Monday, 5 November 2007

Will it be Nick or will it be Chris ?

In politics, you're often faced with difficult choices - the policy you want and support may be the best but it might not be "sellable" to the wider electorate. It's all too often about trim anbd compromise - even those leaders like Margaret Thatcher, who are praised for their single-mindedness, had to learn the art of compromise.

It's easy to be radical when there is no real opposition - no one was going to oppose Churchill with German tanks twenty-five miles from Dover. Margaret Thatcher and indeed Tony Blair faced divided and weakened opposition so had the luxury to be radical.

Now that we seem to be back in more traditional political times, the voice of the radical might be quietened - or it might simply be elsewhere. Whether Butskellism or Browneronism, the fact remains that at a time when the two main parties seem to be courting the same groups in the same ways the need for a different voice is never more urgent.

In 1992, the Liberal Democrats had the USP of a penny on tax to pay for education at a time when schools were perceived to be starved of resources. In 2005, the USP was opposition to the war in Iraq but the world has moved on and though conflict with Iran may yet occur and developments in Pakistan are worrying, the Liberal Democrats seem to need a new USP for the 2009-10 election.

In many ways, though, the USP is and always has been liberalism. Not for us the comfort of the power of the State nor even the vacuous altruism of Thatcherism. The deep-seated conviction that decentralisation, devolution and the appropriate repatriation of powers will re-energise politics and communities stands at the centre of Lib Dem thinking. In alliance (so to speak) with our re-discovered economic liberalism, it is the Liberal Democrats, rather than the Conservatives, who are the modern progressive party of the 21st Century.

And yet, the party languishes in the polls and the departure of Sir Menzies Campbell leaves us facing the prospect of our third leader in this Parliament.

The two candidates, Nick Clegg and Chris Huhne, are both members of the 2005 Parliamentary intake and it is regrettable that none of the 1997 gang has seen fit to stand. That said, how am I, as one of the 65,000 or so electors, to choose ?

Chris, with the benefit of a previous leadership tilt, has hit the ground running and has energised the debate with some interesting ideas leaving Nick looking a bit feeble in his wake. Nick, though, has come back strongly and will, I suspect, grow in stature as the campaign progresses.

Policy questions aside, as a Party member, I know it isn't a question of who I like or even support. I have to look at, as one contributor termed it, "the big picture". And so, we're back to compromise. One only has to look at the election of William Hague and Iain Duncan-Smith to see what happens when parties choose a leader that suits them rather than one best equipped to lead the party in the wider political world.

In most elections, you have a "head" candidate and a "heart" candidate. Sometimes, one candidate is both - for me, voting for Paddy Ashdown in 1989 and Charles Kennedy in 1999 was or were no-brainers. In other parties, too, the difference exists . Undoubtedly, Iain Duncan Smith was a "heart" candidate while Michael Portillo and Ken Clarke were "head" candidates. In February 1975, Margaret Thatcher was the "heart" candidate.

For me, Chris is the "heart" candidate and Nick is the "head" candidate. I like what Chris is saying but I think what Nick is talking about is more likely to get back the voters we have lost (especially to the Conservatives). If you put a gun to my head now, I would vote for Nick Clegg. There is little doubt, however, that this election is a lot tighter than people think - my information from early hustings suggests Chris is doing very well among activists but will that be enough ?

I intend to go to a Hustings event myself at the end of the month and will, after that and reading the manifestos of the two candidates, come to my decision. I would happily support either as leader - no issue there- but that doesn't mean I'm yet convinced whether I should vote with my head or with my heart...

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