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Tough tasks ahead for 'distant' Lib Dems

  • Newsnight
  • 16 Oct 07, 07:19 PM

John Curtice, Professor of Politics at Strathclyde University, assesses the problems facing the Liberal Democrats in the wake of Sir Menzies Campbell's resignation.

Sir Menzies has complained about always being asked about his age. Doubtless this was both irritating and debilitating. But in truth his age in years was not his problem. It was rather that in his manner he seemed from a different age - and as a result distant from the public he was seeking to represent. And in the end it was apparent inability to reach out to the wider public that was his undoing.

When last month MORI asked, as it does every month, how satisfied people were with how Sir Menzies was doing the job of Liberal Democrat leader, 11% more people said they were dissatisfied than satisfied. But that was not the most telling statistic. Rather it was that despite having been in the job for 18 months, as many as 41% could not say whether they were satisfied or dissatisfied.

Until a couple of weeks ago, however, this problem was not terminal for Sir Menzies. While down on the 19% average poll rating he had inherited as leader, his party was still running at 17% at the time of his party's conference last month. Meanwhile the fizz had apparently gone out David Cameron's leadership of the Conservatives.

But the Tory revival following the party's successful conference produced a precipitate fall in Liberal Democrat support to just 12%. At the same time David Cameron's personal popularity was restored. It was now vital that the LIberal Democrats be lead by a popular personality who could make an impact. It is perhaps an indication of Sir Menzies' acute political judgement that he recognised that requirement - and that he was not the person best able to meet it.

Now the Liberal Democrats face two tough tasks. First, can they find a leader who can provide their party with a strategic direction and sell it to the public? The two main contenders, Nick Clegg and Chris Huhne, were both only first elected in 2005. Chris Huhne's leadership bid last time around apart, neither has had little chance to demonstrate that they have this ability.

Second, can the party put losing two leaders in two years behind it? Might the public not conclude that if the Liberal Democrats cannot agree who should be their leader they cannot possibly be trusted to run the country? Whoever wins the leadership will have to address that question convincingly if their victory is not to become a poisoned chalice.

Tuesday, 16 October, 2007

  • Newsnight
  • 16 Oct 07, 05:18 PM

As European leaders prepare for their summit in Portugal later this week pressure is increasing on Gordon Brown as he tries to deflect calls for a referendum on the European Reform Treaty. His ability to maintain this position depends on the so called "red lines" or opt outs Britain has negotiated. But how red and how thick are those lines? The Foreign Secretary is appearing before the ominous sounding EU Scrutiny Select Committee. Which, as the title suggests have been looking in detail at exactly what has been agreed. If David Miliband doesn't succeed in convincing the committee that the opt outs are legally robust, where does this leave the calls for a referendum?

After Menzies Campbell's sudden resignation as leader of the Liberal Democrats last night he's said today he feels "irritated and frustrated" at not being able to lead his party into a General Election. The challenge now for the Liberal Democrats, as leadership contenders take soundings from supporters, is how it can carve out a distinct identity when Gordon Brown and David Cameron are also concentrating on the centre ground. We'll be talking to two key Liberal Democrats from different strands of the party on which direction the Lib Dems need to take to reverse its fortunes. Join the debate on our Big Fat Politics Website.

Cumbria is moving into the digital age as it becomes the first place in the UK to lose the analogue TV signal. We on this programme have a special interest since BBC Two will be first to go in the early hours of Wednesday morning. The remaining analogue channels will be switched off on 14 November. Our Culture correspondent, Steve Smith is in the town of Whitehaven to assess how prepared the people there are.

Shortly before we go on air the winner of the Man Booker Prize for Fiction will be announced with Ian McEwan and Lloyd Jones the front-runners. We'll bring you an interview with the winner.

In the second of our special reports from China we go to Wuhan, a city in central China about the size of London. It is here that director Weijun Chen has conducted an experiment. A grade 3 class at Evergreen Primary School have their first encounter with the democracy when they are asked to hold an election to select a Class Monitor. Eight-year olds compete against each other for the coveted position, abetted and egged on by teachers and doting parents. Tonight's film Please Vote for Me is a portrait of a society and a town through a school, its children and its families.

Join us at 10.30 pm BBC 2

Was Sir Menzies right to go?

  • Newsnight
  • 16 Oct 07, 03:58 PM

menzies203100.jpgFormer leader of the Liberal Democrats Sir Menzies Campbell has told BBC News that he was "irritated and frustrated" at his treatment by parts of the media, claiming some of them were "obsessed" with his age. He stood down, he said, in the interests of the party.

Speaking to Political Editor Nick Robinson he said he regretted not being able to fight a general election as leader.

"I think our policies and our principles and our values would have been right at the very centre of the political agenda. What we call fair, free and green -- fair on taxation; free, dealing with this authoritarian Labour government; and green of course, putting the environment right at the very centre."

He also suggested that some members of his party should not have spoken out publicly in the way they had prior to his resignation.

