Month: February 2006

Blogging cop out

Despite all three Lib Dem leadership contenders promoting the bloggers that are backing their campaigns, it is interesting that none of the contenders are blogging themselves.

Blogging has been heralded as the new way that politicians will reach out directly to their electorate, and indeed there are numerous examples of MPs from across the political spectrum who have their own blogs. So perhaps it is even more surprising that none of the contenders have seen blogging as a way of reaching out to party members during the campaign. Both Ming Campbell and Simon Hughes have “blogs” on their sites, but both of these are just news stories from the campaign and in reality just collections of endorsements and press releases. Chris Huhne does at least have the honesty to call the equivalent area on his website the news section.

Although blogging is still growing within the Liberal Democrats, I suspect some of this reluctance may come from the party getting its fingers burnt in the Hartlepool by-election. Jody Dunn, who was one of the best by-election candidates that we have had, wrote a blog on her election website. I understand that she did write this herself and it was then checked for obvious mistakes by members of her campaign team before it was posted. Unfortunately they never expected a fairly innocent and light-hearted comment about one unnamed road in Hartlepool being full of drunks, vicious dogs or semi-naked men to be exaggerated by the Labour party. If you read Labour leaflets you would think she’d made a slur against everyone in Hartlepool. This comment was one of the main reasons that Jody Dunn failed to be elected, as it also reminded people that she was outside who was now also slagging off the town. I think Jody Dunn was unlucky, but it shows how easy it is to say something on the internet that can be misinterpreted.

I like the idea of blogs and I think they are a useful way of letting off steam about things that happen, getting across your view on your interests in a personal way to anyone who wants to read it and being able to respond spontaneously to events. I suppose those are the reasons why I have an attraction to blogging and why I have restarted a blog. I have been pleasantly surprised by the number of people who clearly read my old blog and as a result feel the need to either say to me in person or on their own blog how much they agreed with something I’d written. But it is this very spontaneity and readership that can cause problems. With the advent of blogs like Lib Dem Watch your opponents can pick up on the slightest slip that you make. I suppose that is the reason why I also keep questioning my own wish to have a blog, and why my last one was ditched last year.

It is this risk that I believe will stop blogging from really taking off in politics. As one Lib Dem once put it to me after seeing the reaction to Jody Dunn’s blog, “why on earth do we spend all this time carefully choreographing the campaign messages that go on leaflets and then ruin it all by allowing our candidate to write whatever they want on the internet.” He had a point, but we shouldn’t stop candidates and MPs from having blogs simply because they might say what they really believed. In fact if I was a true conspiracy theorist maybe the whole point of the leadership contenders promoting supporters who blog whilst not having one themselves is so that they can get across their campaign messages, including the negative ones, without them being implicated directly.

Jody Dunn showed some of the pitfalls of candidates having their own blog, and I have also found comments that I have made quoted on Lib Dem Watch. But most political blogs have not been as controversial. In fact many of them, and I suspect mine as well most of the time, have been deadly dull. However blogging by candidates should be encouraged as it allows them to speak for themselves and to think more freely. Posting on topical issues may allow a debate to be had with the wider community before they finally decide on their own view. It is this freethinking that should be encouraged, and I think last weeks vote on whether to ban smoking on public places shows how free thinking is a major positive. Whether you agreed with the outcome of the vote or not, allowing a free vote on the issue gave the perfect opportunity for MPs to show themselves at their freethinking and honest best. If we encourage MPs to think more freely more of the time, something that blogging allows, we might improve politics and political decision making considerably.

I suppose like most things people will learn the techniques for writing blogs and will learn about what they should or shouldn’t say on them, whilst still being true and honest. Indeed, how do we know now that those that appear to be written personally and from the heart are also not scripted in the same way as those that are more obviously just a collection of press releases and news stories?


Why I’m Backing Ming Campbell

Where better to start, and more obvious, than with a posting on the leadership campaign. Ballot papers have gone out and mine went back the day it arrived, and so let me say why I’m backing Ming Campbell to be the next leader.

When I knew there would be a leadership contest my instinctive reaction was that I would back Ming. Mind you, that was when I thought the contest would be between Ming, Simon Hughes and Mark Oaten. They say a week is a long time in politics and this last month seems to have lasted a year. I can’t say I was wowed by the idea and I never felt an inclination to go and actively campaign for him, but as time has moved on and the actual contenders and their platforms became clear, I have become positive he is the right person.

Firstly, you can see him as a prime minister. I think the biggest flaw with Charles, apart from his alcoholism, is that he doesn’t look or sound like a prime minister. Perhaps it is an unfair criticism, I happen to think that it isn’t. But Ming does at least have something about him, an aura perhaps, that makes you believe he could be a prime minister. That isn’t to say that I think he will be, we are the third party after all, but he acts like a statesman.

Secondly, he doesn’t appeal to just one faction. I have always seen Simon as being on the left and Chris as being on the right. Whilst a leader should offer guidance on certain issues and may at times take a stand internally, I happen to think that it should be the party to take the view on where it is heading in policy terms and for the leader then to vocalise them. As one person put it to me “the membership decides which bullets to use, but it is up to the leader to deliver those bullets effectively.” To me, Ming has the clearest, most consistent and most charismatic delivery. When I attended the hustings in Leeds, it was also clear to me that he also had the best jokes.

