Tuesday, September 11, 2007

Ming Campbell: does being a Liberal Democrat mean never having to accept the result?

As Conference arrives, and the background rumbling for and against Ming Campbell’s leadership continues, I am moved to think about what I want from the Party leadership and, equally important, from my fellow activists (the Daily Telegraph called me an activist, and who am I to doubt them?). Now don’t get me wrong, this won’t be an attack or defence of the reign of Ming the Merciless, or of any named individual, more a reflection on the hows, whys and wherefores of ‘power’.

I didn’t vote for Ming, opting instead to support Chris Huhne. I thought that he demonstrated a greater sense of radicalism – and don’t let those on the ‘left’ of our Party fool anyone that they have the copyright on that word – and would argue cogently for a coherent philosophy. I didn’t mind Ming particularly, felt that he would be a safe pair of hands, and accordingly gave him my second preference as an insurance policy. And so Ming won, having convinced armchair members that, after the convulsions of the Kennedy ‘assassination’, his measured approach was what the Party needed. I was disappointed, but the members had spoken, and as any good democrat should, I accepted the outcome.

Since then, the mutterings have started, less surprisingly, from some of those who voted for Chris or for Simon Hughes, and then, less edifyingly, from some who voted for Ming, and seem to be surprised that, having voted for a safe pair of hands, that is exactly what they got. However, regardless of the background for their dissatisfaction, I am puzzled by the public vitriol with which the debate has been carried out, the defensiveness with which we’ve handled external criticism, and the apparent lack of political nous from some elements of our ranks.

The Conservatives have been quite aggressive in their condemnation of Ming, and have picked on him for his age, his relative docility and approach to Prime Ministers’ Questions. It may not be rocket science but why are we surprised? They don’t like us, they never have done, and they never will. And frankly, given our glee at the increasing signs of dissent on ConservativeHome and the like, why do we think that our own displays of dissent don’t bring joy to the hearts of Conservatives?

Yes, be unhappy with Ming all you like, but try to do so within the context in which he was elected. The membership wanted an Edinburgh lawyer with a safe pair of hands, and that is what they got. To then demand that he demonstrate flair, adventure and radicalism seems grossly unfair, even if that is what you wanted in the first place. Having your own public platform, and having a blog linked to the Aggregator gives you exactly that, obliges one to demonstrate a degree of restraint. As a rule (not unfailingly adhered to, I confess), I tend to think about the impact on external, i.e. non-Liberal Democrat, readers, especially in terms of how my words might be interpreted.

And naturally, for the 99%+ of Liberal Democrats who don’t blog, or at least if they do, don’t blog for a ‘mass’ audience, the frustration when one of our number get picked up by the wider media in a negative light is huge. For example, my fellow colleagues fighting the Stonebridge by-election would be highly unimpressed if I made a public statement condemning the Council Group, and not unreasonably so. In fact, many senior Liberal Democrats think that what we do is indulgent and a use of time better spent on winning elections.

So, what do I want from a leader? Well, I want to be inspired, whether by his/her rhetoric or by their example. I want them to be able to articulate what we stand for with conviction and consistency. I don’t want them to get too involved in the machinery of the Party’s internal workings – we have a President and a Chief Executive for that – although encouragement for the bureaucracy to reflect the Party’s core philosophy would be nice. In turn, the Party has to develop and, more importantly, consistently express those themes best designed to attract voters to liberal democracy. It isn’t just about the leader, you know, it’s about what he/she is able to say.

And next time we have to elect a leader, think about what you want from him or her, decide if any of the candidates reflect sufficient of that to merit your support, and go out there and actively campaign for them. Armchair members of our Party tend towards supporting the safe pair of hands, unless someone gives them reason to think differently. That someone might be you. How about it?


Linda Jack said...


Anonymous said...

I agree with much of your commentary, but the perversity of group dynamics is always there and we must accept that all decisions will have their dissenters.

Additionally, we mustn't fail to recognise that 'the rumbling dissent' - far from being a bad thing - is actually a backhanded compliment (and anyway far more preferable than being neglected). It is a direct indicator that the party as a whole has reached a critical mass where real questions gain relevance while the prospect of attaining office crystalises in the mindset of the libdem activist movement.

Neither should we forget that Ming has yet to demonstrate his exercise of position in the way Kennedy did by gambling on speaking out against the invasion of Iraq in front of a mass rally (and thereby dragging any mutterers with him). But Ming is also still to show any of our popular and practical (as well as intellectual) appeal with such a defining demonstration of conviction.

While the marketing spin of citizen's juries, policy reviews and big conversations is a sham which doesn't promote democracy, it is nevertheless far more successful at attention-grabbing, narrative-writing and consolidating a leadership than any 'ongoing' or permanent consultation process which is practically silent and sometimes nonexistent.

We must stop selling ourselves short by allowing ourselves to be distracted with side-show discussions of leadership by channeling this energy into more productive areas.

The criticism is disillusion at the bars to participation as much as it is any percieved lack of inspiration, but it can easily be turned around.

The alternative will be on full display at conference for one week only! - though it's a shame that this treasured highlight has become bedraggled by it's own limitations.

In order to to expand our horizons we need to be more expansive - maybe we should hire a fleet of buses to take conference on the road to every group and into every constituency across the country.

Maybe then we'd all be happier to play follow the leader.