Tag Archives: ming-campbell

E X C L U S I V E (ish): Mingmeet – where’s the meat?

Sort of an exclusive here as I think I may be the first to write up my account of the interview with Ming that the finalists for the Blog of the Year held on Sunday morning. Jonathan Calder actually beat me to it by about 12 hours but at the time of writing hadn’t given his full account. Either way it’s another opportunity to shamelessly use “EXCLUSIVE” in another blog title and we all know how much you crazy kids love your exclusives.

Okay. By dint of where I had seated myself, I found myself asking Ming the first question, which was about what the party’s narrative is. He both avoided answering my question and accidentally answering my question at the same time. Let me explain.

He failed to answer my question in that his pat answer was that it is being developed by the manifesto team and that Steve Webb is developing it. He went on to list a number of policy areas – particularly the environment – that we would be developing thematically. I have to say that my heard sank at this point. If we are to have a narrative – and I hear no-one suggesting that we shouldn’t – then we should have had it nailed down 12 months ago. As it stands, Ming seemed to be suggesting it would be unveiled along with the manifesto a few short weeks before the election (whenever that is).

But then, almost in spite of himself, he began to answer the question – at least partially. Throughout the interview he kept talking about how it is now “one-against-two” to contrast with the last few general elections which were “two-against-one”. What he went on to explain was that in the past, the Lib Dems and Labour teamed up against the Conservatives; now the Lib Dems are fighting against the “conservative consensus” of Labour and the Conservatives. This is partly because that Labour has become more conservative, but it is also because of the expected tightness of the next election which means that the Lib Dems are now being attacked in both directions.

The fact is, this is a narrative. It isn’t one that I think particularly resonates with the general public, but it does hit the right notes as far as activists are concerned. It makes it quite clear that we are sticking with equidistance. I expect to hear more of this in the speech.

It’s also – I think – possible to tweak to make it more appealing from a voter perspective. The fact is, in many cases we are the only serious alternative to a conservative consensus. We are the only party which is serious about decentralisation and giving away power and meaty policy which spells out how. For the Tories and Labour localism and renewing democracy remain little more than stock phrases. For such a message to resonate however, we need to have a much less managerialist approach to policy during the next election. If we end up with just another long list of policy bites which promise a change in spending here, the scrapping of a policy there, we’ll be stuck with the same sort of dispiriting campaign that we had in 2005.

(As an aside, sadly the feedback I’ve had from the “secret” candidate training sessions on Saturday was that this is not only precisely what the party mandarins have planned but that they’ve been conducting expensive polling that “proves” this is the case. A lot of internal polling I’ve seen in the past has been concerned with proving a point rather than genuine research – polls that prove that no-one is interested in electoral reform compared with crime, health and education for example as opposed to exploratory polls to see how we might better make the case for electoral reform. I have no doubt that a policy bite approach is useful for shoring up support in marginal seats, but it does nothing to reach out to our larger potential supporter base. It leaves us vulnerable to attack if the opposition parties run an effective air war against us if we aren’t taking to the skies at the same time. And you can’t run an effective air war if your “ammo” is ten disparate policy commitments).

Interestingly, Ming pointed out that the then-elections chief Lord Razzall was in constant talks with Labour regarding our targeting strategy and how we might both target the Conservatives. Although I’m not surprised, I have to say it is the first I’ve heard of this. It feels a little uncomfortable to learn that we were in strategic discussions with the war-mongers, but then the Tories were wannabe war-mongers and were running under the most rightwing manifesto in recent memory (written by David Cameron, lest we forget). Either way, if our strategy was to work with Labour to maximise the marginal Lib-Con seats that we won, it was a pretty poor one. Most of our significant gains were against Labour. I’m sure Labour supporters in places such as, say, Manchester Withington, will be delighted to learn that their defeat was pre-arranged with their own party).

Richard Flowers, demonstrating sub-Victorian parental values, kept the Millennium Elephant in a bag throughout the interview (I can EXCLUSIVELY reveal!). While the nominee himself was left to sulk, Daddy Richard asked Ming what we can do to engage with the 40% of the electorate that now doesn’t vote. This was an issue that Ming warmed to, pointing out that there are now more people on the internet in the UK than UK voters, and that the next election could be decided by as few as 800,000 – 1,000,000 voters (I have news for Ming – if the Tories got exactly the right votes in exactly the right places they’d need much less to swing it). I did sense a degree of hypocrisy though in a Lib Dem leader attacking the other parties for focussing on swing voters in marginal seats at the expense of everyone else: what have we been doing for the past decade-and-a-half if not that?

Accepted, our standard response to this is that we would change the electoral system that forces us into this position, but we should at least acknowledge that we are contributing to this disconnect ourselves. If we don’t, then it’s just words.

The two mediums Ming highlighted as tools for reengaging with the disenfranchised I don’t think are that effective. Political blogs like this for example tend to be read by other political bloggers, journalists and political obsessives. My extreme tracking site meter suggests that just 941 unique visitors read this blog on an average month and I could probably list at least 10% of them by name. I’m under no illusions about this blog’s power to engage with the disconnected. I’m rather more impressed by the potential of Facebook and MySpace in this respect.

His other example is literary festivals, which are growing in popularity and at which political meetings tend to be filled to the rafters. This is positive, but it doesn’t get us even close to the NEETs.

