Meeting the Challenge II

Sunday, January 15th, 2006

Here's the second post on Saturday's Meeting the Challenge conference – this one's on the leadership candidates' speeches.

There were all four very different.

  • Ming gave a leader's speech, not a candidate's speech. It was thin on detail but heavy on gravitas. He was visibly distracted by the way his microphone kept randomly failing, but he still sounded like a leader ought to. Of course, if you had unanswered questions about his policy proposals you were out of luck.
  • Simon spoke with all his usual passion and none of his usual verbal incontinence. He challenged a central plank of party theory – that liberty is more important than equality – and he talked directly to party members. If you agree with him it was stunning – if you don't, there was nothing there for you.
  • Chris Huhne was starting with a blank slate, as most people don't know him. An unexciting speaker, he chose to fill it with a strange emphasis on the global environment and, for half the speech, nothing else. By the end he'd said enough about other things to avoid sounding like a single-issue candidate – but only just.
  • Mark Oaten strode on stage and for a while ignored the podium. Unfortunately, he doesn't quite have the physical presence to carry that off. He sounded brilliant until after a while you heard the phrase “21st century liberalism” one time too many and realised he was actually talking complete waffle.

I'm still not totally sure how I'm voting. I was able to rule out Oaten, as he was useless; Huhne, as he was too one-dimensional; and Hughes, as I didn't agree with him (although he pretty much totally repaired the damage that he'd done to his reputation in my eyes over the last few years – I'm a fan again, I just have a different view on freedom vs equality). I wasn't sure about Campbell, and I'm still not. I was able to talk to him for a while during one of the coffee breaks and he was very honest in answering some pretty blunt questions that I asked him about his conduct during the removal of Charles Kennedy. He's good – but I may still write in Kennedy's name.

As to the overall prospects, as I wrote earlier in a comment on Guido's blog, I think Oaten's dead in the water but doesn't know it yet, Huhne's going to have a respectable showing but not trouble the winners, and Ming's still the narrowest of favourites ahead of a very confident-looking Hughes.

Anyway, here are abridged versions of all the candidates' speeches (with dodgy photos of them in action). Any errors are down to my shorthand, for which I apologise. Do not treat anything in them as a direct word-for-word quote (although some bits are) as they are all heavily compressed.

The shorter Ming

Sir Menzies CampbellLet us praise Charles Kennedy and let us have unity during this election – we must remember who the real enemy is. I have always been a liberal, inspired by Jo Grimond. I have learned how to win – winning is tough, you need experience, unity, and to use all the remarkable talents in our party. Win for Britain.

The days of mere Parliamentary survival are over, we have an opportunity and a responsibility. Dedication – passion – professionalism – a strong liberal voice. They say conformity, we say individuality and freedom.

Contrast other parties' policies – Iraq – we stood by our liberal principles. If trusted with the leadership I will never break international law. David Cameron – appalling – Michael Howard's conscience. I know Jack Kennedy liberals – Dave, you are no liberal. We are needed – liberalism at home and liberalism abroad.

To be a liberal is to be a moderniser – never compromise on principle, but make those principles modern and relevant. Ambition. Open minds are more important than open-necked shirts. New thinking, no discrimination, everyone can be like me. A radical democratic revolution.

These are dangerous times – energy competition, terrorism. International cooperation provides security, protects the environment, sustains a strong economy, and makes poverty history.

I believe in leading not following. I want to be trustee of a great party with much to be proud of already but with the best achievements still to come.

The even shorter Ming

I am all Mings to all men – trust me.

The shorter Simon

Simon HughesThank you all. I'm not going to say my policy aims – the membership makes policy and I will be a consultative leader. We will keep the days of policy and principle alive, even if the other parties don't. So I'm not going to say “ninthly” – the leader's role is to present the party and explain where it stands.

This country is unfair and getting worse. Labour has failed, and it's failed the weakest more than the strong, the poorest more than the richest. We won't do that. What is needed is a fix for the stresses of being poor. People at the bottom of society don't feel engaged with it – can't tackle anti social behaviour or promote freedom without recognising this.

