The Mingterview, part one

Friday, June 9th, 2006

If you need any better illustration of the promising effect of Thursday’s Lib Dem announcements, it’s the way it’s suddenly open season on the party on certain right-of-centre blogs, such as Guido (no less than three knocking posts in quick succession) and Iain Dale (the rather comical assertion that the announcements represent the most left wing agenda since Michael Foot – they really ought to get their stories straight, as Guido is calling it Thatcherite).

But obviously, I would say that, wouldn’t I, as a Lib Dem?

The question of impartiality has been vexing me rather, since someone whose opinions I respect greatly looked at my last post and said it sounded like it had been written by the party press office. I’m not convinced it does, and it’s an accurate record of my opinions, but even so.

I’m not a journalist any more, so I’m not obliged to be impartial. But I’m not a politican these days, either, and have no need to push a particular line – the only obligations I have remaining are to be honest in what I write and to apply a little critical intelligence.

Ming and the bloggers - left to right, Will Howells, Ming, Peter Pidgeon, Martin Tod of Lib Dems Online, and meIt’s with that in mind that I come to write up the interview that I and two other Lib Dem bloggers, Peter from the Apollo Blog and Will Howells, had with Ming Campbell earlier.

I’d been a critical supporter of Ming in the leadership contest, grown increasingly worried over the months that followed by the ease with which he was undermined by the opposition, but greatly reassured by his performance a couple of hours earlier as he made his big speech. I wasn’t in a mood for Paxmaning him, as I might have been if he’d fluffed the speech, but I had some questions I badly wanted to know the answers to. I also had a couple supplied by members of my local party, and they weren’t exactly simple either.

I won’t dwell too much on what Will and Peter asked, as they have both supplied excellent write-ups in their respective blogs. My own agenda was largely about campaigning prospects and techniques rather than about policy.

The leadership

Will kicked things off with the obvious question – how would Ming characterise the first 100 days of his leadership? The answer was simple: “Challenging.” He elaborated by explaining how he’d been pitched straight into a party conference and a local election campaign, with no meaningful handover period, and only now was he able to settle down and get organised. Some the transitions had been difficult, not least getting used to Prime Minister’s Questions, where he was likely to have almost 600 MPs actively opposing him. This was an unpleasant contrast with questions to the Foreign Secretary when he was deputy leader and shadowing that brief – in that role, he usually had half the House on his side as he bashed the other lot.

I asked one of the points I made on this blog last Wednesday after his success in PMQs – did he think he’d been successful that day because he’d picked a subject that was considered to be one of his specialist subjects and strengths? He agreed, emphatically, and explained that it was always difficult to plan a killer question on a hot topic because there was real chance that someone would ask it before it was his turn. On Iraq, though, he knew he was on safe ground – the Tories wouldn’t touch it with a barge pole.

Communicating

It’s one of my hobby-horses that we communicate well with educated types who read the Independent and have degrees, but not at all well with the huddled masses. What, I asked, were we going to do to change that?

I wasn’t wholly convinced by the reply, though part of it was very good. The less-good part was a rallying cry to repeat the successes achieved on local councils in Liverpool and Newcastle at a Westminster level in the great northern cities – a very fine aim, but lacking in detail as to how it might be achieved. He floated the need to communicate with more people over the internet, before correcting himself that we were probably talking about a lot of socially excluded people with a lower-than-average online prescence. Then he hit his stride talking about crime.

He’d already gone into some detail about the need for a robust but liberal approach to crime when answering one of Peter’s questions. Now he returned to it and linked it explicitly to the question of how to talk to the socially excluded, the people with no stake in politics and precious little in society.

He said: “The people on the council estates are the ones whose houses get broken into and have to dodge flying bottles on Saturday night or who have neighbours from hell.” I’d been deeply suspicious of many of the details of his recent law and order announcement, at the same time as welcoming the fact he was speaking out on this issue. I remain suspicious, but am reassured to find there’s more to it than knee-jerk right-wing populism. Crime is a powerful issue for connecting with people who don’t want to be connected with.

And now it’s pushing 2am and I need to sleep. The rest of this interview will have to wait. But as a teaser, I leave this quote from Campbell about his opposite number in the Tories: “He makes a speech a day about bugger all – did you hear the last one? About happiness? It was like listening to Ken Dodd, all he needed was a tickling stick.”

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