One thing the party might want to look at is to start going to places on the internet where there is a lot of activity. We probably won’t get very far by getting Ming on Britney Spears’ discussion forums, but there are issue-based campaigns out there which seem to genuinely reach out beyond the relatively well connected. As I’ve written before, one of those areas is first time buyers, who appear to be virtually fetching the torches and pitchforks as I type. But what have we as a party to say to them? At the moment, the only thing we seem to be saying is that under a Liberal Democrat government we guarantee to raise house prices by another £15,000.

Paul Walter would not, I’m sure, have trouble with my description of him as the loyalest of the shortlisted Lib Dem bloggers, so it is to his credit that he asked what Ming believes he has done wrong in his 18 months as leader. His answer is that he failed to recognise the extent to which the party leader gets engaged with the administration of the party, something which he is now planning to take a step backward from. Sensibly, I feel, he is appointing the manifesto chief Steve Webb to chair the Federal Policy Committee in his stead. I would demur somewhat with his insistence that the party’s press operation is the best its ever been (it might be, but that didn’t stop us from disappearing over the summer from the headlines during which time we launched 5 policy papers).

Alex Wilcock asked why Ming thought it was that despite the fact that internally the party is broadly with the direction he’s taking it doesn’t seem to be coming across to the public, and what he plans to do about it. Ming’s response was to make the very fair point that if you look at Ashdown and Kennedy at the same point in their respective leaderships, both of them we performing as poorly as he is currently in the opinion polls. The problem for Ming is that, since it is now one-against-two, he doesn’t have the luxury that they had to simply give it time. He went on to say that he wanted to avoided the situation under Kennedy and Ashdown whereby the party came across as a one-man-band and so he is keen to share the spotlight with our young “bright and sassy” intake. Much as I agree with him that we have a talented group of MPs these days, I’m not sure this is wise – or even practical. Stephen Tall’s chart of “media tarts” shows that according to Nexis Lexis, Nick Clegg is our next highest profile frontbencher after Ming with around a quarter of the leader’s press. After Nick, our next highest profile “bright young thing” is Sarah Teather with around a tenth of his coverage. So if there is a deliberate strategy to get them to share the spotlight, it isn’t working. And what have we to show for it?

This also rather conflicts with his later claim that if there were more people of his age sitting around the cabinet table, we would have been less likely to go into war. Not if they were all called John Prescott they wouldn’t. I’m not convinced that supineness is linked to age, but if it is, surely he ought to be kicking these young whippersnappers out of his front bench (in one case of course, he has, while the ability of Lembit Opik to demonstrate his maturity earned him a promotion).

Sensing a kill, Alex used this talk about sharing the limelight to ask Ming why he chose to announce policy on an EU referendum a week before conference instead of waiting for conference itself to take a considered view. Jonathan Calder followed this up by asking what point there is on having a referendum on membership of the EU when it was so ineffective in 1975.

I feel the need here to defend Ming, to some extent, on both counts. I’ve always been on the view that the party’s internal democracy (which I strongly defend) should not mean that the party leader should make Trappist vows of silence on topical issues of importance. Politics simply does not work like that; you have to trust – to some extent – the “guys in the room”. Furthermore, while I also disagree with Ming that a referendum on the treaty would be wholly sui generis to a referendum on EU membership, I disagree with Jonathan’s views here also.

My follow up to this – if he had not at this point ran out of time – would have been to observe that Ming appears to get it broadly right in terms of handling the feral beast of the media on the second attempt. I’d have liked to ask him why it is he feels that we have had these blunders – specifically the wobble over Ming’s speech at Harrogate, the delay in informing Gordon Brown that the party would not allow Lib Dem MPs to enter government and this latest EU debacle – and what will he be doing in future to avoid these. Instead, that question will have to hang (unless Ming – who admitted in the interview that his office pays close attention to these blogs – cares to answer it in the space below).

Overall this was a positive event, albeit one that was over before it got started. Ming expressed an interest in doing it more often and I feel we should take him at his word. A few months ago I suggested a similar meeting with his most outspoken critics such as Laurence Boyce and Nich Starling and I would repeat that suggestion here. Overall, Ming came across well as listening, engaged with the issues and generous in spirit. The more people we can convince of this over the next few months the better.

Ming toes the Stephen Tall line

Finally, a bit of coherence:

Sir Menzies says he agrees with the prime minister – but as an ardent pro-European he is “not prepared to allow [Conservative leader] David Cameron to lead the Europhobes and their allies in sections of the media, to distort the debate on Europe without challenge”.

The Lib Dem leader, who was expected to face calls to back a treaty vote from some of his own MPs at his party’s conference, said voters should be given a “real choice”.

“If there is to be a referendum it shouldn’t be restricted to a comparatively minor treaty. It must be a decision about the EU as a whole.

“Let’s have an honest debate on the European Union followed by a real choice for the British people. That means a referendum on Britain’s membership of the EU.

“We would ask the British people the big question – whether to remain in the European Union or not.

“I will lead the Liberal Democrats at the forefront of that debate.

“We will make the overwhelming case for Europe and trust the people to make the right choice.”

If this sounds vaguely familiar, it’s because its what Stephen Tall told him to say on Wednesday.

