...a blog by Richard Flowers

Wednesday, December 05, 2007

Day 2528: Lessons in Leadership: Millennium Elephant talks to Dr Vince Cable MP


Sharp, witty, incisive, charming and sometimes startlingly frank but (thankfully!) not "the greatest leader we never had" (©all newspapers): my friends and I followed up our interviews with Mr Clogg and Mr Huhney-Monster by talking to the man who has the job – and the headlines – that they want: Dr Vince "Power" Cable.

He's clearly having the time of his life: a few weeks in the big spotlight but with no pressure to get elected.

His answers were direct and to the point, shorter than either of the leadership rivals but without the burning passion they both possess.

Economics Guru
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Mr Vince's time at the top could have been OVERSHADOWED by the Leadership Contest, but in fact, as he admitted himself, it has been thoroughly UNDER-shadowed. With the exception of the Sunday Spat, it has been such a polite and well-mannered contest, between two candidates whose opinions on policy barely differ, that editors have played UP his role instead. A boring contest, Mr Jonny asked? Well, handy for me, sparkled Mr Vince.

Although we – and he – steered away from talking directly about his successor, whoever that turns out to be, Mr Vince did have several HINTS for him or her. Well him or him, actually.

The FIRST lesson is that we need to be a bit more AUDACIOUS a bit more BOISTEROUS in order to get heard. Mr Jonny asked about the "Stalin to Mr Bean" quip that has caught the National mood – sometimes we are too POLITE, said Mr Vince, and sometimes we need to cut through to the language of ordinary people. He said that the thing that has touched him the most is going down the pub and hearing people using the Mr Bean line in ordinary conversation.

But wasn't it just the same as the "Punch and Judy" politics of image that did for Sir Mr the Merciless? No, said Mr Vince, because it goes to the issue of PERFORMANCE, and – particularly when Mr Frown has tried to claim the mantel of Mr Competent – it IS fair comment.

It is, said Mr Vince, just plain wrong to criticise someone JUST because they are old… or black... or female or a gay daddy or anything else.

Citizen Alix of that froody land the Republic of Mortimer asks, incidentally, why "Mr Bean" is a worse insult than "Stalin".

I think that it is not WORSE, but it IS more politically DAMAGING.

Mr Stalin was EVIL but he was also STRONG, and that is GOOD for Mr Frown because some people LIKE that in a leader MORE than the more noble qualities like FLUFFINESS and FLAPPY EARS. But Mr Bean is a BUFFOON – and that is NOT good for Mr Frown's position because who wants a buffoon as Prime Monster? (Apart from the over ambitions Mr Buff Hoon, of course.)

I am going to go back to Mr Ian Hislop's old analysis of Queen Maggie: the satirists never managed to score a hit on her by describing her as a DESPOTIC MONSTER because secretly quite a lot of people actually LIKED the idea of her as a cast iron tyrant; it was only when they started to portray her as POTTY that her metaphorical wheels started to come off.

Speaking of POTTY, Mr Paul asked about Mr Frown, if he was, as Mr Alistair Henchman once described him, psychologically flawed, or just plain unlucky. "INTELLECTUALLY flawed", was Mr Vince's answer – after firmly setting the record straight that he and Mr Frown were not "old friends". For one thing, they'd been on different sides of SCOTLAND: Mr Vince having at one time been a councillor for the Labour in Glasgow, when Mr Frown was a particularly PRECOCIOUS Rector of Edinburgh University.

But Mr Frown's FLAW arises from a deep and unshakable belief in the power of government to DO things. Desperately BAD ideas like Tax Credits arise from the ENLIGHTENED idea to try and do some GOOD, give help to the most needy through a scheme of NEGATIVE taxation. Except, Mr Frown was DAFT to believe that the civil service or the taxmen were ever going to be able to pull something like this off: it's simply not in the CULTURE of a bureaucracy to have the delicacy of touch required in cases that vary from individual to individual.

Though of course, in a sense Mr Frown was always DOOMED, since he arrived at the FAG END of the Labour's decade in office with the air THICK with CHICKENS returning home for BEDTIME.

