I’ve said that I am disenchanted with the leadership election. That doesn’t mean that I have disengaged from it. I’ve been following the campaign through the media and across the web, although I haven’t had the opportunity to attend a hustings yet. For a beauty contest there has been a marked absence of sparkle and glamour.
I have found the substance of the campaign so far dull, unimaginative and far too inward looking. The really significant issues that we as a party have to face up to, both in policy and in strategy, are not being properly discussed. While I have said that our choice of leader should, sadly, be determined by who looks best on telly, we still could be using this election as an opportunity to properly debate the challenges we face. It is not as if there is a shortage of serious stuff we need to get to grips with. However, irrespective of who wins, we are in danger of looking back on this contest and regretting that we threw away that opportunity.
The responsibility for this must ultimately lie with the two candidates.
Chris Huhne has, so far, run the far more effective campaign. That doesn’t mean he will be the eventual winner, but he is the candidate with the most momentum. Yet he has achieved this by concentrating on issues, policies, and statements designed to appeal to an internal activist audience. On top of this the issues he has chosen have tended to be what I regard as “yesterday’s” issues.
For instance, there are a huge set of big challenges that Britain faces in foreign affairs, international security and defence. I believe that, despite an excellent record in some areas, the Liberal Democrats have huge gaps in their policy response to these challenges. For a party which prides itself on its internationalism we are woefully inadequately prepared for the reality of the world in the 21st Century. But what issue has Huhne decided to highlight in this area? The renewal of Trident of course. Now it is an important issue, and I know it is an issue that many party activists care deeply about, but what to do about what is essentially a piece of cold war technology is for me the very definition of “yesterday’s” issue.
The other example I would cite is this entirely sterile debate over vouchers and the role of markets in public services. Now, I know the media likes to make great play of this issue, mostly to support their favoured stories of defining things as “left and right”, but my impression is that the party has largely moved on from this being an area of controversy. Most Liberal Democrats I speak to take a pragmatic and sensible approach which says that where market mechanisms are appropriate within the public sector they should be used and where they are not appropriate they shouldn’t. Obviously there is debate over when precisely it is appropriate, but that is technical debate around application and not one of principle. Huhne revisiting this debate in the way he has done may have garnered him some votes by appealing to certain peoples prejudices, but he has done nothing to move the policy of the party forward.
Nick Clegg has given some indications that he appreciates the need to use this election as an opportunity to properly debate the challenges the party faces. He talks of the disadvantages we have had of an “inward looking phase” over the past few years and for the need for us to “move outside our comfort zone”. He is right. Too much of where the Liberal Democrats are at the moment are characterised by a comfortable but soggy approach to politics. In many ways we have got stuck. Yet, Clegg’s campaign has so far failed to articulate any kind of coherent road map to take us out of our comfort zone.
I am generally more sympathetic to the approach taken by Clegg. He is saying more of the right things for me than Huhne is. But I am seriously disappointed that he hasn’t set out a clearer vision of where he wants to take the party. If in the end he turns out to be the eventual winner, by not setting out a clearer direction, he will have missed his chance to gain a mandate from the Party to implement the change that is so badly needed.
While who our leader is needs to be determined by who looks best on telly, what they do needs to be about confronting the hard realities we need to deal with in order to put the Party in a position to exercise real power. We have made a start in addressing some of these hard realities under Campbell, but I have yet to be convinced that either Clegg or Huhne really have a plan for what needs to be done.
This content was originally posted on my old Process Guy blog.