked, at least in terms of core messages. The rest of it either restates existing party policy or goes to a level of nuance that we really don’t need to be getting into. If he can’t pare it down then Blincoe will have a point: having lots of arguments on lots of topics will generate far more heat than light.

And Nick Clegg? He gets an easier task. To win my respect, all he has to come up with is one big, bold idea that it is possible to disagree with. At its heart, the fact that I haven’t heard him articulate one is what is most frustrating me about his campaign. People keep telling me he has one; that he has lots. David Boyle – someone I certainly do respect – has just joined the blogosphere and assures us that Nick has one. Everyone who knows him seems convinced that Nick has one. Yet no-one seems to want to say what it is.

Advice to Lib Dem Bloggers re Trident: shut up!

It is now almost a week since Steelgate. In that time, the Lib Dem blogosphere has been obsessed with the topic of Trident.

It was a bad political miscalculation of Chris Huhne’s to make such a big deal of it over the weekend. Almost certainly, his intention was to make the announcement before his manifesto launch so that it wouldn’t overshadow his manifesto. Well, it has.

People can agree or disagree with his stance: I certainly think that Clegg has now made a creditable rebuttal. But if this election ends up being remembered as the Trident election, the party is going to end up looking bloody stupid.

I know it is impossible to ask people to stop thinking about bright purple gorillas with yellow polkadots, and almost certainly just as futile to suggest that people might want to discuss something other than Trident for a bit, but please try.

Chris Huhne’s manifesto: the verdict

I thought I’d give Huhne’s manifesto the same treatment that I gave Clegg’s speech last week.

Once again, I’ll give each main section marks out of five for how much the section is in the party’s comfort zone, how much it is reaching out beyond our traditional supporter base and how much I personally agree with it. I realise the first two are tests which Nick Clegg first set, but they are valid ones.

Changing the system, not just the Government

Huhne starts off by talking about the electoral system, a matter close to Liberal Democrats’ hearts but not neccesarily the wider public. To be fair, it is the first matter of substance that Clegg referred to in his speech last week as well.

Not much I can add here. Obviously I agree with the policy. I’m not sure this is how I would articulate it, particularly if I had one eye on the wider public. I would want to emphasise the importance of choice and competition, not simply fairness.

Comfort rating: PR, nuff said. 5/5
Reaching out rating: he doesn’t mention “PR” explicitly, at least. 2/5
Personal rating: just to be picky, I’d have phrased it differently and find “fairness” a bit woolly. 4/5

Giving back power to people and communities

This is a radical vision of decentralisation which I think both the party and the public like the sound of. When Lib Dems talk of localism, we mean it, and this is a particularly well articulated section.

Comfort rating: localism is an easy sell internally. 5/5
Reaching out rating: well trod turf, but it is a message which I think is resonating increasingly. 4/5
Personal rating: sounds good to me. 5/5

Fixed term parliaments

This section is actually about more than that. Rather, it is a summary of issues relating to Parliament. I think fixed term parliaments resonate more widely at the moment because of the phoney election debacle, but that is quickly fading. The stuff that is of wider interest I think is the stuff about gender balance in the Lords, not because it will set the world on fire but because I think it shows an interest in how the party looks, which is important.

Comfort rating: some might shuffle their feet about gender balance in the elected Lords. 3/5.
Reaching out rating: some stuff of interest, but mostly the public won’t care about this section. The gender balance stuff gets a point for its long term boost to the party’s image though. 3/5.
Personal rating: if this gender balance stuff is a combination of existing party practice (the “one third” rule), training and mentoring and pro-activity, then great. 4/5.

The people’s veto

Yay! A constitutional reform which is not only truly democratic but is likely to resonate with the average Sun reader. Personally, as readers may have gathered, I’d go further, but a veto system such as this would be a powerful tool and would ensure that all laws had the assent – passive or otherwise – of the people.

Huhne doesn’t mention treaties here (can you say “Lisbon”?), but surely he wouldn’t make them exempt?

Comfort rating: I suspect many people in the party may be uncomfortable about this, but this limited form of participatory democracy will probably win them round in the end. 3/5
Reaching out rating: The public would love this. 5/5
Personal rating: I’d go further, but this is great progress. 5/5

A Freedom Bill to give back liberties

A Freedom Bill? That sounds a bit like a Nick Clegg idea! And Clegg was right – it is indicative of quite how scared he is of his own shadow that he didn’t mention it in his launch.

Is it good politics? Well, it is a great way to communicate our values – symbolism with substance attached. On the other hand it risks having us presented as the middle class liberati. On balance though, I think the consistency would be its own reward and would find its own audience. Not everyone will agree, but significant numbers on both the left and right will.