Ming is also a campaigner. To be fair, all three are, but we forget that Ming took the Liberals from 4th place to 1st in his constituency, because it was such a long time ago. But it is exactly because it was back in 1987 that it is all the more significant. Despite it being a year when the Tories did well and we gained very few seats, he managed to take a seat from them and has increased his majority every year since then. It is also significant that those people who have worked closely with Ming have continued to be tremendously supportive and loyal. This may perhaps also explain why so many people are backing Ming. It is too simple to say that they are doing it for career reasons as people like Shirley Williams and Paddy Ashdown don’t need to do that. I happen to think that it is a strength that he such a good team around him and that it is made up of the brightest stars from the new intake as much as it is the people tipped to be the leaders of the future. To me this offers a far more exciting vision of the party’s future than just having a younger leader.

A key area for me is about how the party should become more professional. The other parties are starting to understand why Liberal Democrat campaigns work so effectively, but due to their income they can do them in a much bigger and impressive way than the Lib Dems can. Along with this the party’s organisation is geared up for a smaller party with less scrutiny from the media. This has to change. Although the leader is not, and should not, get too closely involved with the day to day operation of the party, they can at least push for certain priorities from their position. That is something that I believe Ming will do.

Something that has come as a pleasant surprise in hustings and in the language that Ming has used is how he is clearly a gut instinct liberal. It doesn’t come as a surprise that Simon does this, but I hadn’t heard Ming speak with such passion before. He is well-spoken and quite softly spoken, but manages to sound genuine and down-to-earth at the same time. He also has that type of Scottish accent that people find appealing and almost sexy, rather than one that is a lot harder. When Ming talks about what brought him in to the Liberal Democrats and you see that he came from a relatively ordinary background in Glasgow, you realise that he is doing this because of what he believes in rather than as a career move.

Despite everything I have said, no support for a candidate is going to be a purely positive endorsement of them but will also be down to negative feelings towards the others. Lets start off with a quote from Alex Wilcock which he argues is an oversimplification but also partly true:

I’ve already heard more than enough along the lines that ‘Scary’ is only backed by the establishment and Young Turks who want to be leader in five years’ time; that ‘Flaky’ is only backed by ‘lefties’ and Christians; and that ‘Who?’ is only backed by Young Turks who don’t want to be leader in five years’ time.

I love Simon Hughes for his passionate belief in what he is saying and his genuinely liberal credentials. I feel close to him on policy terms, I like him as a person and I enjoy talking to him. But I always have this fear that he is just about to say something horrendous that he shouldn’t be saying and he is too chaotic. He also wasted a huge opportunity when he stood for Mayor of London and doesn’t yet seem to have delivered any of his presidential pledges. The nature of his ‘coming out’ was typical. His ‘lie’, if that is what it was, was done for all the right reasons but actually caused him more trouble and there will always be the perception that he lied even if that isn’t really the case.

Chris Huhne is hard-working and he understands the need to raise more money, find more members and develop a distinctive set of policies. I also disagree with people who say his marginal seat is a worry as knowing Chris as I do I have no doubt that he will hold his seat whether he is elected leader or not – he is not a Jackie Ballard Mark 2. Where I think Chris falls down is in his dull and dry delivery which sounds as though he is just reading a list of points rather than doing a speech from the the heart. I also feel that the notion that he has done “an ordinary job” and isn’t just a politician is misleading. Since when were journalism and being an economist considered “ordinary jobs?” I think having longer experience at Westminster is important and that of the three candidates I am furthest from Chris in policy terms.

Despite my eulogising for Ming, I don’t deny that I have my concerns. I am concerned about his age. Actually, it isn’t his age, but the fact that he looks older than he really is. None of the three contenders are actually that young – two in their 50s and one in their 60s. Charles Kennedy was 39 when he became leader. But I think we are judging this solely on the fact that the Tories have a young leader and that Blair was seen as a young leader. It is a fairly recent phenomenon, and we don’t know what will happen if we have an older leader whilst the others have younger ones – it is unknown territory anyway and we can’t assume what that will mean. Whilst I think a young leader will appeal to some, it will actually put many others off. I think it is what you say and how you campaign that says the most about you.

Many people had assumed that because I was Chris Huhne’s General Election agent that I would automatically back him. Others have assumed that because I now work in Sheffield Hallam that I was bound to back Ming out of loyalty to Nick Clegg. And one bizarre suggestion that because I have driven Simon Hughes’ taxi I was therefore bound to back him. In the end I have taken my previous knowledge of all three, what they have said in their campaigns and my gut instinct to make a decision. It’s my decision and I have a mind of my own.

My initial instinct that it had to be Ming has been confirmed by the leadership campaign. As time has gone by I have become even more convinced that that view was right. I didn’t initially expect to endorse a candidate as I didn’t feel strongly enough that Ming was right, but the more I have learnt about Ming the more I am sure he is the right person to be leader. The two most significant things for me was Chris Davies’ endorsement, (the content of it and not just because it was Chris Davies saying it), and the content of the Policy Themes, Leadership Priorities section on Ming’s website.

I happen to think that Ming is still ahead as the YouGov opinion poll will have a heavy bias towards party activists. But that is not to say that I think he will win in the end. The race is still open and I await the result with excitment and with slight forboding.

Campbell Campaign –