I’m saddened, but not surprised by Peter Black’s outburst over Ming Campbell’s leadership of the Liberal Democrats. The story, if you haven’t caught it, is Peter Black using his blog to criticise Ming Campbell’s leadership. His comments were then subsequently picked up by the BBC and other media.
A lot of these stories of MPs or AMs criticising their party’s leadership are usually exaggerated. In fact a lot of the initial criticism of Charles Kennedy was down to MPs being asked for their view on the criticism of the party leader. They lose all credibility if they deny there is any criticism and so they have to respond with something acknowledging that there are some problems and then continuing with something more positive. This is then turned in to a story along the lines “MP X criticises party leader”. Which was not their intention at all. For this reason, I thought I’d better check Peter Black’s blog myself and see what he had written.
Peter Black’s blog is one of the main Lib Dem blogs that I read. He is open and honest whilst also being far more informative about the workings of the Welsh Assembly than any other source online, including the mainstream media. Although I like Peter for his honesty and directness, I was however appalled at his attack on Ming. It isn’t as if he was responding to other comments, it was an unnecessary criticism that was not only unfair and misleading but at the same time it is obvious that comments like this were always going to be picked up by the press and used to make Ming’s leadership more difficult. If Peter wanted to make it harder to ‘shape up’ then this was the way to do it.
It is no secret that Ming’s original performances at Prime Minister’s Questions were not great. He acknowledged that himself. But as someone said, if performance at PMQs was a sign of your electoral appeal, then William Hague would be Prime Minister by now. But since then I believe that Ming has been doing exactly what Peter Black calls for, shaping up!
Back in February I made the following comment as a reason for why I was backing Ming Campbell:
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.
I can honestly say that in the last couple of months, this is exactly what Ming Campbell has been doing. The professionalism of the party and its grasping of new campaigning techniques is not something that is ever going to be in the public eye and is not going to win us support. But by doing it the party ends up in a lot better shape to fight election campaigns. The only real test of this performance with Ming Campbell as leader is the Bromley & Chislehurst by-election where we did incredibly well and far better than people expected. So far, we have not failed a major political test with Ming as leader. As any Lib Dem will tell you, election campaigns, particularly council ones, are very autonomous of the party leader and it is the Lib Dems on the ground in that area that affect the outcome more than the national party leader. But Ming’s belief in updating what we do and improving the management of the party has started to make an impact.
Peter Black makes a very particular criticism about how the party leadership has taken a huge hold over the party and bypasses the party membership in its decision making. This is laughable. If you ask the average party member who is interested in policy and their criticism is not that the leadership is taking the wrong policy decisions, it is that federal conference is out of touch with the party membership. Yes that’s right. The supposedly democratic body that makes decisions on our policy is seen by the membership as less representative than its MPs or undemocratic policy unit. This fact is unfortunate for people like Peter, and me for that matter, who believe that policy decisions should be taken democratically by the party. Peter also criticises Ming for announcing policy changes in the media before a vote by the Federal Policy Committee or by conference. Well, that is nothing new. Charles Kennedy did that all the time, and doesn’t Peter remember the furore of Paddy Ashdown suddenly announcing the creation of the Joint Cabinet Committee with Labour? It is also the case that one of the strong criticisms of Charles, and one that I heard well before he resigned, was that he had a huge reliance on a handful of advisors in his office. In fact, many of these advisors are credited with hiding his alcoholism from others in the party and for shielding him from any internal criticism. In this sense, Ming has been far more open and inclusive by bringing more of his MPs in to his orbit and making it a more inclusive leadership than under Charles.
I happen to think the party is on the right track. Ming does not yet attract the popular appeal that Charles had, and the way that Charles went will take some healing. But I think we are on the way and whilst more needs to be done to sharpen Ming’s image, we are by no means worse off than we were under Charles.
Shaping up? The party already is.