Comfort rating: can’t see the party having an issue with it. 5/5
Reaching out rating: it will find its own audience. 3/5 (I nearly gave it a 4)
Personal rating: sounds great to me. 5/5

Stopping money politics

This section is all very well as far as it goes, but is a little light on detail. What, for example, does Huhne propose to do about party funding? In fairness to him, he was probably simply being responsible given the Hayden Phillips talks and was not in a position to write his manifesto on the basis that they would collapse the day before.

On corruption, this section is stronger. The Saudi issue is good politics for us and Vince Cable has played it very well this week (maybe we should keep him…).

Comfort rating: not many people vote for corruption. 5/5
Reaching out rating: doesn’t exactly set the world on fire, but there is at least sympathy for our position. 3/5
Personal rating: would want more detail on party funding, notwithstanding the practicalities. 3/5

Markets in public services, or local control?

This section is very interesting. In short it is an argument for localism and against marketisation of public services. In doing so, he actually goes further than I would, dismissing school vouchers for example which is a policy which I have some sympathy for.

He does at least articulate a clear case however. You can agree with him or not, but you can’t accuse him of mincing his words in the way that Clegg was doing last week. This is a line that Steve Webb would have no difficulty with and David Laws would hate, but at least it is a line. I’ve been arguing for consistency in our policy, and this is certainly consistent.

On the down side, is it an issue which will resonate with the public? I think they are for localism, but this section doesn’t address how we will deal with the inevitable complaints about “postcode lotteries” and the like. While the internal conflict is certainly over the extent to which economic liberalism and social liberalism should hold sway in the public services debate, I think the wider public have other priorities that this section does not address.

Comfort rating: it’s broadly existing party policy, but a lot of people will be uncomfortable about going down on one side to such an extent. 2/5
Reaching out rating: this isn’t the debate the public particularly cares about, but at least it is a clear policy. 2/5
Personal rating: I broadly go along with it, but I think there are different balances to strike in health and education policies. 4/5

Solving the housing crisis

This is one of the issues I took Clegg to task for not mentioning last week. I still maintain that you can’t be serious about addressing social mobility without saying something about housing. So, full marks to Huhne for addressing precisely that, and indirectly my other issue – intergenerational equity.

Once again, Huhne here gives us a well argued case for the limits and strengths of council housing. He isn’t being prescriptive here but shows a depth of knowledge. He sits on the fence here to a certain extent, but it is certainly true that it is largely an issue that should be decided locally.

I’m not sure he satisfactorily addresses how he intends us to build 3 million homes over 10 years. There is no easy answer of course (unless you propose bankrupting the state by insisting the government should build every last one of them), but a bit more detail here – and less detail on the public services section – would have been welcome.

Comfort zone: he doesn’t mention anything like building on greenbelt land. 5/5
Reaching out zone: to both the young and the working class, this is one of the biggest issues. He should have made it more central in my view, and linked it to other issues such as immigration, but the fact that he mentioned it at all puts him light years ahead of his opponent. 4/5
Personal rating: he doesn’t mention anything truly radical that might interest me such as contemplating some building on the greenbelt. 3/5

No to Trident

I’ve already banged on about this enough.

Comfort rating: plays well with a certain cleavage but seems to have already backfired to an extent. 3/5
Reaching out rating: I just don’t see many people joining the throng. 1/5
Personal rating: good policy, wrong politics. 3/5

Rebalancing our foreign policy

Again, Iraq War aside, I can’t help but think this will largely leave the average person in the street cold. We’ve acquired a good reputation with regards to foreign policy in the past, but most of the people who support us on this issue have already come over to us. There is some anti-American sentiment out there, but there’s more anti-European sentiment.

None of which is to say that there is much here I would take issue with, although I’m curious why it mentions the English-speaking Commonwealth and not just the Commonwealth; are there not ties there which if anything will grow in importance over the next few decades? He deserves points for bravery for even mentioning the Euro, and has a clear answer for why joining is an option but certainly not yet.

In terms of low politics, it is also interesting that he appears to position himself as broadly more Euro-sceptic than Clegg, who was rather fulsome in his praise for the EU.

Comfort rating: some feathers might be ruffled by being rude about the EU and mentioning the Euro, but nothing to get in a lather over. 4/5
Reaching out rating: very mild Euro-scepticism and anti-Americanism reaches out of a certain extent, but this won’t get them talking at the Dog and Duck. 2/5
Personal rating: broadly fine but uninspired. 4/5

Fairness: a core belief for social liberals

Here Huhne firmly nails his colours to the mast and outs himself as a social liberal. Good. We have a real contest now as Clegg is clearly on the economic wing.

