Friday, January 27, 2006

Why I Instinctively Like Chris Huhne

Chris Huhne visited Oxford last night, and I went along to the talk. The first impressions were good - he comes across as a genuine, honest, nice man. Of course, 'niceness' is one of my major criticisms of the Lib Dems. They may be very personable people, but as soon as that translates to policy, it results in a pro-kittens, pro-apple pie line. That sounds wonderful (the apple pie, not the kittens), but isn't exactly going to inspire my confidence in a government.

So what about the talk? There was much I agreed with; there was much I disagreed with. His ideas about reform of government in the country deserve a wider audience, even if they need to be fleshed out a little longer. Talking about a radical decentralisation of politics is an excellent idea, one that should be used to frame national debate, and one that would certainly mark the Lib Dems as distinct from the two main parties. My worry with what was said last night was that he seemed to advocate transferring more money to councils, which he admitted could be woefully incompetent. Now, that's a disease that strikes all politicians - but simply using the existing structure of government and transferring more money downwards isn't good enough. We need to think about where we want governmental comptences to be accountable, and that might mean creating an extra layer. Still, the discussion is important and it is excellent to hear someone with a real commitment to decentralisation.

I was also pleased by his line on civil liberties. On some cases, I thought he went a little too far (I'm not convinced a jury trial is right for some serious fraud offences, for example). But I'd certainly prefer someone to be too liberal than too authoritarian.

Then again, his environmental arguments still don't wash. He flatly rejected any more use of nuclear power - if you're trying to cut down on emissions, then reduction of use can only go so far, and renewable sources of energy are at presently insufficiently efficient and insufficiently plentiful to be able to rely on them as a serious alternative. His argument was that no private sector company had built a nuclear reactor without government subsidy for a long time. Although I'm no expert, I would contend that is because private companies know that governments have to provide power. Just like they need a railway service, and just like they need air-traffic control. So they can put the squeeze on the government and force more money out of them by necessity. In any case, I don't like to hear people talk about saving the environment whilst at the same time being unwilling to think about nuclear power.

I was also worried regarding tax. Implicit within his environmental liberalism arguments is the idea that the current tax take is about right (in any case, he doesn't seem to talk about tax cuts except to offset money raised by green levies). I'm not convinced that's at all right, quite apart from the fact that I think green levies should be invested in green projects to, for example, make renewable sources of energy more efficient and more plentiful.

But then again, I could probably nit-pick all day on policy. There's a lot more to being a leader than simply what someone's policies are. That's why I wanted David Davis to win the Tory leadership race, that's why ultimately, I think that Chris Huhne would be an excellent choice for the Lib Dems.

Firstly, he passes the Davis test - he doesn't just say what he stands for, he says what he means. Sure, he will wax lyrical about liberals of the past (and have that annoying habit of trying to claim all Liberal traditions as his own), but ultimately when he says things, you broadly understand what that would mean in policy terms.

Secondly, he is genuinely passionate, both about his politics and about his party. Whereas I get the feeling Cameron is motivated more by power than policy, Huhne genuinely wants to make a difference; he sounds as if he has the courage of his convictions, and he will provide leadership on key matters of policy where Charles Kennedy was all too often absent.

Thirdly, he struck me as an honest man. For all that I have criticised details above - at least I know those details. That's a lot harder if you're looking at the Campbell or Hughes campaigns. Just as it was in the Tory race - Davis was giving real detail, Cameron was flirting with policies because his "rebranding" attempt was of paramount importance.

Huhne fans probably won't be delighted I'm making comparisons with David Davis. But there are reasons why that approach would work for the Lib Dems, and may well have broader appeal beyond political nerds like me. That's because the Lib Dem credibility gap isn't about being the "nice party", it's on policy. They are seen as intellectually lightweight (and given past front benches, that is definitely not unfair), and unwilling to commit themselves on policy. If the party does hold together as firmly as Richard tells me it does, then it needs to take firmer lines and watch the whole party back them. Huhne is a man with the courage to do that. That's why I'd be happy to see him as Lib Dem leader.