As I said back then, I’m happy with this position, although I question whether it will fly. If the Lib Dem position fails to get sufficient support in Parliament though, and it boils down to a choice between the Tory option of a referendum or simple Parliamentary ratification, it will be simply untenable to argue that we should opt for the latter. After all, didn’t Paul Walter say it would end up being a proxy for a debate about EU membership anyway?

Jeremy Hargreaves and Paul Walter get in a muddle…

Okay. It’s late, I’m tired, and so I’ll try to be as brief as I can.

First of all Paul Walter:

So please tell me which provisions of the proposed EU Treaty result in transfers of sovereignty from the UK to the EU significant enough to warrant a national referendum and to justify the title “constitution”. Please list those provisions.

Quite simply, by massively extending the scope of co-decision to an extra 51 areas of EU policy, and by establishing legal personality to the EU – enabling it to sign international treaties on our behalf. I’m not against these rules – in fact I will defend them – but they clearly impact on the UK’s sovereignty.

I didn’t study any form of politics at school or university, aside from history. I have, however, taken the trouble to read the US Constitution and, peculiarly, found myself enjoying it. Yes, of course, it doesn’t have a flag mentioned in it, though its provisions do form the basis of the flag in the sense of the membership of the states in a greater union (the stars on the flag representing the current number of states, the stripes representing the original states). What the US Constitution does have are some fairly hefty items: Senate, House, President, Supreme Court.

The European Parliament, Commission, Council and Court of Justice seem pretty “hefty” to me, and the Reform Treaty impacts on each and every one of them.

It’s a revising treaty! It’s not a constitution. If you want a referendum on the EU constiution (as James, I think, implies he accepts with his point about the EU constiution being the series of treaties since Rome) you would have to have a referendum on all the treaties since Rome – i.e a wider referendum on EU membership as Ming has suggested.

We had a referendum in 1975, so treaties before then have already been ratified by a referendum. The Lib Dems called for a treaty for Maastricht; this is clearly the biggest reform since Maastricht. All I’m being is consistent with past party policy. Ming by contrast has only made a mild suggestion in lawyerly terms – hardly a clear commitment to a referendum on EU membership, more thinking out loud.

From the Cameron/UKIP angle this is not a debate about the EU treaty, it is a debate about EU membership per se.

In the case of UKIP, this is of course correct and I’m sure Nigel Farage would line up with Ming in calling for a referendum on membership itself. For the Tories, it is more complex. If the bulk of Conservative MPs really wanted to leave the EU, they’d have committed to this years ago. The fact is, they remain split on the issue. The fact that these splits have not been immediately apparent for the past decade is because no-one has ever bothered calling their bluff.

Cameron and Hague do not want to leave the EU, yet they are stuck in a holding pattern rejecting every EU reform, no matter how sensible. Holding a referendum will cause them no end of difficulty. If this treaty were rejected in a referendum and Cameron subsequently became Prime Minister, I can guarantee he would eventually come back from Brussels with a deal that looks remarkably similar to this one. He knows this better than anyone.

But what is wrong with a “proxy vote” anyway? I thought anti-referendum people were demanding a proxy vote in the form of a general election? The real problem is that, as Anthony Barnett points out, we are facing a crisis of trust. If the political class turn their backs on the public, the public will turn their backs on them. We can’t afford this situation to continue. If that means holding a “proxy vote” so be it.

Just as Hague’s “we want to keep the pound” campaign failed in a general election, so will Cameron’s “Referendum for a EU Treaty” campaign. So Ming is very clever, tactically, to help increase the danger of this happening for Cameron.

Oh really? In 2001, the Lib Dems were committed to a referendum on the Euro. In marginal constituencies, the party made great play of this. It was what Chris Rennard called a “shield issue”. Hague may have failed to make progress, but that was because both Labour and the Lib Dems neutralised him by being committed to a referendum. We did the same again over the constitutional treaty in 2005. Where’s our “shield” now, Paul?

As for Jeremy Hargreaves

However I don’t agree with that and it has also not been the traditional way of decision-making under the British constitution.

In fact I think it’s remembering just how unusual referendums have been in the process of British constitutional development.

Those who argue that we should have a referendum on this treaty because it represents important constitutional developments, need to answer the question of why therefore we have never ever had a referendum on any reform of the House of Commons, on any reform of the House of Lords, or on the introduction of a fundamental new piece of law such as the Human Rights Act. Are these not important constitutional developments?

First of all, we’ve never had reform of the House of Commons and only marginal reform of the House of Lords. Should we have a referendum on Parliamentary reform? Ideally, yes. Should we have had a referendum on the Human Rights Act? God yes! If we had, we would not now have the crisis of legitimacy we experience with people largely ignorant about what it is and what it does, and vulnerable to media scare stories about it guaranteeing prisoners porn, criminal suspects Kentucky Fried Chicken, et al.

In the latest party report on British Governance, to be debated at conference next week, the party does NOT commit itself to a referendum on the electoral system. But it does commit itself to a referendum on not only setting up a constitutional convention but ratifying its findings as well. The constitutional convention will, of course, be free to change the electoral system back to first past the post if it sees fit. I presume that Jeremy will be speaking against giving the public a say on such trifling constitutional matters.

And those advocating one now, especially they need to answer why we have never had a referendum on ratification of any previous EU Treaty.