There is a lot here I can’t imagine Clegg saying, based on his speech last week. If I had a rather larger ego than I do, I might even think that this section was tailor-made to get my attention:

It is not enough to speak of equality of opportunity, aspiration and level playing fields. If ‘meritocracy’ means that individuals will receive the rewards their abilities and work deserve, it produces a very unattractive society in which complacently successful people constantly look down on their less able fellow citizens, whom they firmly believe to deserve less. We need more than that.

In truth, I suspect this section has rather more to do with Duncan Brack than it has to do with me.

For me, this is the most important section in the whole document. It is about our core beliefs and reclaiming equality at a time when so many Lib Dems seem keen to drop it as a priority altogether. It is clarity such as this section that recharges my political batteries and convinces me there is actually a point.

Comfort rating: actually, I think that much of this will cause the wider party difficulty. This is a debate we haven’t had in years and it is time we did so. 2/5
Reaching out rating: Will this resonate in the posh suburbs of Kensington? No. Will it resonate in the down-at-heel streets of Manchester where I cut my political teeth? Absolutely. 4/5
Personal rating: I need to hear this sort of thing from my leader, not bloodless exhortations for ‘meritocracy’. 5/5

Tall poppies and tall stories

I believe this is the section which opponents of Huhne may wish to caricature as ‘hammering the rich’. He doesn’t use that phrase, but if I have a criticism it is that he does very little to disabuse people of that notion.

There is an important issue to address in terms of company directors awarding themselves outrageous pay bonuses, but we need to be careful to avoid appearing to play the politics of jealousy. The language here could be more balanced and emollient.

That says, the underlying theme – that we should be concerned more about taxing wealth than incomes – is one of my pet hobby horses. Huhne is cagey about land value taxation but is warm about it in principle. In all honesty, that’s as good as I’m likely to get in this election.

Comfort rating: perhaps a little too much emphasis on bashing high earners. 4/5
Reaching out rating: we need to think about how we might sell this. The stuff about high earners will resonate with a few, but not enough. 2/5
Personal rating: as good as I’m going to get. 4/5

Talking straight on crime

An impeccably liberal approach, but not one that is likely to dispel any caricatures about woolly liberals sadly. It isn’t woolly – it is well argued and succinct – but for many acknowledging home truths such as the fact that fear of crime in this country is disproportionate to the level of actual crime will lead to them simply dismissing the whole argument.

This section presents to me a dilemma. I don’t disagree with any of it, but I know it is a hard sell. Huhne doesn’t give us much of an idea of how he plans to sell all this either.

How do we get this balance right? I have to admit I think Clegg does it better. Sometimes it is just a matter of not saying certain things that don’t need to be said. We can’t afford to alienate people; we have to talk in a language they understand.

Comfort rating: will ruffle quite a few feathers actually – Lib Dems can be quite reactionary at times. 3/5
Reaching out rating: I’d love it if people listened to common sense on crime, but they broadly don’t. We need to communicate this better. 1/5
Personal rating: I can’t deny it doesn’t appeal to me personally. 5/5

Sustainability: challenging on the environment

There’s a lot here that doesn’t need to be said. You’ve already won the argument Chris. Once again though, he doesn’t address how we engage with the public on this issue in a language they understand. Clegg’s critique that when we talk about green taxes, most people just hear ‘taxes’ is correct. Huhne needs to address that point. Calling for further cuts in the basic rate of income tax does that to an extent, but it doesn’t address Clegg’s other point about people being able to see their sacrifices making a difference.

In this respect, I would actually argue that Huhne is currently weaker than Clegg on the environment. Not because he’s wrong on policy but that he is wrong on emphasis. The next battle is on selling this policy, not simply entrenching it. Huhne needs to engage with that fact.

Comfort rating: broadly established party policy. 5/5
Reaching out rating: communication counts. 1/5
Personal rating: fine as far as it goes but barely moves us forward from 2 years ago. 3/5

Our party can win

Thus far, and point me to where if I’m wrong, but Clegg has barely addressed the issue of party organisation. Huhne therefore deserves credit for including this section.

The emphasis on local party development is important as is the emphasis on diversity. His approach on mentoring and training is welcome.

His point about constitutional change being a prerequisite to partnership government is vital. It addresses the Oaten lament that coalition is an issue that the party hasn’t been talking about enough but doesn’t get us distracted in self-defeating speculation about horse-trading.

Finally, the final paragraph succinctly sums up what the party is about. This is a strong section.

Comfort rating: the party will find little to disagree with here. Making it happen though is another matter. 5/5
Reaching out rating: a strong, better trained and more diverse-looking party across the country would inevitably reach out to more people. Simple, but true. 4/5
Personal rating: Again, my concern is making it happen. An uncharitable 3/5 (because I’ve been here before).


