Time of decision

I’ve been less engaged with this year’s Lib Dem leadership contest than last year’s, basically because work and real life have kept me busier; I’ve been enjoying my new job (which has meant I am posting less here generally) and our changed family situation has absorbed most of the rest of my energies.

But the ballot papers have arrived, and it is a straight choice between Nick Clegg and Chris Huhne. It is a much more difficult choice than last year. We all know that the problem with Lib Dems is that some of them are mad, some of them are boring, and some are both; last year, it was easy enough to rule out voting for Simon Hughes on the first of these grounds and Menȝies Campbell on the second. But neither Clegg nor Huhne is either mad or boring, so that filter is no use to me.

Both, frankly, would be acceptable leaders for me. Clegg was an exact contemporary of mine as an undergraduate at Cambridge, at a college next door to mine; I don’t remember him, though he remembers me due to my visibility in student politics. Both became MEPs the year we moved to Belgium, 1999, and I ran into both of them from time to time at party events; I remember on one such occasion a party aide glancing at Clegg and Huhne chatting on the other side of the room, and muttering to me that between the two of them they had the vast majority of the aggregate political talent of the Lib Dem MEPs, which seems to me monstrously unfair to the others (but I will come back to that point later). Their policy offerings are pretty similar. There is one issue, Trident, where my own feelings lie closer to Huhne’s line than to Clegg’s, but it’s not in itself a decisive issue for me (and as someone pointed out, it is anyway the party conference that decides policy rather than the leader).

In the end, I’m making my decision based on what other people think. Nick Clegg’s support group on Facebook has 845 members, of whom only six are on my friends list; Huhne’s is smaller in total (567) but 13 are on my friends list. Both campaign websites list people whose opinions I respect. Huhne has, for instance, my old Cambridge contacts David Howarth (now MP) and Andrew Duff (now MEP) not to speak of and David Steel. Clegg’s list is also formidable, including Paddy Ashdown, Shirley Williams, , about half of the MPs and more than half of the MEPs.

It’s that very last point that decides it for me. In the end, all we can judge from the campaign is how good the candidates are at running leadership campaigns. The one thing that became clear to me during the collapse of Charles Kennedy’s leadership was that those working most closely with the party leader – those who are, in fact, looking to be led on a daily basis – are the ones best placed to judge whether he or she is doing a good job. They may get it wrong – the parliamentary party backed Beith over Ashdown, if I remember correctly, in 1988. But where the stakes are otherwise equal, I’ll listen to the views of those who are more on the inside than me.

The killer statistic is this: of the ten Lib Dems elected to the European Parliament in 1999, all but Nick Clegg and Chris Huhne are still MEPs. The other eight, who worked alongside them in the parliament for the full five-year term of 1999-2004, have declared their voting intentions as follows:
Backing Huhne: Andrew Duff, Elspeth Attwooll, Liz Lynne
Backing Clegg: Diana Wallis, Graham Watson, Emma Nicholson, Chris Davies, Sarah Ludford. (Plus also Bill Newton-Dunn, elected as a Tory in 1999 but defected to the Lib Dems in 2000.)

Despite my friend’s comment about them, I have considerable respect for the political abilities of the vast majority of the above-named. On aggregate, they are backing Clegg, and therefore so am I.

I think. But it will be a pretty close race.

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