The short answer to that is “because the Liberal Democrats were not in power” – we promised a referendum on Maastricht. And yes, relatively minor though they may have been, if that had set a precedent committing us to referendums on Amsterdam and Nice, I don’t think it would have been the end of the world. In fact, I strongly suspect the British public would have a much more adult relationship with the EU right now if we had (and the Tories would now be even more sidelined).

I don’t believe that people who actually believe the EU has an important role to play should fall into their trap and support a referendum on this treaty of detailed procedural points.

That’s because we aren’t falling into any trap: we simply recognise that the EU has a crisis of legitimacy within the UK which is unsustainable. Back when the Lib Dems were more self-confident than they are now, we weren’t afraid of such referendums. Sadly, the mere thought now has people like Jeremy and Paul (not to mention Ming) quivering under their beds in fear.

If they had anything positive to say about how we begin the hard work of educating and engaging the British public about the EU it might be a different story. Sadly, their bland response is “its a procedural matter”. Well, you could say that about pretty much anything to do with public administration. That being the case, why have elections at all?

We are in a bloody, unholy mess over Europe. It isn’t purely down the mendaciousness of the Eurosceptics; it is because pro-Europeans cede ground to them on an almost daily basis by positioning themselves against democracy and popular sovereignty. They come up with excuses about “proxy voting” blithely ignoring the fact that no ballot on any subject is ever cut and dried. They weren’t manning the barricades four years ago when it became apparent that the promised public debate on an EU constitution did not happen – they merely shrugged their shoulders and left it to the Eurosceptics to do all the shouting. Now the chickens have come home to roost they simply deny any responsibility. It is not good enough – it is appalling – and the Lib Dems should treat such deadbeats with contempt.

Why Ming is quackers about the EU referendum

looney tunes – rabbit fire

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You can forget Tom and Jerry. For me, the best cartoon double act of all time is Bugs and Daffy.

The thing is, I’ve always had a soft spot for the underdogduck. It’s not that I have anything against transvestites you understand, but I always found Bugs to be unbearably smug and utterly cynical, appealing to Elmer’s worst nature.

Daffy on the other hand, despite always ending up on the business end of a shotgun, has a sort of everymanfauna appeal. Sure, he loses his temper every once and a while. Sure, you always know he’s onto a loser. Sure, he can be a conniving little sod at times. And yes, he is often the agent of his own downfall. But you can’t help but sympathise with the guy.

Why am I mentioning all this on a blog post about the EU referendum? Well, because those classic Bugs-Daffy-Fudd cartoons remind me a lot of the level of debate surrounding the EU. Elmer is the voter, Bugs is the Eurosceptics and Daffy is the Europhiles. Depressingly, Bugs always gets the better of Daffy. Daffy meanwhile never seems to realise he’s onto a loser playing Bugs’ game and never changes tac (except for when he tries to be clever and ends up being hoist on his own petard). All too often, the debate degenerates into the equivalent of “Rabbit season! Duck season! Rabbit season! Duck season!” At no point does Daffy sit Elmer (who is a vegetarian for God’s sake!) down and attempt to reason with him. No wonder the voter often ends up losing his rag and gunning for both sides of the debate.

Sadly for the Lib Dems, Ming Campbell has now done the equivalent of wearing a Daffy-style “shoot me now!” sign. In an interview with the FT, he’s leapt to Gordon Brown’s defence arguing that a referendum on the EU Reforming Treaty is “not necessary“:

Lib Dem support for a poll could even have threatened Mr Brown’s Commons majority on the issue and piled on the pressure for a vote that many believe the prime minister would lose.

But Sir Menzies, a “pro-European”, told the Financial Times the new EU reform treaty was “sufficiently different” from the original constitution to avoid the need for a plebiscite. He said the only case for a public vote would be on a much broader “in or out” question about Britain’s membership of the EU, to prompt a serious national debate on Europe.

However, such a question is unlikely to be put by any government in the near future. “My judgment is a referendum is not necessary on this document,” he said in an interview ahead of next week’s Liberal Democrat conference in Brighton. “But if we were to have a referendum, then it is worth considering a more fundamental referendum, in a sense of being in or out.”

A formal decision on the party’s position will be taken after Mr Brown signs a final treaty text at an EU summit in Lisbon next month, but few believe it will differ greatly from the draft agreed in Brussels in June.

What depresses me most about this statement is that he has chosen to parrot the government line that the reforming treaty is “sufficiently different” from the constitutional treaty to not warrant a referendum. Stung by sneering about “if it looks like a duck and quacks like a duck…” from the sceptics, many pro-Europeans have adopted the tactic of giving the treaty rabbit ears and pretending it is of another genus completely.

This will not do. Just because the UK doesn’t have a document called “the constitution” it doesn’t mean it doesn’t have one. In lieu of a single document called “the constitution” (or even “the constitutional treaty”), the EU still has a constitution: it is the collected treaties since Rome. The debate gets even more stupendous when Europhiles insist that is can’t possibly be a constitution because it doesn’t refer to a flag or a national anthem. That leaves the US constitution a bit fucked, doesn’t it?

Europhiles could go around calling the sceptics’ bluff, pointing out that we already have a constitution which by opposing this reform, they in effect support. Instead, they seem to be dedicated to playing the sceptics game. I don’t understand it.

