Tonight’s London hustings were excellent, and there is no doubt that the Liberal Democrats, no matter what their individual views, can rest assured that their next leader will take the party forward into a positive future. Having lured many bloggers to the pub, I’m hoping that at lest some of them will have taken the night off and not blogged yet, so I’ll get my comments in first. (Fat chance!).
The more interesting part of the evening was undoubtedly the speeches; the answers to questions from the floor (and this blogger was cruelly ignored) were less (though still) edifying.
Chris Huhne “won the toss” and got to speak first, and started with a (populist, if only because I’ve heard it so often in the last few weeks) “Draft Vince” gag – which, to be (un)fair, is an easy crack once nominations are closed. He then proceeded to give one of the best speeches I’ve ever heard him make, and easily the best I’ve heard this campaign.
Chris started by stressing his liberal values and the need to set the tone for C21st; the Tories and Labour having no big ideas or radical solutions. Brown was the “Patron saint of tax accountants”; Labour had required real talent and hard work to engineer the first bank collapse in 140 years; Labour are a corrupt party, every one of their >£1n donors having received a peerage or a knighthood; he emphasised the David Abrahams case. As for the Tories: David Cameron was a career politician with no background outside politics, unlike Chris, who has an extensive pre-politician career; and Labour and the Tories were now one-and-the-same, and what Britain needed was “not a third conservative party but a first radical party.” He emphasised that a rich society should be a fair society, and that tough choices were necessary (such as abandoning Trident so as to fund our armed forces better). He stressed the need to end child poverty which blights the future chances of all the 3.8m children born into poor families. Sadly, he then re-used a tied old Huhne line: “Not just the open road…. but the fair start.”
Here a pause is required. Both Nick Clegg and Chris Huhne were guilty of re-using old lines. I joked to Mrs. Polemic that Nick would begin his speech by saying that “I want to lead the Liberal Democrats because I want to live in a more liberal Britain” but he surprised me by leaving that quote to the end. Chris cited not only the above well-used line but also the old chestnut (re-cycled from his last bid for the leadership) about changing “not only the faces in the back of the ministerial limo” but also the whole nature of politics.
Chris also pushed the anti-school choice and anti-social insurance line, one which I must admit makes me cross. He stressed “If I am elected leader there will be no question that journalists will be confused about where I stand”. This is a reference to articles about Nick in certain newspapers. Ignoring my own proclivities, this is a clear attempt (used by Chris before) to position himself as opposed to something of which he has accused his opponent, but which Nick has consistently denied supporting. It is therefore a false issue that he is using as dog-whistle politics, and it makes me very uncomfortable.
Chris went on to emphasise his belief that climate change is the “greatest challenge of our time”, and that we were mortgaging our children’s future by ignoring it; it was the central theme of his political life. He noted that the Lib Dems had been setting the political agenda and winning the4 argument on this issue for some time. To conclude he stressed his ambition willingness to take risks, (confusingly) that “boldest measures are also the safest” (I really have no idea what that means) and reiterated (with that limo comment) the desire to change the system.
It was the best I have ever heard his speak, and as I noted to Mrs. Polemic as Nick stood up and had to wait for the applause to die down, “That wasn’t a candidate’s speech; that was a leader’s speech”. I felt like it was Thursday at the Autumn conference. As somebody who was previously strongly in the Clegg camp, I was genuinely impressed and thought that that was going to be a hard act to follow.
So when Nick stood up to speak (without notes), and had to wait for the applause do die down, I did think that something more than the average was going to be called for. What we were then treated to was the most passionate, most impressive and most convincing speech that I’ve heard from any would-be or actual leader (and I attended the leadership hustings in the same room nearly two years before).
Nick started by using the “Friends” line (all speakers at conference seem to address their audience as “Friends” or “Conference” and I suspect that there is a code to it that is lost on me, though I wouldn’t be surprised to discover that one hails from the Liberals and the other from the SDP – if others can correct me I’d welcome the knowledge) and warmed the room with a couple of jokes. He was altogether more jovial, though an MP noted to me afterwards that joking at the expense of the journalists wasn’t his cleverest move.
But, having clearly learned from his Question Time experience, he then launched directly into the passionate politics that has previously served him so well in this campaign. Some of it was a bit familiar, but what was clever was his deliberate use of London as an example: replacing his already-used example of the 14 year life-expectancy gap between Sheffield’s richest and poorest with Newham’s 16 years; the third of London’s children in workless families; and yet the amazing diversity in London (he also referred to the “arrogance about what is wrong” which I totally failed to understand). He was ambitious for our party, and wanted within two years to break the two party grip on elections. But we needed to start from where people were, not where we though they should be; we needed to be a party of hopes and dreams; of ideas and genius.
He then when to define five key policy areas that would shape the future. These were:
1) The “Epidemic of Powerlessness” that saw people shut out by the giganticness of both government and business; where (doing a classic Clegg and citing a personal example to highlight a point) he described the elderly couple that had struggled just to have a phone line in their house moved; where government advises us to shred our bank statements and then loses 26m people’s bank details; and (most importantly) where power should be handed not just “from Whitehall to the Town Hall” but also beyond to individual
2) “Social stagnation and exclusion” that led to unequal life expectancy and school performance based upon starting circumstances, that (and here I confess I’m sharpening his sound-bite) state schools “suck up the disadvantaged kids and pit out disadvantaged adults”; he would spend more money on less advantaged children to ensure that all got a decent education.
3) “Fear”, an issue the Lib Dems may have neglected and which affected the poorest most of all; and which required us to find practical solutions to real day-to-day problems
4) the environment (spreading good Lib Dem policies among Vince Cable and Norman Baker as well as Chris Huhne, diluting his opponent’s record), where we had spent too much time hectoring individuals while business, government and local authorities had to take a lead; and
5) Globalisation, which he noted (correctly) brought both positive and negative effects but which he (wrongly) would seek to “limit and control”. He was correct to note, however, that unaddressed, globalisation could lead to disenfranchisement, thence to apathy and so open the door to extremism. This had to be countered.
Nick concluded by noting that “Liberalism was the creed of our age”, that he was proud of our past but wanted a better future, and stressed that third place was not good enough. It was a winning speech, and the applause was deservedly prolonged.
Inevitably, after two such good speeches, the question-and-answer session was less good, and undoubtedly both need to learn to tighten up their answers. Having waxed above already I may leave that until tomorrow, but the Q&A did not change the overall sense of success – though it helped clarify particular policy issues. It was Nick’s night – no doubt about it – but whoever wins, the Lib Dems will have an excellent leader. Neither of them sounded like candidates this evening; they both sounded like leaders.