Alas, poor Mark

Thursday, January 19th, 2006

So Mark Oaten has departed from the Lib Dem leadership race, his campaign having been met with a certain amount of derision and rather a lot of underwhelmed silence. While some people clearly have a lot of faith in him and others were out to get him from the start, most gave him a fair shot and were simply unimpressed.

From my own point of view, I've never been a fan – rather the opposite – but I'd come to realise over the last year or two that he wasn't the scary right-wing nasty man he'd initially seemed. As a result I was open to the possibility I might be convinced by his leadership credentials although I thought it was a very unlikely prospect indeed. Once the campaign started and I saw him in action, though, it seemed to me very obvious that he didn't have what it takes.

Quite apart from any other critera based on philosophy or ambition to take the party forward, he simply didn't look like a leader. No-one takes the slightest bit of notice of the leader of the Liberal Democrats unless that leader makes them take notice, or is such an exotic creature that he or she is rendered newsworthy by their mere existance, as Paddy Ashdown, Boris Johnson, Mo Mowlem and George Galloway all are or were (to ping-pong randomly around the political spectrum in search of examples). Oaten is not a politician in that mould. He is simply another man in a suit.

So who's left?

Chris Huhne is the man with the Big Mo – and I'm not referring to the late former Secretary of State for Northern Ireland this time. The momentum behind Huhne, and the A-list of supporters he's attracting, is very impressive. I'm not quite sure what's doing it, as his performance is sound and professional rather than sparkling and inspiring. Undoubtedly he is the candidate who is most engaged with policy and generating new ideas – but he reminds me a lot of people I used to see in the Green Party: their arguments are irrefutable, but their manner is unelectable. Under Huhne we would swiftly be ghettoised back in the loony fringe, however unfairly, with the inevitable electoral consequences.

Simon seems to have gone a bit quiet recently. I hope he's not ill. Ming seems to be cranking it up, by contrast, recovering with a far sounder PMQs performance this week. I'm almost at the point where I can come out an support him. But not quite – not yet.

Away from the turbulance of the Parliamentary scene, I am currently doing my first bit of campaigning since I retired from active politics in 2003, by helping out an old friend who is up for re-election to the local council in May and faces attacks from all sides. We went touring the ward with him to take photos for a leaflet we're designing for him and his running mates, ending up at a small community sports club. This club has been built up from almost nothing by one dedicated man, who has organised the renovation of a clubhouse, the fitting-out of three soccer pitches and the survival, revival or creation of numerous teams for players of both genders and all ages – he even runs that very rare thing, a disabled soccer team. Amazingly, the clubhouse and dug-outs have no graffiti – a clear sign that he's having an impact on the local youth too.

And you know what? He says none of it would have been possible without my friend the councillor, who championed him against the initial suspicions of residents fearing noise, vandalism and disruption and who helped him wade his way though bureaucracy and paperwork. It was a wonderful reminder of why good people – like my friend – get involved in politics, what they can achieve, and why it all matters.

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