Thursday, November 29, 2007

The Liberal Democrat Leader

The role of the Leader of the Liberal Democrats is one of the most difficult in British politics.

Unlike the Leader of HM Opposition, there is no specific financial support for the leader of the party, neither, except at election time, does the Liberal Democrat Leader have Police security protection.

Yet despite the reduced official support, the role of the leader is, if anything, even more difficult than that of the Leader of the official Opposition. In a system explicitly designed to divide only two ways, the Leader of the party must overcome the structure of the constitution as well as the efforts of the other parties. Defining the position of the party in the face of the indifference or hostility of most of the media is equally difficult. The position of most journalists is that whatever the Liberal Democrats say or do, they are irrelevant: and as a result the party rarely receives the coverage that its ideas and support deserve. Although gaining the support of around one in five voters, the party gains less than one in ten of the seats in the House of Commons.

Truly the job is difficult and dispiriting.

Yet the reason why Liberal Democrats continue to put so much effort into politics is because we believe that Liberal ideas are vital to preserve our freedoms and to enhance the way of life of our country in the future. Liberalism is a disciplined and coherent ideology based on maximising the freedom of the individual. We are economically Liberal because that is the best way to generate prosperity, we are socially Liberal because the role of the state should not define how individuals should live their lives.

The two candidates for the Leadership of the Party have both put Liberal visions. We are therefore told by commentators that the differences are more of emphasis and presentation. Certainly Nick Clegg, one-on-one is attractive and charismatic. He has certainly put forward intelligent and interesting ideas during his tenure as Liberal Democrat Shadow Home Secretary.
His weakness has been to lack crispness in dealing with unexpected situations- and on one or two occasions he has clearly been thrown by questions.

Chris Huhne, by contrast, has not been considered to have presented his more challenging environmental agenda so well. However, throughout this election I have been struck by the way that he has consistently been able to refer to key liberal principles when he has been asked questions. He has a deep understanding of the way that Liberal ideology knits together.

One other point has been made about this election: that impressive as Nick Clegg is, he is not the finished article, whereas Chris Huhne has less room for growth. Personally I find this a slightly strange idea: we are looking for a leader now. I can only judge the contest on what is being offered today. Indeed Chris Huhne does have more life experience; he has been a highly successful journalist and made a great deal of money when he set up what became the Fitch IBCA rating agency. His business and entrepreneurial experience is impressive. I have also no doubt that success did not make him universally popular. Several people have said to me that "of course Chris can be a bit of a bast*rd sometimes". This is not, however a popularity contest, it is a test of leadership, and an element of ruthlessness is clearly part of the job description.

Finally, I think that many people- both inside and outside the Liberal Democrats- have been impressed by the way that Vince Cable has performed as leader. For me it has been a tonic to see his disciplined and consistent approach, based on considerable knowledge and experience outside of politics.

This has been a difficult decision. I think both could do the job exceptionally well. I have been impressed by the way that the party has responded to both candidates. Certainly I did not expect to be hesitating this late in the contest. I was leaning strongly to Nick Clegg at the start.

Nevertheless, for his experience, his principles and his disciplined focus:

I will be voting Chris Huhne.


Joe Otten said...

I think the 'unfinished article' argument is only meant to be a tie-breaker. I agree that if one candidate is clearly better than the other today, then vote for him. FWIW IMHO Nick is that candidate.

Anonymous said...


A few weeks ago you got rather indignant about the Tory proposal to have only English MPs vote on English matters. I remember some distinct harrumphing about such a plan endangering the Union. Last week Chris Huhne appeared to endorse the plan. How can you support him given his disregard for your beoved Union with Scotland? Wheatley

Valerie said...

I think we underestimate the importance of affability at our peril. That is the one area in which the new leader really has to hit the ground running.

Anonymous said...

"Nevertheless, for his experience, his principles and his disciplined focus"

Ming had all that even more than Chris, little it helped him.

Bullseye said...

Having read your blog over reecent weeks I'm not surprised by your eventual choice. I think however you are making a mistake even on your own terms to quote you

"Liberalism is a disciplined and coherent ideology based on maximising the freedom of the individual. We are economically Liberal because that is the best way to generate prosperity, we are socially Liberal because the role of the state should not define how individuals should live their lives."

That is an superb quote but it simply isn't refelcted in Chris campaign programme. Although Chris has run an excellent campaign - it has been squarely aimed at pandering to the statist, anti-choice agenda of the party's activist base, not at developing a wider appeal based on our core values.

If he wins he will have so narrowed our room for manouvre that we will be stuck with increasingly outdated public service policies which will be I suspect almost the antithesis of what you yourself advocate.

In short Chris is good, but he is worng.

Cicero said...

Either candidate would be a decent leader, what tips it for me is the life experience factor. I do not buy Chris Huhne as a statist, and as you know Charles your views and mine co-incide pretty closely. I do not think Clegg is quite the finished article, and would prefer to keep him in reserve. Huhne is the guy, who on balance is the most ideological Liberal, and I think that this is importnant.

Tristan said...

I agree with bullseye on this. I've found Chris's anti-choice campaign very off putting.

He's been pandering to the part of the party I find it most difficult to get along with - the conservative 'radical' who rejects individual freedom in favour of political control (even if it is at a local level).

He's really put such a negative impression in my mind that I can't vote for him...

Dan said...

Hi Cicero - I've been having the same problems as you separating the two. I actually think there are far better choices who for wahatever reasons decided not to stand, which is a shame.

I agree that Huhne has run the far better campaign and has shown better under fire. I have been thinking about him seriously.

However yesterday I received a communication from him that quoted Polly Toynbee backing him.

I am now much more inclined to Clegg on the clear principle that 'anything Polly Toynbee says the opposite is always the case.'

Cicero said...

Polly Toynbee is admittedly wrong about virtually everything, but I reamin unshaken!

Bullseye said...

The point is not so much that Chris is a statist, having spoken to him privately at some length I don't believe he is - he is a localist first & foremost. Which is better than nothing but is not the ame as being an 'ideological liberal'

However, what really worries me is that Chris's campaign has pandered so blatantly to the statist tendencies which have so hampered our party. he has run an anti-chice , pro-status quo campaign that says the only reform needed to public services is to devolve them to local authorities.

That's not a liberal revolution that's social democratic managerialism.

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