A Timely Reform by Ian Ridley

Blog & web site of Ian Ridley

East Midlands Hustings Report

Went to these “unoffical” hustings in Kirkby-in-Ashfield near Nottingham last night. Because the leadership election timetable is a bit more compressed than usual, not all the regions have offical hustings. For most of our region the Coventry hustings would be OK and would be closer for me. But I have a son who is nearly two years-old and Thomas The Tank Engine is at the Great Central Railway on that day! So many thanks to the Ashfield Local Party for organising these hustings.

Simon Hughes & Chris Huhne were there in person. Nick Clegg stood in for Ming who has to be at the Dunfermline by-election early today so couldn’t make it.

Simon impressed, both as a public speaker and as someone apparently taking the week’s events in his stride. He said he was ambitious for the party and looked at having at least 100 MPs. He’d done his research and knew the potential gains in the East Midlands. Simon also pointed to a poll in the Sunday Telegraph that put the party on a steady 18%. When all voters were asked whether the revelations had made them more or less likely to vote Lib Dem, 80 per cent said it made no difference.

As you’d expect Nick Clegg did a good job as Ming’s representative. He expected the page to be turned fairly quickly after recent events and said that the media would be surprised at the “ferocity” of the Lib Dem response. He pointed to Ming’s passion for liberalism as well as his authority – citing his opposition to the war in Iraq and reservations about Nuclear Fission power stations as examples of him being a “pinstripe radical.”

Chris Huhne’s delivery was measured but he still doesn’t quite inspire me as a public speaker. Although I think this will come pretty easily to him with a few more set piece speeches. He was impressive in the subsequent Q&A; section, building an impressive performance in the Sky News panel format. Again Chris thought that recent events would be forgotten pretty quickly. He stressed his environmental views. His most telling contribution was to point out that Lib Dem target seats are now almost equally Tory and Labour held. Prior to 2005, they were mostly Tory.

There were some questions to all candidates. This is summary of their responses and not directly quoted:

1) What will your first actions as leader be?
SH: A good Harrogate Conference speech to kick-start the leadership; Providing support for the May local elections; look at improving diversity of Lib Dem candidates.
NC: Look at improving the party’s campaign techniques and use of IT for communications. We also need to provide a more detailed alternative to government policy in areas such as Housing, Finance and Devolution.
CH: Similar to MC, although he accentuated the need to learn the lessons in terms of planning, campaign techniques and financing from Tory – Lib Dem contests at the last election

2) What is your stance on coalitions?
NC: Speculation has damaged the party when we have allowed it to become the media focus of the campaign such as in 1992. The key is to elect as many Lib Dem MPs as possible.
CH: The media should be looking at the chances of a Lab/Con Grand coalition like we have now in Germany. They are so close together that such a coalition is more likely. Our record in the partnership govt. in Scotland has not damaged us as a separate party. The chances of no party having a majority of MPs after the next election are great. Labour need just a 1.5% drop to lose their majority. The Tories need a swing of 7%, which they have never achieved. Their best was 5% under Thatcher in 1979.
SH: The Tories have polled their lowest 3 shares of the vote since 1832 at the last 3 elections. Labour govern on the smallest share for a majority party ever. This re-inforces our case for a fairer electoral system. We would look at working with other parties only after Proportional Representation is in law. The more Lib Dem MPs that are in the Commons, the better chance we will have of being able to block poor legislation and getting Lib Dem policy into law.

Chris Huhne answered my concerns about his rather slim majority of 568 votes well. He was not the incumbent in 2005. The average swing against us in seats where our MP was standing down was 4%. In Eastleigh it was restricted to 2.6%. The Tories also poured resources into their campaign to defeat him. So as long as he works hard and builds a good organisation in Eastleigh he should be OK. Charles Kennedy’s seat looked dodgy in 2001 after boundary changes but he held on well there.

Simon Hughes was asked my question about the disappointing result we had when he stood for London Mayor in 2004. He pointed out that he received more votes than any other individual Lib Dem candidate before or since. He said that he was unable to overtake the Tories because they poured far more money than us into their campaign. He also said his task was made more difficult by Ken Livingstone rejoining Labour.

Whilst I take the point about the Tories, I am disappointed that he didn’t admit that his campaign could have been run better within the existing resources. There was a definite chance to improve our vote by regaining voters attracted to an Independent Ken Livingstone, who could not vote for him as a Labour candidate. I hope that Simon Hughes will use his experience of the organisational side of the campaign should he beome leader.

The upshot is that I am even more open-minded with my preferences than before I went into the Hustings. Previously I had ruled out Simon Hughes but now he could still get my 1st or 2nd preference. I think PMQs, Question Time, other media performances and the debates on the Lib Dem grapevine will determine my vote.

The Hustings also showed that Nick Clegg is definitely worth watching in the future (as if we didn’t know)

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *