Who should our next leader be? Yes, we have two excellent candidates in Chris Huhne and Nick Clegg, and no, it’s not an easy choice.
Putting people in boxes is not very liberal; but we do love to do it, and the media are happy to help. Last time we had the leftie, the greenie and the oldie. Of course it wasn’t that simple then; but it’s certainly not simple now.
We have two prosperous white men with background and outlook in common, and yes, that’s frustrating in that our party and our electorate is much more diverse. But it does mean we can focus on what they are saying, what that means to us, and who sounds like a winner, rather than the label they wear; and that’s got to be good.
We’re not deciding til December. So whether it’s the Heineken effect, a L’Oreal moment or M&S food you’re after, we should take time and be demanding consumers sizing up our leadership candidates. And for now I’m still undecided.
Like Steve Goddard, I’m a candidate in a marginal seat, Islington South & Finsbury, just 484 votes behind Labour last time. Party members have given me a job to do, to win this seat; and so this isn’t about who is nicest or even who pushes my policy buttons; or who I voted for last time (Huhne); but who I believe can best help us win here.
When England lost the rugby final, captain Phil Vickery said, be proud not sad. When my team won a massive swing in Islington South & Finsbury last time, but we just missed winning the seat, I was proud and sad. Next time I want us to be proud and happy. And I want a leader who makes voters feel proud and happy to back them – starting with me.
I’m not looking for a staged clash of philosophies and certainly not a tick box on particular issues; after all, it’s not the leader who makes policy, it’s the party. Like all Lib Dems, I care about the environment, civil liberties, social justice at home and abroad. And I’m happy to hear Chris & Nick pay homage to our tribal gods. But that’s not enough.
It’s not about who has got the most or the best endorsements – people I like and respect are in both camps – although Steve Webb backing Nick is a significant one.
I don’t need them to tell me that we have to raise our game, motivate our activists, win new votes and get our message across; but I would like to hear how they’ll make it happen. I don’t just want someone who’ll stay off the front page of the News of the World; I want someone who’ll get us in the comment columns, tabloid and broadsheets, for all the right reasons.
I don’t want to be patronised; but I do want to be inspired. Not left-wing, more West Wing; not right-wing, more Mr Right. I want the vision thing. I want to know why Chris & Nick think Liberal Democrats have the answers to the big challenges of our age: globalisation; climate change; international terrorism; loss of trust in institutions.
Imagine for a moment that you are a floating voter.
– You’re told our economy is strong, but a recession may be around the corner, you’re working longer hours than ever, your pension has evaporated; a home may be a safer asset than a savings account, but you can’t afford to buy or inherit one.
– You sense what should happen in education, health and policing; good teaching in orderly classes, prompt treatment in clean wards, police there when you need them and a neighbourhood where you feel safe; you’re told more is being spent on these services than ever before; but the common sense solutions don’t happen, children and patients aren’t safe and the police still seem powerless to fix local problems.
– You may hear talk about localism, empowerment, choice in public services; but all you experience is more hassle and frustration – and your newspaper doesn’t tell you Lib Dems have the answer.
– You believe that Labour lied on Iraq – so what; you think all politicians lie. Your Labour MP turns out to be a champagne socialist rather than the people’s friend; you expected nothing better. Labour ministers faking photos; Cameron on a bike with his shoes in a limo; bad weather; sporting failures; even Blue Peter fixing phone-ins – is nothing sacred?
– You’ve switched between Conservatives and Labour in the past – you felt Thatcher and Blair stood for something – but things have ended sleazily all the same. You liked Charles Kennedy but he’s gone. Brown’s not interested in giving you a vote on Europe or anything else. No-one needs to tell you there’s a cosy consensus. Never mind voting Lib Dem; why should you vote at all?
Islington has just been ranked the 7th worst place to live on a ragbag of statistics. We do have challenges – on housing, crime, community cohesion and conflicting aspirations. We cannot neglect these issues. Islington’s anything but bland – we’re exciting and interesting and edgy and changing all the time. Islington’s not typical, we’re different. And I want a party vision that’s different too.
We need a message that speaks to the diverse communities in places like Islington and beyond: the ex-Labour voters who rebelled over Iraq; affluent young professionals who don’t care about municipal issues; and estate residents (black and white and Muslim) who are finding the world changing in ways they don’t like. It’s no coincidence that the three most-read papers in Islington are the Guardian, Metro and the Sun.
Liberalism and Liberal Democracy are essentially optimistic philosophies. We believe that progress frees people, rather than oppressing them, and that the rule of law should do the same. We believe in choice and opportunity, not levelling-down. We believe in individuals, full of potential, not groups stuck in neatly-labelled boxes. We believe that change and difference are not only natural but can be good, and that it’s the role of government not to block change or crush diversity but to give a framework in which people can flourish. We believe that we need to act urgently to tackle climate change and defend our freedoms – but we also believe that we can do it. We like people; we believe that people are not the problem but the solution.I want to hear that optimism expressed not in platitudes about sunshine but in a practical vision that plays to a wider audience than the party faithful; that acknowledges the reality of the problems people in places like Islington face, but goes on to challenge the fear and envy and cynicism that are the junk-food of the contemporary political diet.
Yes, I want a lot. Luckily both Chris & Nick have lots to offer. Now it’s over to them…..