...a blog by Richard Flowers

Wednesday, November 07, 2007

Day 2501: The Leadership Interview… Chris Huhne meets Millennium (and some other people)


Both candidates for the Leadership of the Liberal Democrats have kindly agreed to an interview with a panel of Liberal Democrat diarists*.

Today, first up was Shadow Secretary of State for the Environment and MP for Eastleigh, Mr Chris Huhney-Monster and naturally, as a TOP Liberal Democrat, I was there!

Top Liberal Democrat... and friends
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The first thing that strikes about Mr Huhney-Monster is his enthusiasm and energy and keenness to get his message across.

He is a MAN with a PLAN, big ambitions for the Liberal Democrats and a strategy to stop the other parties IGNORING us. He wants the Liberal Democrats, over the next two general elections, to get to a position where NEITHER party can form a government without us. That means working to a plan, like a business plan, where you start by defining where you want to be, and work out what are the target seats you need to support, who are the candidates you need to develop, what is the training you need to give them, how much is the money that you need to spend.

He certainly has the ELBOWS to be Party Leader, and he recognises that we need to USE them – we have to be more aggressive in going out there to sell our story.

As I suggested to him, the party sometimes has a habit of waiting for the publicity to come to us – that certainly does not seem to be the case with Mr Huhney-Monster; he is hungry for every opportunity to put across his ideas. (He's been on Any Questionables, GM TV and PoliticalBetting and that's just over the last weekend! Oh and there he was on the Newsnight Show tonight doing the response to Mrs the Queen's speech.)

If we are to win in the "air war" then his time in journalism has taught him that we have got to beat the "So what?" factor.

The propaganda of politics is about repetition, repetition, repetition. We need to have our KEY POLICIES – and it is obvious that he is passionate that the environment should be one of them – and press them hard.

Mr Jonny cut to the heart of the issue, asking: "In one line: why should I vote Liberal Democrat?"

And to be FAIR, Mr Huhney-Monster HAD an answer:

"Because we want a country that is freer, greener, fairer and where people are in charge."

Yes, it's on his manifesto, but isn't that the POINT?

He speaks eloquently and intelligently: perhaps too intelligently was the suggestion that Mr Paul Burblings put to him. "Sometimes you're said to speak a little sotto voce. In fact, you're the sort of person who uses words like 'sotto voce', words like 'Gaderene', or 'amanuensis'…" (THAT'S how you spell it, Mr James!) "…don't we need a person who is able to communicate with the people in ordinary language?"

But look at the evidence, was his reply. We now have a clear polling lead on the policy of the environment – six points ahead of the Labour or the Conservatories, in spite of all the Hug-a-Huskie stunts and government targets. This is IMPORTANT because sooner or later, and probably sooner, the environment is going to register with the public, as it has in Canada and Australia, and it will go rocketing up the tables of "important issues". And that lead has grown in the time that Mr Huhney-Monster has held the environment brief. That's got to be a measure of success in communication.

But this question of communication, of image, of STORY is obviously central.

Mr James returned to it later, putting it like this: "I can see the way that journalists will write the story: 'oh, those perfidious Lib Dems: they had the chance to elect the MESSIAH and instead they picked this greying accountant' – how do we escape from that story?"

There is, Mr Chris told us, usually a self-balancing mechanism within the press. Even if one story is being pushed there is usually someone who will look at it, think about it and say "but that's rubbish".

Ms Jackie Ashley in the Grauniad on Monday is a case in point, (SHE was saying our first choice shouldn't always be the pretty boys).

Do we want someone who is just young and telegenic, or would we rather have someone actually capable of running a country?

Remember, SUPERFICIALLY Lord Blairimort had ALL of the characteristics of the PERFECT politician: charm, wit, poise, peerages to sell, er. But Mr Chris pointed out that he could talk a good talk but didn’t walk the walk.

(So crooked he couldn't walk in a straight line, if you ask me, but that is another story!)

Mr Chris said no such thing, of course. He just pointed us to Lord Blairimort's speech to the United Nations where he called Climate Change the greatest challenge of our time. And then he flew home to a collection of ministries that were totally all over the place on the issues of practical delivery: abolishing the fuel escalator, expanding road building, and railroading though new nuclear power. All while Lord Blairimort was supposed to be overseeing them from the Cabinet.

So much for telegenic!

My Daddy Alex followed up Mr James point with another question of "narrative": "You say in your manifesto we need to revive our anti-establishment edge. You're the rich guy, the journalist, the politician, and the man from Brussels. If our leader needs to be anti-establishment, how is that you?"

Being a radical is a STATE OF MIND, said Mr Chris. Are you, he asked, on the outside of the establishment, rocking the boat, challenging the statue quo and championing the underdog? That's what the Liberal Democrats need to be doing, and that is where he wants to lead us.