What’s worse, exactly the same thing happened in the 90s. The Eurosceptics started muttering darkly about “federalism” and the Europhiles promptly started denying that they had any federalist leanings; you could be forgiven for thinking they misheard “pederast”. Federalism is a perfectly sensible system of government. So sensible in fact that the self-same Little Englanders who purport to hate it so much at an EU level are now demanding a federal UK (of course, they want a woefully lopsided federation, but that is for another debate). Federalism in an EU context means, among other things, a way of finally reforming dreadful inter-governmental nonsenses such as the Common Agricultural Policy and the Common Fisheries Policy. Eurosceptics like to emphasise how much they hate such things, yet seem to hate even more the prospect of reforming them.

Another example of the sceptics nonsense: they constantly go on about the EU undermining Parliamentary sovereignty, yet they demand a referendum. Fact: referendums undermine Parliamentary sovereignty. If our Parliamentary system is so perfect, how come it has lead to this situation occurring? They manage to simultaneously despise the government and call for it to be trusted to look after our best interests. They claim to defend democracy while insisting our voices should be drowned out by governments at a trans-national level.

As has so often been pointed out, with the exception of Euronihilists such as UKIP they have no Plan C. They don’t offer any solution for what the EU should do if this reforming treaty were to fall. They don’t have a meaningful contribution to make at all.

So why have they been allowed to dominate the public debate for so long? Simple: pure cowardice on the part of the pro European movement. Stung by the disastrous debacle that was Britain in Europe which, among other things, lead to the virtual demise of the European Movement (the organisation), they have become utterly petrified of calling the sceptics’ bluff. They have come to regard the public as the mob – a dangerous rabble that politicians need to protect “us” from. In fairness to them, we are to understand that they have launched a “Coalition for the Reform Treaty” but they are so disdainful of the public that they haven’t even bothered with a website.

People like Andrew Duff are quick to point out the complexity of the treaty and how impossible it would be for the general public to deliberate on it. Surely, if it cannot be explained in layman’s terms, it is pretty much indefensible? Indeed, don’t we expect the public to deliberate between party manifestos? What’s simple about that? In any case, what magical qualities do our MPs have that enables them to make the decision on our behalf?

One of my favourite anecdotes is that in the run up to the Danish referendum on the Maastricht Treaty, a research company did a poll which revealed that the average member of the public knew more about the content of the treaty than the typical non-specialist MP. Give people a say and, generally speaking, they take the trouble to inform themselves.

In a sense, Ming is correct: it may well be more useful and meaningful to have a referendum on EU membership than on this reforming treaty and if that is what he had called for yesterday, I wouldn’t have a problem. But even here he hedged his bets.

My own view is that while a referendum on EU membership may be preferable (although Jonathan Calder makes some interesting arguments against), it won’t fly. That being the case, given the choice between a referendum on the treaty and no referendum at all, I say go for the referendum. From my perspective there is no down side: either the public approves the treaty, or it doesn’t. If you’re a democrat and a Europhile there is a Plan C: the sort of meaningful public debate we were promised when the constitutional treaty was first mooted and never got (maybe then George Monbiot can get his wish). From a tactical Lib Dem position it is a no-brainer as well: either Brown will hold firm and we can be holier than thou, or he’ll capitulate and we’ll look like we forced him into it.

Either way, the bottom line must be that if the European project is to be sustainable, it is crucial that the political class carries the public along with it. Every time they pretend they can bypass the public on this, they cause long term damage and further alienation. Treat the public like children and they will behave like children. Treat them with respect and they may just start listening to you. Ultimately, as I wrote on Lib Dem Voice on Sunday, you are either “drawbridge up” or “drawbridge down”. If you believe the public are incapable of making a correct decision without politicians intervening, then it isn’t just referendums you ought to be questioning; its elections as well.

A referendum on this single treaty won’t solve everything. It may be that we just need to take a hit so the public, denied a voice for so long, can vent its frustrations once and for all. If we have a referendum though, we will no longer be able to simply indulge in arguing semantics. I would like to be on the side which argues for giving national parliaments a greater say on EU policy, for an EU citizens’ initiative and for reform of the CAP and CFP. Wouldn’t you? What’s stopping us?

The sad answer to that last question is Ming Campbell. If it looks like a lame duck and quacks like a lame duck…?

Nuff respec’ to:

…with apologies to any I might have missed.

Ben Ramm doesn’t speak for me

I feel the need to point this fact out because whenever a journalist wants a rentaquote to be rude about the party leader, they not only trot out Ben Ramm but they insist that he publishes “a magazine for Liberal Democrat activists“.

If he does, he keeps quite quiet about it. The Liberal is a literary magazine which occasionally has dalliances with politics but is more concerned with poetry. All fine and dandy (with emphasis on the dandy), but the truth is it is largely ignored by Lib Dem activists. The closest we have to a magazine for Lib Dem activists is Liberator, and they don’t speak for me either.

Ramm of course, knows all this. Far from it being explained away as simple journalist laziness, his ubiquity in articles about the Lib Dems’ woes is down to an editorial policy of deliberately using journalists’ ignorance about the magazine’s standing in the party with a view to gaining free advertising. He isn’t interested, and never has been, in advancing the Lib Dem project. Everything he has ever written about the party is simply polemic. He has only ever seen the party as a tool for self-promotion. That’s his prerogative; but its my prerogative to point this out whenever he pops up again.

We should remember that Ben Ramm organised a campaign to get rid of Charles Kennedy. He did this by making extremely exaggerated claims about the level of support his online petition had received from party activists, again using the veneer of the magazine as a “voice of activists” to lend it some credibility.

