Monday, September 18, 2006

Ming the Meritless?

The party conference season is now underway, and once again, "lazy journalist syndrome" is in evidence. I moaned a couple of days ago about the fact that the media trots out the same story every year regarding exam results. The conference season is pretty similar - every conference has some sort of pre-prepared narrative, that leads to two possible outcomes, success or failure.

Sometimes the storylines are played out with pantomime regularity. "Gordon Brown places a strong challenge to Blair" on the Tuesday of a Labour conference; "Blair hits back at critics with barnstorming speech" on the Wednesday. The broader implications of a conference - policy discussions; a sampling of fringe events; the energy and vitality of the delegates - get left to the 'geek pages' that only political nerds like me bother to read.

Stephen Tall, recently crowned Lib Dem blogger of the year (deservedly so - not least for his willingness to listen to me talk at great length about the American Revolution in Pennsylvania the other night), challenged the media before the start of the Lib Dem conference:

I travelled down by train to conference today, together with three fellow Lib Dems. The issues we discussed ranged widely: the 50p debate, land value tax v local income tax, replacing Trident, the size of school sixth forms, compulsory voting, waste recycling. Ming’s leadership wasn’t mentioned once.

Mr Assinder is in one sense right. The issue of leadership is hanging over the conference – but that’s because it’s the only issue the media can be bothered to pay any attention to. Personality politics is easy to report; any fool can do it.

I wonder, though, if part of the focus on personality stems from the fact that Ming has not been an impressive leader so far. That if he had come out as an impressive performer, and attached more direction and leadership to the party after the Kennedy debacle, then the key question would be more about the new policy direction the Lib Dems were about to embark on. If he wasn't constantly trying to present himself as a man of the people, people wouldn't be wondering who Ming actually was. If he could sit through a pretty soft interview with Michael White (sample question: tell me about your parents) without being visibly nervous, questions about leadership wouldn't arise.

(A note to Ming's advisors: having watched the Q and A with Michael White today, don't get Ming to talk about his background again. He comes across as a relic from a past time.)

A further rumination makes me wonder whether the nature of the Liberal Democrat party causes some of this instability. No policy can be decided upon without being ratified by conference - in principle a good idea, but it means that any leader has to show a force of personality. The leader's role in such a system is somewhat constricted - his job is to put the best possible spin on what the policy decides, and he isn't given sufficient leeway to steer the party himself.

The problem with Ming Campbell is that his public performances up till now have been nothing short of atrocious. He couldn't afford to make a pig's ear of PMQs so often. IDS wasn't rejected by the Tories because of his policies; he was rejected because as a person, he didn't have the charisma or the intellectual ability to lead. It is noteworthy that he has carved a highly respectable niche for himself with the Centre for Social Justice - it is not that IDS didn't have talents, it's that he isn't a leader. If you can't present yourself well in public, then there will always be questions over leadership. And conversely, it is the fact that David Cameron is a masterful media manipulator that has meant he has been able to dodge many important questions.

If Ming had been given the freedom to announce certain policies (to be ratified later by conference), then maybe he could have stamped his own indelible mark on the party and on the public consciousness. Instead, the force of personality has been the only force he's been able to unleash. And, let's face it, it's been far, far less than impressive. If the Liberal Democrats are going to make a mark on the political landscape, they need to force journalists to take notice of them. That's not easy when lazy journalists want to turn everything into an either-or dichotomy. With an uninspiring leader like Ming, the publicity the Lib Dems need will not be forthcoming.