Mr Jonathan asked if there was a secret to success at Prime Monster's Questionable Time. No secret, said Mr Power Cable, in part it's down the right areas coming up, but in part it is down to practice – asking questions in the House for many years, though unreported, has given Mr Vince the experience and confidence to know how to do it. That's a little modest, of course, since even MIGHTY Sir Mr the Merciless famously faltered at his first Questionable Time, and left an unfortunate impression that lingered in the minds of press and public.

That was Mr Power Cable's SECOND lesson: the new Leader has to get off to a good start.

But the THIRD and perhaps CRUCIAL lesson came from Daddy Alex's QUESTION: tell us, in a sentence, what makes the Liberal Democrats different. Mr Vince's answer told us why he is a GOOD leader but not a GREAT one: he referred us to the range of Liberal Democrat policies, where we have clear differences from the Conservatories and the Labour.

I remember that Mr Clogg – who has talked about the need for a NARRATIVE – said that if it was policies that win elections, we'd have been in power since 1945. And Mr Huhney-Monster did have a direct answer for this question: yes, it might have been the first thing he said in the contest – "A greener, fairer Britain with people in charge" – but then the narrative really SHOULD be the first thing that to be said!

Every one of our MPS should have, indeed NEEDS to have an answer to this question. But the Party Leader needs to BE the answer to this question.

Other interviewers talked POLICY, and obviously several had a TREASURY bias: Mr James asked about INHERITANCE TAX – shouldn’t we be more different form the Conservatory Consensus? Ms Alix asked about Heathrow Airport and how to avoid a Government stitch up. Ms Linda asked about debt and what more should be done to get people out of the trap. Mr Jonny asked about our policy of accepting, broadly, the general level of taxation whatever it happens to be and wondered if we shouldn't be more BOLD in declaring what WE think it should be. And Mr James (again) asked about multi-culturalism, on which Mr Vince ahs written a pamphlet – he is a great pamphleteer, you should know.

On IHT: Mr Vince explained that our policy is REDISTRIBUTIVE – paying for a rise in the threshold by catching more gifts in the "potentially exempt transfer" or PET net. Essentially our plan is to make it work BETTER to get the rich people paying more and the average suburban home out of Inheritance Tax altogether. It's a shame that this comes across as a rather dry and dusty difference, when we could be piping it up MORE.

On Heathrow: the battle is by no means lost, said Mr Vince. The Government USED to be able to play the "it's the national interest and they are only N.I.M.B.Y.s" card. But now the environmental case is stronger and the environmental movement more organised. It is true that the Government has a RECORD on pushing these sort of plans through – Mr Vince referred in passing to their plans for STEALTH nuclear reactors. But they also need to change the planning laws, and that means getting the change through the rebels in the Commons and their lordships in the House of Lords Club. There's a chance, a reasonable chance, of it being blocked.

On debt: he welcomed the Government coming to financial education, although admittedly about ten years too late. Meanwhile, Mr Vince insists on the need to pool data on debt, including the data on STUDENT DEBTS, which the Government is STRANGELY COY about revealing. With 85% of all debt being MORTGAGE debt, naturally it is vital to address the issue of the RUNAWAY housing market. But mainly, Mr Vince felt that the banks should be run as UTILITIES – like the water company – and not like CASINOS. They need to be regulated like utilities and offer a return like utilities. After all, the bank is just there to pipe the money to your hole in the wall machine.

On the level of taxation: Mr Vince was STARTLINGLY frank: if we asked the party about which way to move the level of tax, a lot would say HIGHER and another lot would say LOWER. When we had a policy for what he called a "tiny, tiny tax rise" we managed to label ourselves a "high tax party". More importantly, talking about the overall LEVEL of tax interferes with our message of reforming the SYSTEM of tax to make it FAIRER. This I think is a GOOD point, but like the Inheritance Tax one, needs to be communicated better.

This sparked further questions! Ms Alix followed up by commenting on the media COLLUSION with the Conservatories in portraying their TINKERING with Inheritance Tax and Capital Gains tax as in any way IMPORTANT. As opposed to the taxes that have a REAL impact on most people, basic rate Income Tax and, of course, the COUNCIL TAX.

We need to keep repeating our message on local taxation, was Mr Vince's prescription. WE need to convince people that our plan is (a) practical and (b) stands a chance of being implemented.