Now, regardless of whether you love or loathe Ming Campbell, no-one can deny that the way his predecessor was dispatched was, to say the least, unfortunate and that the subsequent election for leader was necessarily more rushed than it should have been. That was why many of us were keen to keep our powder dry until later in 2006 (and why I seem to recall turning down Ramm’s request to run his anti-Kennedy petition site).

Regardless of the rights and wrongs of all this therefore – and now I appreciate the enormity of the Kennedy problem which was not wholly apparent to those of us outside of the Westminster bubble at the time – one thing Ben Ramm can’t do is absolve himself of any responsibility for the coronation of Ming Campbell. Even a shred of mea culpa would be nice, but that would appear too much to ask.

None of this would annoy me if The Liberal was genuinely committed to making a meaningful contribution to the debate surrounding the development of the party, but it manifestly isn’t. Indeed, in this Independent quote he appears more concerned with approvingly pushing David Cameron’s stock phrases (“a broken society” et al) than anything else.

Media Caveat Emptor: you don’t know Jack

Having been away, I’m slowly catching up on some of the stories that emerged while I was away. One thing that appears to have briefly gripped the Lib Dem Blogosphere is the lamentably monikered “Jackgate” focussing on Linda Jack‘s decision to diss Ming on the World At One. I thought I’d make a couple of points (with apologies to anyone I missed who has already made them).

Firstly, those opinion poll drop claims. To start with, my calculation – using the UK polling report – is that the fall since April is from 20% (19.5% to be precise) to 17% (not 21-17 as reported). If I make a claim like that, I show my working; why doesn’t the BBC have to do the same? On a related note, we have also recorded a 1% increase since June, which is quite surprising considering the Brown bounce. Either way, it is well known that the party does better in polls at election time than it does in peacetime, simply because of the increased media coverage we get. The BBC, regulated by the Representation of the People Act, know this. It is fairly cheap stuff to brandish this statistic around as “research” when all they’ve done is compared current poll ratings with a set of polls they knew in advance was better. It is clear that if our poll rating performance since April had been consistent or even improved (as it has been since June, remember), they would simply picked a different date – going back to April 2005 if necessary.

Secondly, there is Linda Jack herself. The BBC’s handling of the story suggests that Linda has become disaffected with Ming Campbell. In fact, the precise opposite is true. Compare these two statements:

“I think Ming was a brilliant shadow foreign secretary, but in terms of his leadership style he hasn’t captured the imagination of the party or the country. Unfortunately it’s the case where he has perhaps been over-promoted. Someone can be a brilliant man, and have incredible intellectual powers, and all the rest of it – but if that doesn’t translate in to leadership skills then, whoever your leader is, you’ve got a problem with them.”

April 21 2006

My disappointment at my chosen candidate [Simon Hughes] losing has been replaced by total despair at the incumbent. We all knew Ming would be a caretaker………….but I for one didn’t think that would mean hiding himself in the cleaning cupboard never to be heard of again!

Sorry, a bit harsh maybe, but really………..I am the only one who longs for the dulcet tones of Charles in the cut and thrust of the Today programme, who dreams about the days when his confidence and humour ensured our policies were kept in the public eye? Now don’t get me wrong, I certainly believed we would need a new leader for the next general election, but not yet and certainly not in the manner we got one. Remember all that talk about coronation? For those of us who believe we are members not subjects we ended up with the same result. Whilst Ming was never my first choice, I was prepared to give him the benefit of the doubt – I liked what he said about social justice and tackling poverty – I have always thought he was head and shoulders above anyone else on most aspects of foreign affairs – but now he seems to have retreated into a shadow of his former self.

27 February 2006

Maybe we should have a leadership election every year……..perhaps if we get Huhne or Campbell we will

The point is, Linda has never been convinced of Campbell’s suitability to the post. That’s her prerogative, but to present her as someone who is disappointed with Campbell’s “recent” performance is just plain wrong. Using a quote as the basis of a story without pointing out that 18 months ago she was predicting that Campbell would be out within 12 months, is misleading to say the least. It may – just – count as news, but it is hardly in “man-bites-dog” territory.

So much for BBC news values. Meanwhile, Linda, Lawrence Boyce et al have to decide how much damage they are prepared to wreak on the party in their mission to oust Ming. Will they declare their operation a success even if the patient dies?

Deny everything, Baldrick (UPDATE)

For me, the most interesting thing about the Guardian’s exclusive today about Lib-Lab talks is that it is credited to an anonymous “staff writer.” Clearly whoever wrote it (Wintour? White? Mulholland?) considered it so explosive that they didn’t want to alienate their sources by being outed as the author.

The other interesting aspect is the non-denial denials. From Lord Kirkwood:

“We are getting this sort of speculation all the time from people who want to write stories about cooperation [between the parties] at levels which are in their imagination.

“But they [Mr Brown and Sir Menzies] talk all the time, they talk about Fife and other things. If you start getting into particular meetings it’s impossible. This suggestion is not known to me and not admitted. Some of these players do have to trust each other in relationships one-to-one.”

From Ming’s office:

“We are not commenting on this tittle-tattle or any other story based on rumour and speculation, now or in the future. We are an independent party which firmly disagrees with Labour and Gordon Brown on the issue of Iraq, civil liberties, including ID cards and 90-day detention, nuclear power and council tax to name but a few.”

