There are four things I want a leader to do:
- Deliver a winning political strategy
- Create an effective election winning core team
- Effectively communicate a distinctive vision – especially at major elections
- Deliver Liberal Democrat policies – whether in or out of Government
On political strategy, I am extremely concerned that the ‘centrist party of government, not a party of protest’ positioning is completely wrong. The most effective political leaders – Thatcher – Blair – and, dare I say it, local government leaders like Keith House in Eastleigh – manage the double of being both credible in Government AND dissatisfied with the status quo – protesting – pushing for change. The opposite of a ‘party of protest’ is a ‘party of the complacent status quo’. For me, the answer to ‘that question’ in the Farage debates crystallised the issue. How can someone who was an MEP for 5 years – and (I would hope) understands how the British people feel alienated from EU decision-making – not be fizzing with ideas for reforming and improving it? (Indeed, how, as DPM, has he not been using his responsibility for constitutional reform to try and put in place reforms to build greater public EU accountability into our parliamentary system?) We always want change. We always want things to be better. We can never, and should never, be the party of the establishment. That’s got to change – and I don’t believe that change can happen with Nick in charge.
There’s a deeper strategic point, that I’ve repeatedly made at the Liberal Democrat Federal Executive, that we need to guard our distinctiveness vs. Labour and the Tories. Nationally we need ‘signature policies’ that illustrate our values and that neither party will match. Over the last few years, they have included constitutional reform, civil liberties, the environment and, historically, Iraq. It’s vital that we defend our position on all of those, but, sadly, we have failed to deliver on constitutional reform – we have conceded far too much on civil liberties – and lost our clarity on improving the environment. Aiming for the ‘centre ground’ without anchoring on policy positions where we are clearly not aiming for a happy consensus is essential for us to be a meaningful political movement.
On the core team, Nick’s team is weak – not because they’re not bright and capable – but because they do not contain a diverse enough range of experience – inside the party and outside the party – and do not appear to care about having an empowered and politically capable front line. All they appear to want donors and deliverers. And they have a surprisingly nonchalant attitude towards the wipe-out of our local councillor base in large areas across the UK. The idiotic email we received on Friday is a symptom of that. There are scores of bright young ‘think tank’ types – but not enough people with front line experience. People who understand that, while we need to work with the Tories (or Labour), they are the enemy and are putting plenty of effort into thinking how to screw us over – morning, noon and night. People who have experience of building a team, creating a motivating political vision on the ground and winning vs. the other parties. I don’t trust the central organisation to deliver the campaign we need in 2015 – indeed, I’m not sure it’s capable of doing it – and I don’t see how that is going to change without Nick changing.
The biggest problem is communication. Effective communication produces results. And the communication we’ve seen during the recent European campaign has not been effective. This isn’t about being in Government. We were in Government before the Clegg/Farage debates. Nick was able to connect with people (sometimes brilliantly) in the past but is now a busted flush. Perhaps unfairly, a whole chunk of the electorate who we need to win over is irrevocably alienated from him. His polling is dire. The sad fact is no-one will listen to him in 2015 – and anyone who thinks that isn’t a problem has a very strange view of how General Elections work.
Finally there’s the question of policy delivery. I supported joining the coalition and, while I didn’t agree with every word of it, I supported the Coalition Agreement. (I’ve just re-read it and, while some of the problems with it are now clearer, there’s still a lot of good stuff in there). The biggest disasters of this parliament have generally come from outside the coalition agreement (e.g. the bedroom tax) or are in direct contradiction to it (NHS Bill, Secret Courts) and those decisions all went through Nick. And I genuinely don’t know what we’ve got in return. Yes, we’ve had some important wins like strengthened mental health policies. Some of the Coalition Agreement policies have been delivered on a larger scale and with larger impact than originally committed (e.g. apprenticeships) although many of those are offset by policies where we’ve under-delivered. But in terms of big signature policies that weren’t in the Coalition Agreement, what has there been? What have we got for all the painful Conservative party policies that Nick has signed us up to since 2010? Free school meals in primary schools? Is that it?
Ultimately, the killer point for me is the third one. Mid-term unpopularity was always to be expected – not being listened to is a much more serious problem. I can’t see how we can fight a general election with a leader that no-one wants to hear. It just doesn’t make any sense.
So Nick has to go – and that’s why I’ve signed the letter at http://www.libdems4change.org.