Daddy Alex asked about the question of LEADERSHIP: Sir Mr the Merciless, said Daddy, sharpened up our policy, improved party organisation and by all accounts was better at marshalling the MPs. None of that did him any good – so what IS a leader FOR?

The most important attribute for a leader, replied Mr Chris – and he reminded us that he has lead teams of journalists and economists (the latter are easier to lead; the former are like herding cats) – the MOST important attribute is the ability to know his own strengths and weaknesses and build a TEAM around him that will best compliment those.

But add to that, this: the leader, he said, must be the one to represent the party to people at the highest level. And he has to be someone that the people would TRUST to hold the highest office, someone who looks like a Prime Monster, said Mr Huhney-Monster.

Where, asked Mr James Graham, on the cat herding scale are MPs between journalists and economists?

"I don't know," admitted Mr Chris, "I'll tell you when I've done the job."

But it wasn't all MEDIA PUFF!

Ms Mary (HELLO to ETHELRED!) brought an INVALUABLE alternative perspective, concentrating on the importance of LOCAL GOVERNMENT, a too often over-looked part of our national debate.

Looking to local government, the Labour have picked up much of our language of empowerment so – she asked – how do we craft a unique Liberal Democrat message and get or councils to do things in a uniquely Liberal Democrat way?

Mr Chris answered in two parts.

First, he said, we UNDERSTAND localism in a way that the Labour NEVER will. They talk about devolving power, but what they ACTUALLY mean is devolving managerial responsibility. The DECISIONS are still all taken by Mr Frown from a desk in Whitehall.

Taking away the powers of local councillors is knocking out the fist rung of the democratic ladder. We know that councillors need to be a POWERFUL first port of call for people seeking help from their representatives.

But, secondly, we ourselves need reminding of the principles of local action. We teach ourselves to go out and deliver Focus and we will get elected. But the POINT ought to be to EMPOWER local people, harnessing our skills to THEIR needs. We must remind ourselves that Liberalism is a PHILOSOPHY and use it.

We do need to give real power back to people, he said, recommending the model devised by the public services commission (chair: Mr C. Huhney-Monster). And he told us how SUSPICIOUS he was of ANY centrally imposed solutions – including "market" solutions. We should have the COURAGE to trust people and let them make their own solutions – and, yes, their own mistakes – and come up with different and local answers, not some scheme from the centre.

Ms Mary's other question was that it seems that a lot of the "star treatment" goes to the MPs – how should we increase recognition for leading councillors within the party?

The first thing to say was that properly devolving power to local councils would automatically raise their profiles.

But you are right, said Mr Chris, we SHOULD celebrate our councillors, and he spoke with pride of the councillors who have leant him their support in the Leadership campaign. Councillors, he recognised, are ESSENTIAL to our ongoing success – there isn't anywhere where we have won PARLIAMENTARY seats without first taking COUNCIL seats.

Turning to questions of POLICY, Daddy Alex had the TOPICAL question. "Today was Mrs the Queen's Speech: your manifesto talks about the House of Lords Club being out of date and bad, and how we need a more fair society – would you get rid of the monarchy?"

Mr Chris's answer was: no. But it was an interesting no, because he said that, as a radical, you have to choose cleverly the fights that you get into: pick the ones that are IMPORTANT. By implication, the Monarchy is not a brilliant idea, but it sort of works and we don't have a President… actually we DO have a President, but at least there are still a few things to stop him getting too much of a NAPOLEON COMPLEX!

Clearly, radicalism tinged with PRAGMATISM was to be our watchword.

Similarly, Mr Huhney-Monster's answers were CAREFUL when Mr Jonny raised the issue of drugs: "Your manifesto says we should have the courage of our convictions on drugs policy – what would a Chris Huhne Liberal Democrat drugs policy actually look like?"

He was clear that he wanted to DE-POLITICISE the question of categorisation – insisting it should be based in the SCIENCE and not the opinion columns of the newspapers. And the treatment of addicts should be MEDICINAL. That is, I think, that doctors should be able to prescribe the drugs that people need – as a part of a programme to get them UN-addicted! – rather than having them turn to CRIME to feed their habit.

But he also made clear that he was NOT in favour of a Libertarian legalisation and licensing approach. Citing the "harm" principle of Mr John Stuart Mill and Harriet Taylor, he said that drugs DO do harm to other people, the families and communities of the people who become addicted.

Mr Jonny came back at him straight away: "Isn't that also an argument for banning alcohol?"

Mr Chris reminded us of our Liberal Party forebears' roots in the Temperance Movement – and we should remember that the harm caused by alcohol in the Nineteenth Century, all "gin palaces" and Mother's Ruin, was if anything as bad as the current problems with drugs. But alcohol is different because it is already socially acceptable.

I am not sure that I completely agree. I think that if people are up to making up their own minds about the dangers of alcohol, they are probably able to make up their own minds about the dangers of cannabis or ecstasy.

