Friday, September 21, 2007

Ming is "it"

As I foresaw, one of the advantages of having a media conference narrative of "leader on last legs", is that when the leader gives a half-way decent speech at the end, the media narrative then, with typical hysteria, turns turtle and majors on "leader rises from dead".

But the media coverage is not all glowing and Ming's speech far exceeded the description "half-way decent".

I always look forward to immersing myself in wall-to-wall media coverage of the LibDems. I was not disappointed as I sat down to the teatime news programmes yesterday. ITV started their coverage of Ming's speech with a huge caption reading: "Ming finds his Zing" (James Gurling seems to have been ahead of them with that one). That gold standard of UK political commentary, Nick Robinson said the speech should "stop the mutterings - for now".

And there's the rub. We had all this after last year's autumn conference speech and after the Ealing/Southall and Sedgefield by-elections. A few weeks of calm, and then it all kicks off again. "Ming too old", "Young Turks vie for position" etc etc.

So why should this time be any different? Why, as the Michael White said this morning, have "tectonic plates shifted"?

For me, it's different because of the sheer comprehensiveness, passion and heart-stopping liberalism of his speech yesterday.

My earliest experience of live politics, as opposed to my grandfather swearing at Harold Wilson or Nasser whenever they came onto the telly, was when I was ten. During the 1970 general election campaign I was able to wonder a few hundred yards down from our house and stand and observe what, in those days, was an endangered species, a genuine Liberal MP. John Pardoe was his name. A big bear of a man with real charisma and passion. He used to stand on top of his landrover with his microphone and bellow out a stump speech. I can't remember what he said. If you asked me a few minutes after he had spoken what he had said, I probably wouldn't have been able to tell you much of what he said. But I knew one thing for sure. This man was "it". He was speaking the truth, he knew what needed to be done in the country, and he expressed it with such down-to-earth and gripping passion that I knew I was a Liberal like him.

Listening to Ming's speech yesterday was a similar experience. Ming is "it".

You just have to take his opening paragraph:

Let me start by asking some questions:
What kind of country is it where the government responds to the threat of climate change by allowing green taxes to fall as carbon emissions rise?
What kind of country is it where the richest in the land pay a lower rate of tax than the people who have to clean their offices?
What kind of country is it where the government halts a criminal investigation into corrupt arms sales to placate commercial interests?
What kind of country is it where the government colludes with the Tories to exempt MPs from freedom of information?
What kind of country is it where the government sneaks out a short statement on the last day of Parliament signing us up to host America’s Son of Star Wars on British soil?
And what kind of country is it where the government leads us into an illegal and disastrous war and then stops people from protesting against it?
Well, I’ll tell you what sort of country it’s not:
It’s not a liberal country.

Well, that's fired me up just on its own. What an awesome list of the wrongs of the past few years of Labour government! It is to the credit of the speechwriters that they stacked the speech with the full set of these sorts of points in a highly organised way. That opening is all the more arresting for the fact that all those six points are the type of thing that is all too easily forgotten in day-to-day media coverage. It demonstrates cutting-edge liberalism that Ming and his team collated that list, and the other points later in the speech.

Ming's scathing critiques of the other two leaders were brilliant. First on Cameron he was stunningly accurate as well as funny:

This year, David Cameron is going back to basics.
Last year the Conservative conference was about health, happiness and the sunshine glinting through the trees.
This year it will be flag, fear – and foreigners.
But why the right-turn?
I’ll tell you why.
Because he’s under pressure.
And without convictions of his own, the Tory leader is buffeted by the beliefs of others.
He’s done a u-turn on grammar schools.
An about turn on identity cards.
And a wrong-turn on human rights.
Margaret Thatcher would have to concede:
He turns if you want him to.
The laddie’s all for turning.
But we’re not for turning – we know exactly what we stand for.