What the latter source appears to not appreciate is that this tittle-tattle was nipped in the bud between 1999 and 2006; basically the inter-regnum period between Ashdown and Campbell. Kennedy had many faults, but he at least appreciated the danger of a third party getting distracted by this sort of endless speculation. By contrast, and in spite of his rhetoric, Campbell is developing a talent for getting dragged into this non-issue.

And of course Ashdown used to make a habit of dismissing this “tittle-tattle”. He used to enjoy denouncing anyone who claimed he had been having secret talks with Blair as fantasists and liars. I should know; back when I was the (elected) LDYS sabbatical, his office leant on the LDYS Chair to get me sacked. Then, months after stepping down as leader, he flogged his diaries to Rupert Murdoch for a six-figure sum in which he proudly boasted about the wool he had been pulling over our eyes.

As such, Liberal Democrats ought to be highly sceptical about statements that, once again, we should believe that there is smoke without fire, especially given how integral Campbell was last time around.

As for the substance of what is being suggested, it seems hard to understand what the Lib Dems’ role is here. Apparently “Mr Brown is thinking of launching an all-party initiative on the future of the British constitution, and it may be that he would like a senior Liberal Democrat involved on a specific basis. He may also make a move on Iraq that could require the help of other parties.” So why aren’t these talks happening with Cameron as well? Is this a return of the Joint Cabinet Committee on constitutional reform? Back then it turned out to be a complete waste of time; bipartisanship on constitutional reform in any case leaves almost as much a sour taste in the mouth as unipartisanship. Both models are concerned primarily about self-interest as opposed to the nation’s. The debate in democratic reform circles is currently coalescing around new models such as Citizens’ Assemblies: these ideas don’t require bipartisanship and have the advantage of being under the control of members of the public. The thought of Campbell and Brown stitching up the electoral system and other reforms together isn’t just undemocratic (and I can guarantee that we would never get PR for the Commons out of such a negotiation), but frankly a little old-fashioned.

The lesson that the Welsh Lib Dems have taught me over the past month is that we should never say never to the idea of coalition. We should have red lines. But Campbell’s infamous Harrogate speech earlier this year illustrated all too clearly that Labour is currently in breach of pretty much every red line we might care to come up with. So what is there to discuss? There is no halfway compromise between the Lib Dems’ position on civil liberties and Labour’s. It’s all or nothing. Sorry if I come over all tribalist here, but I don’t consider human rights negotiable in exchange for local fucking income tax (or even, dare I say it, LVT).

Instead of this distraction, Ming ought to be redoubling his efforts to give his own party better definition. Last week’s housing policy launch demonstrated that we still have much work to do on our presentation. Any negotiation now is from a position of weakness, not strength. I still believe the party can turn itself around in time for the next General Election, but not if Campbell keeps allowing this sort of speculation to break out.

UPDATE: The official Party line –

There is no prospect of any Liberal Democrat joining the Brown Government.

On so many issues, the Tories and Labour are part of a cosy consensus and Liberal Democrats are the real opposition.

Tories and Labour now agree on:

  • tax breaks for the richest
  • the Iraq War
  • council tax
  • nuclear power
  • student tuition fees

The need for a strong independent Liberal Democrat party, to challenge the cosy consensus of Labour and Conservatives has never been stronger. We are committed to remain that strong and principled voice of opposition.

Sounds good to me. I would wryly observe that some of us have been pushing this ‘cosy consensus’ line for some time and have been rebuffed. Indeed, I recall Ming dismissing it during the leadership election Question Time last year when Chris Huhne mentioned it. C’est la vie.

How not to launch a policy

Regular readers of this blog may have noticed that I have a particular interest in land value taxation, and housing and land reform more generally. I’m little more than an enthusiastic amateur however at the end of the day, and will happily admit to gaps in my knowledge. I have to admit for example that I didn’t know that the party had policy on Community Land Auctions for instance, least of all how they work.

Now I’ve had them explained to me, privately, via Jock Coats and via Tim Leunig’s CentreForum pamphlet on the subject, I think the idea sounds very interesting. It’s a way of attempting to square the circle whereby local authorities are wary of allowing urban sprawl and landowners are wary of selling their land cheap. The ideal solution gives them both an interest, and Community Land Auctions do appear to do this. The fact that vested interests such as the Country Land and Business Association don’t like it should surprise no-one. The fact that Tories rush to the defence of landowners should surprise people with any historical knowledge even less.

So far, so good. The problem is, the party’s press launch today of the policy left anyone attempting to defend the policy completely naked. Aside from poorly (wrongly even) explaining the actual policy, the press release that went out does nothing to inform the reader that it is existing policy or point to where it is explained in more detail. Even now the full speech still hasn’t been published anywhere online. Someone like me should have spent a part of Thursday defending the policy against all-comers. Instead, I was left straggling. At least I didn’t leap to the wrong conclusion and start slagging it off, but still.

In a nutshell, if the party’s press team isn’t prepared to do the spadework in preparation for a policy launch, it shouldn’t bother. We can’t complain about the quality of our press coverage, and then leave the party leader stranded out there in the way that he was. If you look at the CentreForum link above, you will find favourable quotes from Kate Barker, an Oxford economics professor, a Conservative Peer (for fuck’s sake) and the Town and Country Planning Association. Not one of these was mentioned in the press release. If the press monkeys can’t even be bothered to do that level of research, we might as well all give up and go home now.