So was Sir Menzies right to have resigned? Was the media overly obsessed by his age - or had he lost the support of key party members?

Liberal Democrats speak out

  • Newsnight
  • 16 Oct 07, 03:55 PM

Newsnight asked Lib Dems for their views on Ming's departure and the future direction of the party.

Mark Oaten
MP for Winchester & the Meon Valley

And so we find ourselves in another leadership contest. We have been through this process all too recently, but the situation is quite different this time.

Ming is a casualty of the party being unsure of the future during a bad poll squeeze, than of any campaign by knife-wielding MPs. It is typical of Ming that he has chosen to resign on his own terms, rather than being forced into that position.

Blaming the party’s current problems on Ming Campbell’s leadership is unfair and over-simplistic. We are sadly mistaken if we think that all our problems will be solved simply by replacing him with a younger model. The truth is, the Labour and Conservative move to the centre ground has squeezed us out. We must now take this opportunity to force ourselves back onto the agenda.

I think an important aspect of this will be to make it clear what liberalism means in the 21st century. Shaking off its current weak associations and making it a relevant project should be priorities for us.

The party will also need to be prepared to take risks. We should now openly discuss the possibility of a hung parliament and the fact that we could find ourselves as kingmakers at the next election.

It is a real shame that Ming has decided to resign. Now, we have a leadership contest with two clear potential candidates in Chris Huhne and Nick Clegg. Personally, I will be supporting Nick if he runs. I believe he has done an excellent job handling the tricky Home Affairs portfolio and had demonstrated that he has what it takes to take the party forward as leader.

Whoever wins will have a tough time ahead. But they can take comfort from the fact that the third party in British politics is robust and is likely to bounce back.

Danny Alexander
MP for Inverness, Nairn, Badenoch & Strathspey

Sir Menzies is a class act. His departure from the leadership showed, as did his work while in it, his desire to always put the party first. Personally, I have been left with lasting concerns about ageism in the media.

The sad and frankly offensive preoccupation with Ming’s age had distracted attention from what really matters – policy and principle.

What’s necessary for the party now is not a change of direction, but an ability to reach out to new voters. Our tax proposals and policies designed to combat growing inequality certainly have the potential to appeal to hard working families on low incomes who feel let down by the Labour government and could never believe that the Tories would help them.

Reaching out to disadvantaged and disenfranchised people is both a moral responsibility and a huge political opportunity for the Liberal Democrats.

featherstone66.jpgLynne Featherstone
MP for Hornsey & Wood Green

As the dust settles on Ming's exit, the phones have been buzzing. Who's running? Who's riding? Shock receding - I observe the way things are going - and all I would say is that I am crossing my fingers that the herd instinct (well that's one way of describing it) that drove a great number of our MPs last time immediately into the Ming camp doesn't happen again.

Ming went (nobly I thought) because there was no way to put an end to the slings and arrows continually hurled at him despite his best efforts and he did not want the party to suffer damage over the next 20 months or so once Brown (AKA cowardy custard) called off the election.

The political world is harsh and unforgiving - and now those who thought Ming was the answer will look for their next best chance - whatever that is for them. Me - I'm sticking with the guy who had the balls to go for it last time, Chris Huhne. Chris had the big ideas (all the tax switch / polluter pays stuff) which all the leadership contenders adopted as the campaign went on. Chris set the agenda. That agenda is now party policy!

But the LibDem who would be king had better know where he wants to lead our party - and I use the term just on the basis of probability. Just wanting to be leader is not enough. So the next few weeks will be interesting - and an opportunity for our party to showcase our actually very attractive wares.

The two front runners are both hugely talented - and so we are blessed whichever one wins the race.

As to all those who have contacted me to run - I thank you - but
a) I am not insane and b) any running will be in the other direction.

horwood66.jpgMartin Horwood
MP for Cheltenham

I think Ming’s resignation has taken everyone by surprise. We owe Ming a great deal. He took on an incredibly difficult job following Charles’s resignation and his contribution has changed the party for the good.

Knowing Ming I am confident that it was his own decision, but it was one that was undeniably influenced a great deal by pressure from the polls and the media. It is a sad reflection of our society that such a distinguished political figure was put in this position almost entirely as a result of his age.

So I regret his decision but understand his reasons.

But we need to now look to the future. We need to build on our strengths and make sure that we continue our track record of developing radical and progressive policies. We must keep ahead of the other parties on core issues like the environment and social justice.

One of the most positive things that came out of the last leadership contest was that it generated a whole host of radical ideas from the Green Tax Switch to setting a clear timetable for the withdrawal of our troops from Iraq. These have now been adopted as party policy and have helped mark out our position as the most forward thinking of the major parties.

But a lesson perhaps from Ming’s leadership is that we need to make sure that whoever takes on the job knows the media well enough to survive and thrive in a 24-hour news environment. Then I hope the media will look past the individual to the policies we need to transform British society.

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