People need freedom and fairness, not one or the other – there is no freedom without equality, it's nothing without fairness. I will spend more where necessary, tax for a purpose. Our subscription to a civilised society. It must be done honestly and fairly.

I'm for workplace democracy, decentralisation of government, the environment, defence of civil liberties – you know my commitment and record. Fairness is global too – trade and aid and climate change. We are the party of fairness historically. Think of the great reforming Liberal governments – equality – what if they had listened to spin doctors? I want us to be that courageous.

I will work with you, my party of more than 30 years, to lead you, to inspire you, to motivate you to go further than we have ever gone before. But together we will inspire Britain, just as it was a century ago. That was “the Liberal hour” – I want the next century to be the Liberal Democrat hour.

The even shorter Simon

It's not about me – it's about you. And fairness, of course.

The shorter Chris Huhne

Chris HuhneWe face real threats and challenges, global ones, that the Liberal Democrats are uniquely placed to respond to. We face a political challenge too – Labour and the Tories want to copy us and steal our votes – we need to respond. Both are failing to meet the challenge on the big global environmental issues. But we are not focus group environmentalists. Policies for a modern society. We must set out our stall in detail, we must challenge David Cameron and come up with answers.

The only way to deal with emissions and global warming is eco-taxes. These can be problematic – mustn't punish pensioners for heating their homes in winter – but eco-taxes will raise revenue to deal with these problems.

Eco-taxes must be sugared with lower personal taxes aimed at helping people at the lower end. It's nonsense that we set a minimum wage and then tax it. An equality agenda must go hand in hand with an environmental one.

We can spend lots and not get world-class services if we don't give local accountability. Whitehall bureaucracy makes it impossible to reward success and remove failures. 94 per cent of taxation goes thr
ough Whitehall but how can central government know what's going on in my local hospital? It's about holding people to account – competition works in politics as well as economics. Again the Tories are pale imitations.

We must shape a modern Liberal Party for a modern Britain. Embarrassing lack of women and ethnic minorities – our next leap forward must be greatest where we are least representative now.

Pioneer a new style of politics – more talking, less shouting. Talk to others without losing our distinctive liberal voice. Unite around a policy program with all our wish lists on it – but made practical. Neither Washington nor Moscow right nor left but policies that work. Unite to win the argument and the electoral war.

The even shorter Chris Huhne

Doomed, we're all doomed! Unless we tax our way to safety.

The shorter Oaten

Mark OatenWe've had a bad few weeks – we MPs are crap and we're sorry. But now it's time to look forward and set a liberal agenda for the future. Be positive and uniting. That's the least we can do for Charles.

We already defend liberty, internationally and at home, but that isn't enough. I'm proud we fought the 90 day limit and rejected populism on immigration. Ming was great on Iraq. Only we can do all that and we must continue – defeat the ID card bill. But to get into government we must move into new areas.

We must complete the liberal project and give the electorate something positive. Real equality and opportunity isn't just about removing restrictions, it's about trusting people to exercise their autonomy. Our party must be positive and optimistic.

No sterile debate on left or right – people are not interested in that – not centre either, we stand for passion in politics. People want ideas, inspiration, politicians saying what they believe in. Doing that changes people's minds eg over ID cards. Being a liberal is about being proud to take on these arguments and not being tempted by populism.

The future is liberal and this party must be too – we need 21st century liberalism if we are to realise our potential. We can't dictate behaviour, we must encourage it with positive optimistic (not negative) liberal solutions.

We must learn from Liberal Democrats in power around the country but I fear we're democratic in name only. Let's get our members more involved using new technology. We are the party of ideas but we don't have a monopoly on them. I want to take my message across the country (if Lembit doesn't kill me).

We can't afford to spend the next century on the sidelines while others steal our policies and mangle them. I don't want to be leader of a glorified think tank. Remember the David Steel quote – no, not that David Steel quote – I'm not interested in power without principles but nor am I interested in principles without power.

Let's come together and move our party into the 21st century.

The even shorter Oaten

The future is bright – the future is Oaten.

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I'm Andy Darley. Sometimes I want to say things. This is where I do it.