Travels, Kennedy, Sharon

Went to Paris yesterday for a series of work meetings. Very cold out, but beautiful. Had time for a very quick browse in Shakespeare and Company as well; beautiful setting across the river from Notre Dame.

But there appears to be no internet cafe anywhere in Paris, and I couldn’t get the WiFi in my Palm T|X to work for me. A bit frustrating.

Obliquely on Charles Kennedy: I was once involved with a political party which at one point had a leader who was generally regarded as an awfully nice guy but simply not a leader. At one point his friends called a “vote of confidence” in his leadership at the party’s quarterly Council meeting. He won by a large margin, but with a dozen votes against and four abstentions, mostly from other party officers and staff; and his leadership limped on painfully for another couple of years, until there was another mini-crisis, he narrowly won a vote of confidence at the party executive, but decided it wasn’t enough and fell on his sword.

Failure of leadership tends to be much more visible to those at the top of the party than the average member. Party headquarters inevitably spends a lot of time building a public image of the party leader as a person of stature, and the average member has a strong motive to believe this. On the other hand, those who are working with the leader every day will tend to have reliable perceptions, but operationalising these is difficult, and the specific issue that sparks a crisis may be completely unexpected and largely unrelated to the wider problem, which is one of style rather than substance. (In the case I mentioned above, the final straw was the botched appointment of a new deputy leader.)

Part of the problem is with the shift from leaders being elected by the MPs to election by a wider group within the party, which in general is a good and desirable thing, but which does almost inevitably have this awkward consequence. If your leader is elected by the membership as a whole, how can they be made properly accountable?

As regards Kennedy in particular, I voted for him, rather to my own surprise, back in 1999, largely because his named supporters included three senior party activists who I perceived as a) having good judgement generally and b) coming from three very different strands within the party. I don’t regard Simon Hughes as reliable, and none of the other three candidates at the time seemed to me to have the necessary spark.

But like many activists I too was disappointed by last year’s election campaign, a general feeling that we didn’t make the inroads against the Conservatives that should have been possible with their fourth crap leader in a row and their disgraceful pandering to the right. A Lib Dem friend of mine in Brussels went to help with one of the “decapitation” campaigns, against a senior Conservative, and reported a sad lack of vigour, or even strategic thinking, in that particular constituency. Another friend was actually working in Cowley Street (party headquarters), and painted me a picture of a campaign whose leader was largely absent, rumoured to be drinking heavily, and with a lack of direction starting from the top.

All election results depend to a certain extent on luck; but the harder you work, the luckier you get, and especially in the British system, where there are few professional party workers and most activists are unpaid volunteers, the malaise which is a consequence of the leader not pulling his weight can spread awfully fast without anyone really quite knowing why.

(And, folks, let’s drop the line about it-was-OK-for Churchill-to-be-drunk. Two very big differences. First off, the job of being a politician was very different fifty or sixty years ago than it is now. Second, Churchill at least appears to have been doing a full day’s work; Kennedy has not even been able to give that appearance.)

So as of now, I think Kennedy should go, and I hope his refusal to resign even when asked to by half the parliamentary party is simply a temporary attempt to emerge with dignity. As of now, if he is a candidate in the forthcoming leadership election, I think I would vote for any other candidate. Even Simon Hughes, or Norman “who?” Baker.

As for Ariel Sharon, since I can’t say anything nice, I’d better not say anything at all.

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