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.

Those election results: hmmm…

Notwithstanding the understandable effervescence emanating from the party’s results service, I’m going to go out on a limb here and say that, overall, the elections yesterday were not very good for the Lib Dems.

With over a hundred councils still to declare (at least according to the BBC), it is hard to conclude anything much from them yet, especially when one recalls that last year’s results had us losing seats all day until we eventually ended up making a net gain of, erm, one. Nonetheless however, it is hard to see how we are going to recover to such an extent. At the moment (2pm), the BBC has us just a bit ahead of Labour in terms of net losses of councillors.

The positive side of that story is that where the Tories seem to be makiing the most impact, it is in areas where they are already strong. There is very little evidence of a Tory revival in the North (Gideon Osbourne breezily claimed on Today this morning that their gains in Birmingham was evidence of a Northern revival – one wonders if he has any idea of where his Tatton constituency actually is) – where they have been making gains, it is in the few places they weren’t wiped out a decade ago. Where they have been having landslide victories, they tend to already have an MP. Once again, national swing is only telling part of the story.

Partly because we are at the mercy of the electoral system, the Lib Dems have a sad history of failing to live up to our ever declining ambitions in Assembly elections, and once again we have failed to break our duck of 6 AMs. Back in 1999, I remember being confidently told by the then-Lib Dem Chief Exec that we would get 11-12 AMs. In 2003, at least one person predicted we’d get up to around 10. This year, people were talking of 7-9 AMs being a sure thing. The worst thing of it all is that, on paper, they should have been right. Because the system is only semi-proportional (2/3rds FPTP, 1/3rd list), each region has 4 top ups and we are the fourth party, we need to make fairly modest gains in each region to significantly increase our number of assembly members. In South Wales Central, we only needed an increase of 1% to double our Assembly Members. The fact that we have failed to do this twice now ought to be setting off alarm bells about how we fight the Welsh air war.

This was echoed by my own experience. I spent the last week being a footsoldier in a non-target constituency in Wales. We got a disappointing result, but our vote held up in our target polling districts. The national campaign didn’t just fail to boost us in the polls, it failed even to cushion the work we were doing locally.

Initial thoughts? All those ‘cheeky’ references in the media didn’t exactly help, however Lembit might like to dress it up. In and of themselves, I doubt they cost us votes, but they did make it tougher to get a coherent message across. They were an unnecessary distraction.

After three campaigns at the helm, Mike German can’t avoid responsibility. His performances on TV failed to impress. True, none of the Welsh Party leaders exactly set the world alight, but as the longest-serving leader, Mike really should have stood out.

The Scottish results are coming agonisingly slowly now. One thing everyone must surely now agree on is that Scotland must now either adopt a single electoral system for both locals and Parliamentary elections (Ken Ritchie of the ERS reported on News 24 that people seemed to cope with STV better than with AMS judging by the numbers of spoilt ballots, which is ironic given that STV is always presented by its critics as a ‘complicated’ system), or they should have each set of elections on a different year (a la Wales), or preferably both.

Like Wales, the Scottish results that have been coming in are static for the Lib Dems. However, the Scot Lib Dems have the mitigating factors of a) the SNP bandwagon and b) the fact that it is a more authentically proportional system than Wales, which makes it tougher to gain seats. Nonetheless, our failure to win seats such as Edinburgh Central and Strathkelvin & Bearsden was very disappointing.

But, behind closed doors of course, I doubt the SNP are exactly delighted with the result. It remains unclear whether they will win the plurality – at the moment it looks as if they haven’t – and even if they do, it will be by the smallest of margins and in the context of a clearly unionist majority in the Parliament. This isn’t the result that the SNP were confidently predicting last week. Support for their key policy has plummeted during the election campaign.

If Labour manage to form a coalition, this is the last hurrah for the SNP; if the SNP manage to form a coalition, it may well prove just as fatal in the longer term. Simply put, I remain doubtful that they will be capable of managing the transition from repository of protest votes to a party of government. I’m aware that people say that about the Lib Dems all the time, but we’ve now run Scotland for 8 years and not been punished by the electorate. Meanwhile, I am struck by the number of SNP policies that are merely lifted from the Lib Dems (and some, like local income tax, I don’t think are particularly well thought out). The real problem the SNP have is that they are a one-man band. What happens if the sheen of Salmond starts to get tarnished, if he goes under a bus, or if he simply gets bored? A power vacuum may yet emerge in Scotland, and that is a real opportunity for the Lib Dems, if they have the initiative and dynamism to take it.

Finally, there is the Ming Question. I think it is unfair to put too much blame at Ming’s door for this set of unimpressive results. After all, for all my frustrations, I’m accutely aware that our results in Scotland and Wales are almost identical to 2003, and the same questions were not being asked about Charles Kennedy at the time. Perhaps, in retrospect, they should have been, given that the Tories and the nationalists were in a much greater slump back then, and we failed to capitalise on the fact. I haven’t seen anything about Ming’s performance that gives me cause for concern; equally, I’ve seen a number of positive developments which haven’t yet had time to bed down. But the main lesson from this campaign seems to be that we need to work on our air war – there’s only so much we can do on the ground when the national party messages are not coming across and being drowned out by our opponents’.