But he was even more skillful in shooting that old fox, Gordon Brown:

Mr Brown is working hard to convince us that there has been real change in Number 10:
That his arrival has somehow wiped the slate clean.
That the last ten years of waste, failure and disappointment are to be forgiven and forgotten
Well, not so fast Gordon.
You spent a decade blaming everything on the previous Conservative government.
But as Chancellor over the last ten years you had unparalleled influence over government.
You could have raised green taxes to tackle climate change.
You could have stopped the ineffective, expensive and unnecessary identity card scheme.
And you could have prevented Tony Blair from embarking on the catastrophe of the Iraq war.
But you didn’t.
This is your legacy, Mr Brown:
The environment degraded.
Civil liberties eroded.
Iraq invaded.
Not to mention the record for which you - and you alone - were responsible as Chancellor.
A smash and grab raid on private pensions.
A steady, disturbing rise in the number of home repossessions.
And a national economic backdrop of £1.3 trillion in personal debt.
With a record like that it’s no wonder that the Prime Minister wants to start afresh.
But it’s a record for which we will ensure that he takes responsibility:
In spite of your claims of change, Mr Brown, not much really has changed.
New Labour remains blue Labour.
And you’re still wrong.
Wrong on nuclear energy.
Wrong on council tax.
Wrong on student fees.
And you are wrong, wrong, wrong on detention without charge.
We don’t need a change of tone in this country:
We need a change of policies.
And you, Gordon Brown, have not delivered.

I think we should all re-read that about once a week. To me, that is a main plank of a general election campaign.

There was one tricky patch in the speech, it should be said. When Ming mentioned the EU referendum he only got subdued applause. When he said: "We would ask the British people the real question – whether they wish to remain in the European Union or not. I will proudly lead the Liberal Democrats at the forefront of that debate." he received no applause at all, even though it sounded as though he wanted some, from the way he said it. Maybe conference were a bit miffed at being told 'he will lead' us in a referendum campaign on EU membership when it has not yet considered what that referendum should consist of, if it is to be any different (some might say) from our manifesto commitment.

But, apart from that, the speech went on as it began. A crie de coeur of liberalism. "A classic liberal speech", as Paddy called it. "Ming Emperor rallies his weary troops" as the Telegraph put it.

So Ming has put the party to bed - for now. He has sounded a "clarion call" (Nick Clegg) in advance of a potential election. But that's not enough.

It's all very well making me happy. It's all very well making most of the "troops" happy and fired up. 'Classic liberal speeches' fire us all up. But they don't necessarily fire the country up. I do believe that we have policies, such as the 16p basic rate of tax, which will sell themselves very well to the electorate. If every voter had a copy of Ming's speech and read it, then we'd be home and dry. Unfortunately that isn't going to happen, of course.

So we have the media issue - how do we get our message across (apart from the obvious Penhaligonesque method of putting it on a bit of paper and sticking it through a letter box)? Unlike David Nikel I am not angry at the likes of Nick Assinder, who wrote a typically petty piece on the conference on BBC Online. Like all journalists, Nick has to write something, and normally gets asked by his superior to write in a certain vein. It's no good getting angry with journalists. They have to put bread on the table at home. We are not going to change the media (except perhaps in a very small, incremental way). And they do us some favours - as we can see today's and yesterday's coverage of Ming's speech.

We have to work with the media rather than constantly belittling them.

Yes, it is a pain in the neck to have this constant "who will succeed Ming?" stuff. But look on the bright side. At least we have some obvious successors to Ming. Where are the obvious successors to David Cameron? There aren't any. Strangely enough, it is a credit to Ming that he has successors waiting. It is the job of any manager to ensure that there is a succession plan for him/herself. Ming has ensured that and has gone out of his way to foster his team of "young turks".

1 comment:

  1. Terrific post Paul. However, I disagree that with your conclusion: much of the media did a partial, shabby, pack following, lazy job on our conference and they should be called on it.

    Thinking that the media has a duty to inform accurately and impartially is a mistake. They're businesses and crawl to the power.