Saturday, July 30, 2005
I wanna be the leader
I have been reflecting further on Simon Hughes's absurd attack on his party's conference (also dealt with in Jonathan Calder's House Points column this week).
Hughes is not the first Liberal Democrat MP to resort to such slander on his own members. Party leader Charles Kennedy launched a more comprehensive attack immediately after the general election, and the echoes can still be heard of David Alton's infamous lies about "people coming in off the street to vote" at the Eastbourne Liberal Assembly in 1986.
What is the real motive for such attacks? I think they derive from a warped notion of leadership qualities. This might be described as the Neil Kinnock theory of political management.
Kinnock demonstrated his grip on the Labour Party by taking on and defeating the Trotskyist Militant Tendency, most notably in his 1985 conference speech.
There's just one snag. The Liberal Democrats don't have a Militant Tendency, nor anything remotely resembling it.
Another Liberal Democrat MP with ill-disguised leadership ambitions, Mark Oaten, anticipated this lack in an interview back in 2001:
According to Oaten, the Lib Dems lack the symbolic dragons that Labour leaders have in the past found useful to slay...Still, why let the facts get in the way of a good tactic? Ambitious men feel a need to demonstrate their virility. More specifically, they need a 'defining other' whom they can take on and beat. In the absence of any real dragons, they will construct men of straw.
"We haven't got a Clause Four, Militants or rot at the core of the party," he says.
"Oddly enough, if we did it might be helpful because we could then make a big demonstration of tackling them and the public could then engage in what [the review] was about."
We should beware of treating this as nothing more than a harmless display of willy-waving. Paranoid fantasies about an 'enemy within' invariably poison the well. Worse, there is a serious danger that such fantasies can get out of control and lead to witch-hunts, purges and a general stamping out of dissent.
No-one in the Liberal Democrats apart from Simon Hughes or Mark Oaten wants a leadership election at the moment, for two reasons: (1) Simon Hughes and (2) Mark Oaten. When a leadership election eventually happens, it needs to take place on a more intelligent basis than a virility test judged on the criterion of who is the most 'tough'.
Watching these idiots play games at the expense of their party brings to mind this poem by Roger McGough:
I wanna be the leaderWhat they will do, apparently, in the absence of any intelligent ideas, is resort to waging war on their own party's members.
I wanna be the leader
Can I be the leader?
Can I? I can?
Yippee I'm the leader
I'm the leader
OK what shall we do?
I forget the precise circumstances of Mark Oaten's comments, but the effect is precisely to say that we don't have a problem with our activists. He makes the rather anodyne point that Neil Kinnock's breach with militant sent a very powerful message about Labour's direction in the 80s, but such an option was not open to us.
I agree that Kennedy and Hughes are out of order, but think you ought to recognise that there is still a problem. This may not be gangs of crazed activists at conference, but policy-making by enthusiast – those who can be bothered to sit on working parties or attend conference debates.
Half empty conference chambers rubber stamp motions and policy papers based on a few people's hobby horses while the rest of us are at the bar or the liberator stall.
The problem is policy-making by experts, based on the technocratic assumptions underlying the selection of policy working group members. These members are recommended by Cowley Street's policy department and appointed by the Federal Policy Committee - they are not simply "those who can be bothered".
The problem with the resulting policy papers is not "a few people's hobby horses". It is that these papers consist of dessicated and technocratic recommendations that lack a moral core, a unifying philosophy or any passion.
Policy papers are first approved by the FPC (chair: Charles Kennedy) before the conference even gets a look in.
Politics is fundamentally about making moral choices, not expert opinion. We need a system of policy-making grounded in that understanding and fortunately the signs are that the party's 'Meeting the Challenge' policy review has recognised this.