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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.

Comments  Post your comment

  • 1.
  • At 11:56 PM on 16 Oct 2007,
  • Denis Thair wrote:

I suspect that the Media will attack whoever the new leader of the Liberal Democrats turns out to be. There was a concerted effort by the right wing press to undermine Ming Campbell and the BBC, unfortunately adopted the same negative attitude. Strange that this has only happened since there appeared to be a strong chance of a hung parliament.

  • 2.
  • At 11:21 AM on 17 Oct 2007,
  • Ed wrote:

Why doesn't Newsnight do a feature story on the cutbacks in the BBC?

I don't know why people in the BBC are complaining (as far as i understand it) about Mark Thompson' s proposed cutbacks. What can he do when the government has reduced the amount of money the BBC can receive in real terms over the next few years? In fact the one to blame is Tessa Jowell.

And, also, blame those people in the BBC who in the past focused on quantity over quality of programmes, of short-term ratings over long-term respect and loyalty - where the BBC has become ever more indisguishable from commercial broadcasters therefore giving it less of a raison d'etre and so less of a reason of receiving special financial support.

We need a strong BBC to maintain general standards across broadcasting. The real issue for the BBC is not what Mark Thompson is going to do regarding cutbacks (he is much better qualified and a lot smarter, in my view, than others over this issue) but for the BBC to focus on quality over quantity, and long-term respect and loyalty over ratings, during the next few years. Then when the BBC takes its case, again, for more money to a future government it will stand in a much stronger position for being given more money.

  • 3.
  • At 05:10 AM on 18 Oct 2007,
  • Paul Martin wrote:

So the management want to cut BBC News and factual programming, the two most respected and profitable areas of its schedule. Those David Attenborough DVD sales alone must make Auntie a small fortune. The idea that the Beeb relies solely on the license fee is absurd.

The argument seems to be that there will not be the need for large amounts of programming in the future, so why not concentrate on what you do best? News, current affairs, documentary and quality drama. Leave the rest of the drivel to the hundreds of other channels specialising in mediocrity.

Remove the embarrassing dross from BBC3 and stick all the classic repeats on there instead. Problem solved. And yes I am young enough to be in their 'target audience'.

  • 4.
  • At 11:45 PM on 19 Oct 2007,
  • Denis Thair wrote:

I am disappointed by the quality of your coverage of this issue and the conduct of your interview with Nick Clegg. It was also incorrect to say that both the candidates had first been elected in 2005. They had both been elected prior to that to the European Parliament. And what is your comment" that Chris Hugnes leadership bid last time around apart"
supposed to mean. It is sheer gobbledegook. Lastly, shouldn't Michael Crick start acting the part of a political correspondent, rather than aping the Dennis Pennis approach?

  • 5.
  • At 08:03 PM on 04 Nov 2007,
  • Jen wrote:

"can the party put losing two leaders in two years behind it?"

Like, say, the Tories after dumping Iain Duncan Smith -- going on to gain thirty odd seats at the next general election? I think that'd count as a pretty good result for the Libs.

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