Mr Paul jumped in saying that we lost Newbury and Guildford to the Conservatories when they took our local income tax numbers and used them to frighten people.

It was always going to be difficult to defend seats that we took from the Conservatories at their lowest ebb, admitted Mr Vince, and perhaps Mr Charles' defence of the tax rate didn't ENTIRELY help on that front. But the plans are better now. In any change to make tax fairer, there WILL be some losers as well as winners but the rate at which people will pay more is much higher, above incomes of seventy thousands of pounds.

On multi-culturalism: Mr Vince challenged Mr James' assertion that we need to CALM THINGS DOWN! In a proper democracy, he said, you should EXPECT some pretty vigorous opinions. And so there was no mistake, he stressed that it WILL get nasty sometimes – the more free and open a society is, then you will see some people saying some pretty EXTREME things. We should AIM for a society where people are free to say things that offend.

And that is why, said Mr Vince, Dr Evan was QUITE RIGHT to go to Oxford to TAKE ON the odious Irving and Griffen, rather than to shout them down.

More BROADLY, he rejected the idea that we should reduce SOCIAL problems to false CULTURAL stereotypes. There are Indian, Pakistani, Chinese and other immigrant communities that have done very well; equally there are some white working class areas with deeply entrenched problems. The right answer is to target help where it is needed based ON need, not on colour or creed.

Mr James also invited Mr Vince to diss his Conservatory opposite number, young Master Gideon Oboe. Mr Vince did not rise to the bait. He's politically smart, he said, like his chum Mr Balloon, Gideon is a "sharp cookie". Of course neither of them have had a proper job, and Gideon doesn't seem to have a proper understanding of economics. Mr Vince's impression is that they're not taken that seriously.

And he's been totally OPPORTUNISTIC opposing the abolition of CGT taper relief (the so-called 80% tax rise) – the Conservatories having OPPOSED the creation of the relief too. At the moment, though, the media think that the Conservatories can do no wrong: it's DIFFICULT not to look good with that kind of "wind in your sails". Not a heavyweight, then, but do not UNDERESTIMATE Mr Oboe's political skills.

Both of my daddies asked about Mr Vince's JOB PROSPECTS. Daddy Alex asked about the Deputy Leadership, shouldn't it have a democratic mandate like the leader (especially since BOTH the two most recent Deputies have taken over); shouldn't it have a broader portfolio to get another Lib Dem voice in the media? And daddy wondered which of his two jobs Mr Vince would give up. Daddy Richard wondered what OTHER job Mr Vince might like to do if NOT the Treasury.

The IMPLICIT idea BEHIND these questions was this: we are only going to have ONE party leader at the end of the month – wouldn't it be a VERY good idea for the OTHER candidate to have a VERY top job. And, basically, Mr Vince is sitting on TWO of them.

Interestingly, Mr Vince's answers were much the same, and clearly he doesn't want to give up the Treasury. Telling Daddy Richard that he has a broad range of experience and would be happy to serve, he avoided picking any particular area that might have suited his fancy, and instead pointed out that he has built up a – thoroughly DESERVED – reputation as treasury spokesperson and it would be a shame and a waste to throw that away. Equally, though, he made clear to Daddy Alex that being Deputy Leader of the Liberal Democrats isn't worth a bucket of spit, when we have to work hard enough as it is to get the LEADER some media time, and anyway, the Party President and Party Chairperson both have the sort of wide-ranging job that daddy described – the Deputy Leader NEEDS a high profile "day job" to be able to lever some attention.

He's right and he's wrong, really. The title "Deputy" may not be worth much on its own, but it does depend on how you use it too. Given the title, someone with ELBOWS could still use it as a way to batter down the odd media door.

And the democratic issues might be worth looking at more too. The idea at the moment is that the Deputy Leader is "just an insurance policy" in case the Leader falls under a bus. (With or without a PEARL-HANDLED REVOLVER sticking out of his back.) So this makes it "okay" that he or she is chosen by the Parliamentary Party as the best person to fill in.

In saying that the Party membership ALREADY had a direct say in electing the Leader AND the President, I think that Mr Vince came DANGEROUSLY CLOSE to saying "don't you have ENOUGH democracy?" Hello: Liberal DEMOCRATS here!