You can’t compare like with like with these scores and Clegg’s in my earlier article. Overall, in my view there is more meat here for the general public to grapple with than was in Clegg’s speech last week. There is also more for the party faithful to potentially object to. Interestingly, although I really liked certain bits, as an overall package I found myself less comfortable with it than with Clegg.

Huhne is clearly taking risks, and he should be congratulated for that. He has brought substance to a debate which until now has been distinctly wanting for it. On a number of issues however, he simply doesn’t seem to appreciate the communication issue. On the environment, on crime and on taxation it isn’t that he is wrong on detail, but that he hasn’t worked enough on communicating the message. This is at least a much bigger concern of Nick Clegg’s.

But on consistency, he wins hands down. You can’t fault him for not being prepared to answer difficult questions. This is an issue my scoring system doesn’t measure, yet it is important. Developing a clear Liberal Democrat identity is crucial. It gives us a brand – not something that 100% of the population will agree with, but something which a substantial minority certainly will. Longer term, such consistency will help us bridge the gap between the 10% of the public who identify as a big-el-Lib big-dee-Dem and the 50% of the public who identify as a small-el-liberal. It is not something that Clegg has begun to grapple with thus far, nor can he if he is afraid to reach out beyond existing party policy.

On balance then, this is definitely a stronger package than what I’ve seen from Clegg so far. It is however a package for long term growth – to what extent that is a luxury we can currently afford is not something I have formed a firm view on yet. It certainly isn’t the killing blow that Huhne needs to deliver to defeat his rival. Perhaps I should wait however until Clegg produces a comparable document.

Is it time to stop being so ‘inward looking’ about EU Reform?

Stephen Tall writes a fantastic opinion piece on Lib Dem Voice today about the leadership candidates’ stance on the EU Reform Treaty:

Some time soon, the Tories will call vote in the House of Commons on whether Britain should hold a referendum, at which point 63 Lib Dem MPs will have to make a decision – to march through the ‘no’ lobbies with Labour against a referendum; or through the ‘aye’ lobbies with the Tories in favour of one. I doubt I’m alone in feeling queasy at the former prospect.

Stephen is certainly not alone – I agree with him for one. And his lengthy quotes of a 2003 article by Nick Clegg demonstrate quite how far Lib Dem rhetoric about support for a referendum on the Constitutional Treaty went.

But there is another reason why Clegg and Huhne should review their stances. If there is a good example of the Lib Dems being inward looking and obscurationist over the past two years (apart from our current stance on Trident of course), it is Ming’s nuanced, balanced position on opposing a referendum on the Reform Treaty but supporting a referendum on EU membership. He had a point, but it was largely irrelevant and effectively shut us out of the debate. Loyalist to the end, even I felt it made him look like a lame duck, and it turned out I was right.

If Clegg truly believes the party should move out of its comfort zone and reach out to people, here’s his chance. If Huhne really wants to call Clegg’s bluff, here’s his opportunity.

Clegg: a bad way to make a good point

Nick Clegg repeated his claim yesterday that under Ming the party was too inward-looking. To quote Elspeth Campbell: “I don’t know if you’re being helpful or not.”

I’ve already rebutted that argument and don’t intend to repeat myself. But I’m not blind to the fact is that by repeating this nonsense argument, Clegg is subtly contrasting himself with Chris Huhne and his stance on Trident. The subtext is that he’s the candidate that will concentrate on the issues that matter to the public, while Huhne would have the party revisiting old policies in an act of ideological purity.

And as I said yesterday, in that respect he’s right. Huhne’s Trident stance is, in my view, good policy but bad politics. This isn’t a debate the party should be having during this contest. It smacks of vanity, and at 11% in the polls, vanity is something we can ill afford.

If Huhne wants to talk about policy, he should concentrate on issues which have immediate relevance to large sections of the public. I’ve already mentioned two interrelated ones – housing and intergenerational equity – I’m sure he could come up with others. He should be concentrating his firepower on Clegg’s inability to make his own rhetoric match his detail, calling on the party to move out of its comfort zone and reach out while being apparently afraid of saying anything of substance along those lines in case it alienates a wing of the party.

Huhne’s advantage is that by going for the big tent approach, Clegg has compromised himself. In a large number of areas he will struggle to say anything at all that won’t alienate either David Laws or Steve Webb and their respective camps. He should be pressing that advantage home, not making Clegg’s points for him.

While at the start of this campaign I was guilty of a bit of policy arson myself by rubbishing our existing commitment to replace council tax with local income tax, even I wouldn’t expect either candidate to use this opportunity to set out detailed policy in that area. This is a good opportunity to signal areas that need revisiting, not to spell out solutions.