Friday, May 11, 2007

Substance is our strength - so no flighty gimmicks please 

Many comments on the leadership’s ‘Immediate General Election’ call by various LibDems, the most detailed being this on Hoodie. On the whole I agree with the criticisms of this approach.

We have our weaknesses and our strengths. The post-Blair political world offers unusual opportunities for us to play to our strengths.

One of these strengths is the weight and substance of our Parliamentary team. Our Foreign Policy team, starting with Ming himself, outshines the Tories and catches labour in a confused state. The Home Office Team led by Nick Clegg is the most effective we have had in decades. (If only this team, or one like it, had been in place at the last General Election…). The Environment Team led by Chris Huhne is unmatched in any other Party. And our Economics Team led by Vince Cable is the most substantial any Party has put forwards since 1997, possibly longer.

With a new PM due in June, lets assume it is Brown. I think Brown will want to fight the Tories on Substance. He will want to position himself to contrast real arguments with spin (not incidentally starting to heal the internal Labour hurts of the Blair Spin Years). He will have new people in lead team roles who can play for the future instead of marking time. He will want to provoke real arguments between these new team heads and their opposite numbers. This will end the reality-free politics opportunity Cameron and his backstage choir has had over the last year, flush him out into the open and tie the spin and smoke label to his heels.

In taking this stance to maximise damage to the Tories Brown will offer us an opportunity to engage at the most public political face. There will be a hard heavyweight slog between us and Labour (which it may even be in Brown’s interest to highlight as a contrast to the Tories antics, though he will hope that any advantage to us is temporary and ultimately comes to Labour) – and lots of opportunities to carry out guerrilla raids on the Tories.

What we need to avoid is falling into gimmicks and spin ourselves, just to get a headline in a particular news-round. So it is not encouraging to see the tactic of a motion for an immediate general election floated. It has an added danger which should be obvious to any experienced barrister, summed up by the tag ‘never ask a witness a question unless you know what the answer is going to be’.

We do not know what Brown wants as the Next Step. If he actually wants to provoke an early General Election we have offered him a great way to engineer this when he comes to office. Unlikely maybe, but an unnecessary vulnerability. I think we shoudl have looked to another way to stress our readiness to face any future, including a snap general election.

I did not vote for Ming but I always recognised his great strengths and I am glad that the public appear to recognise his bedrock trustworthiness. I thought and I still think that Ming has weaknesses in the (highly necessary) Performing Seal aspects of party leadership, but that he would be formidable in certain circumstances. These circumstances are about to become the live politics of the UK for the next 18 months or so.

I trust and hope that we can build on that strength and that Ming is not talked into ill thought-out stunts by clever backstage tacticians who have perhaps in the fog of the Blair Trivia Years forgotten (or never in their bones knew) what politics of substance actually means.

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