On the other fluffy foot, Mr Chris RESPECTED that position and I can respect HIS.

Following up on his reminder that "it's the economy, stupid", I wanted to know if it wasn't time to start talking about talking less tax.

It would be COUNTER-PRODUCTIVE was Mr Huhney-Monster's answer, and he explained why. For forty years, the Labour Conservatory battle has been one of "more tax and spend" "less tax and spend" and yet CURIOUSLY the amount taken in tax and spent by the government has remained pretty consistently about 40% of Gross Domestos Product, more or less. A little bit here or their either way that makes not a very big difference, really. The REAL question ought to be about ACCOUNTABILITY.

Millions and billions of pounds are spent with little or no way for the public to have any say in the matter. Take the NHS, said Mr Chris: the front-line elected official in the NHS is the SECRETARY OF STATE; that's got to be ridiculous – how can the Secretary of State know what are the problems in a hospital in Eastleigh or Sheffield or Tower Hamlets?

Mr Paul went to the question of Europe. When the Reform treaty comes to Parliament we will, he presumed, attach an amendment for a treaty on Europe in or out, which will then be defeated. The Tories will then attach an amendment for a referendum on the treaty. Would we then vote with them?

No, said Mr Huhney-Monster. Because the Reform Treaty actually includes within it, for the first time ever, a clause that would allow the SECESSION of a State from the Union. Once that is on the statute book, we can USE that to make sure that we get the referendum on the REAL ISSUE, the referendum that would SUMMARISE all of the referendums that we SHOULD HAVE HAD since the Seventies, the referendums that the Conservatories never gave us into the Single European Act or the Maastricht Treaty or all the others.

(Incidentally, my daddies and I had a THOUGHT about this on the way home and realised that it might actually depend on the ORDER that the amendments are taken. If the CONSERVATORIES' is taken FIRST, then we can vote against with heads held high, knowing our BETTER amendment is still to come; then Mr Balloon faces the VERY TRICKY choice of either voting WITH US, or denying his own Europhobes the very referendum that they REALLY want, or worst option, abstaining, chickening out of giving them that referendum, letting the Government off the hook and being known forever after as Bottler Balloon!)

The Conservatories, as Mr Chris says, are the ones with the REAL problem on Europe, and Mr Balloon must be very afraid of an ACTUAL referendum turning up and exposing his party as SPLIT from top to bottom.

We Liberal Democrats are NOT split, and we all agree with Mr Chris when he said that he would campaign strongly for us to stay IN the Union.

Daddy Alex jumped in with another follow up, referring to Mr Huhney-Monster's "people's veto" proposal. "If one and a half million people signed a petition for a referendum would you agree to support a referendum on the treaty?"

If the people's veto had been on the statute books, then yes he said that it could certainly be used to trigger a referendum. And it was his hope that this would lead to better considered legislation and so more stability, and less of the sort of nonsense where the Home Office adds another crime to the statute every ten seconds.

But, pressed Daddy Alex, what about THIS treaty, if there were a large swell of public support, wouldn’t you be MORALLY obliged to support calls for a referendum. Mr Chris admitted that he would not. (Mr Paxo has NOTHING on my Daddy's HARD STARE!)

As is TRADITIONAL from Questionable Time, we finished with a COMEDY last question – this can be trickier than you think, as it requires the ability to think on your feet and deal with the unexpected and off the wall with humour as well as political nowse.

I asked: do you think that it is time to replace the BIRD of Freedom with the ELEPHANT of Freedom.

Mr Chris was politely positive about me, but reminded me of the EVIL Elephants of America who have sided with the Replutocratic Party. Everyone laughed, but I was PROPERLY ASHAMED!

Mr Huhney-Monster impressed us all, and we were all – I think I can say – a lot more enthusiastic about the Leadership contest after our interview with him. I was particularly happy that the interview avoided unnecessary comparison and focused very much on Mr Chris and HIS qualities, of which there are many. He has, at the very least, once again set the bar VERY HIGH for the other candidate, and Mr Clogg will have a lot of work to do to impress us as much when we meet him later this month.

*This may all seem a bit ELITIST, but do not forget the ONLINE HUSTINGS which will give EVERY Member the chance to put questions to the candidates.

The invited diarists were the five people short-listed in the Liberal Democrat Blogger of the Year together with Mr Jonny, Winner of the Best New Blog award and double winner Ms Mary Reid whose diary was both Best Blog by an Elected Liberal Democrat and Best Designed Blog. (Though Most Humorous Blog, Don Liberali, was – MYSTERIOUSLY – not to be found!) So we were (at least a bit) selected by our peers as top bloggers!

We hope that this format will bring a contrasting and complimentary approach to examining the candidates, and wish them BOTH the very best of luck.

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