Personally, I think that there is a more PRACTICAL reason for not holding a Deputy Leader ballot party-wide and it's this: either you do it SEPARATELY from the Leadership election, and double the costs, OR you do it at the same time and lose some of the media impact that the Party might generate through CONFUSION.

Does that kind of REALPOLITIC outweigh the obvious goodness of just LETTING our member have a say? Don't ask me; I am just a fluffy elephant!

Mr Vince answered questions a lot faster than either Mr Huhney-Monster or Mr Clogg so, in spite of there being eight of us this time instead of six, and in spite of Mr Vince having to dash off to VOTE a couple of times, we still managed to get a LOT MORE questions in. We even entered a sort of QUICK FIRE round towards the end where everyone was getting more into the swing of things, particularly around the tax issue.

We finished with a more LIGHT-HEARTED question from Ms Linda: should he get his WISH and appear on "Strictly Come Dancing", who would be his partner? You will probably find it CHARMING, but it is also quite interesting that it was for LOYALTY and LOVELINESS that he picked his Treasury CO-STAR, Ms Julia "Worth Her Weight In" Goldsworthy.

Loyal and Lovely are two good words to sum up Mr Vince too.

Follow my leader!
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Afterwards, Mr Vince said that he would be happy to talk to us again! Hmmm... this has given me an IDEA…


Anonymous said...

"When we had a policy for what he called a "tiny, tiny tax rise" we managed to label ourselves a "high tax party" "

Hmmmm, is that really so? It seems to me that when we had a policy of raising Income Tax by a penny, we had a reputation of being an 'honest' party. One that was prepared to tell it like it is, and make it clear that we wanted better public services, but recognised that they needed to be paid for.

Where we got into trouble, and labled as a 'high tax party' was, in my view, when we had an essentially tax neutral policy..... "We'll cut your Council Tax, but you'll have to pay a LIT..... most of you will be better off, honest...."

Nobody believed us. (At least not around my neck of the woods) They all thought it was just a stealth tax, and that however much they hated the Council Tax, they'd still wind up worse off under LIT.

So now we seem to be suggesting cutting income tax, and moving to 'green taxes'.......

I'm no economic genius, one glance at my Credit Card bill will tell you that, but I just don't think people will treat us a credible offering tax cuts. It may seem satisfyingly liberal to the classicists, but I think it'll just come across as cynically opportunist to voters. And even if they accept it, they'll say we aren't going to have to implement it anyway.

Counter-intuitive it may be, but I think we did better telling people what they didn't want to hear. That they couldn't get something for nothing, and that we were the only party prepared to tell them the truth.....

[/nostalgia mode]

Alix said...

Barcharter, I wonder if this is where being a new member is putting me at a slight advantage?

I was aware of the penny for public services policy of a few years back, and was vaguely masochistically in favour of it, just as you describe. So are many of my non-member friends (who still perceive us as having that policy). There is, of course, always going to be a very finite number of good and masochistic people.

But the point is, none of that really matters. Tax shouldn't be about perception - that's what the other parties do. It should be about sharing the burden fairly. And if you can find a way of cutting the basic rate, the thing that affects the most people, you are absolutely bound by liberal principles to do so.

As to whether people find it "realistic" or not. Well, either a plan is costed and works, or it isn't, and won't, and ours is as far as I can see. The green taxes have been slightly overplayed; most of the balance is to come from changes to CGT and, critically, reducing tax relief on pension payments by higher rate earners.

What I mean about being at an advantage as a new member is that I look at those ideas and think, yes that makes total sense, it is liberal and fair and it would work. There are bits I'm not happy with. But generally, I think we undersell what an excellent package it is if we start worryign about whether people are goign to perceive it as opportunistic or not. The message should be quite simple: it just isn't, it's very, very good.

MatGB said...

My take on elected Deputy? Make sure it's an elected position, but elected by the Parliamentarians only—we have the President to represent the members, the Leader represents all, but the MPs don't really have anyone of their own, except maybe the Cheif Whip.

But it'd be great if Vince stays on in the role, he's earned it and would keep media attention, just as Chris and Nick will regardless of who wins.