First Lib Dem leadership hustings

The Liberal Democrats have a conference titled ‘Meeting the Challenge’ which was always scheduled for today. It was to find the party’s ‘narrative’ following a general election where we did really well – but perhaps didn’t reach the hoped for heights. One of the reasons seemed to be that while our individual policies, such as free care for the elderly, our stance on Iraq, scrapping Council Tax in favour of local income tax and ending top up fees were very popular, overall people didn’t automatically know what Lib Dem meant.

Of course, events of the last few weeks meant that the environment in which this conference found itself was somewhat changed and the ‘challenge’ has become all the more pointed.

So – four candidates in the ring so far. The man who many people initially thought would almost certainly take over and who started as favourite – Sir Menzies Campbell; Simon Hughes (Party President), who has replaced Ming as the bookies’ favourite; Mark Oaten, Lib Dem Shadow Home Secretary (and my boss in the Home Affairs Team); and my boy – Chris Huhne, who started as a rank outsider at 300-1 with odds now closing at 7-1.

I am supporting Chris because it’s not the office of leader he is interested in for its own sake. He wants to get the Lib Dems into power. And he knows what he wants to do with that power and where he wants to take the party. For me – I am looking at who can take the fight to Gordon Brown and beat him on his own territory. Chris can do it. I want to know that the man (and sadly there are no women standing) who wins this contest could handle running the country and the fight to get to that position.

And, he answered the big questions for me. One of them is the question the media keep on putting to us (and so we have to have an answer to) about whether the party should go left or right. The stock answer we give in our party to this – is ‘neither left nor right but straight on’ – or equivalent such phrases. Chris answered the question as how a party of conscience and reform progresses into the next era. It’s really about using taxation to discourage behaviour which damages our environment, whilst using the money raised that way to take those who are poorest out of taxation all together. So – overall, no increase in taxation, but a fairer society and a better environment for all. Redistribution and responsible consumption in one – that’s the combination that is both liberal and effective. That’s the unique combination that Liberal Democrats need now.

So the hustings began. Ming had the misfortune of a ropey microphone for the first few minutes – but overcame the technical difficulties and delivered a really excellent speech – particularly the second half and the parts on our internationalist commitment. Simon Hughes gave a really good speech too. He rings the buzzers for the party faithful with his challenge to inequalities in society. At the same time, Simon ditched the party’s commitment to a 50p rate on earnings over £100,000. Mark Oaten gave a really vigorous and energetic speech about moving us into the 21st century.

And of course Chris. I thought the boy did brilliant. He was confident, competent and credible. What I really liked (as did others judging from the vox pops afterwards where activists who hadn’t really known much about him were so impressed – plus the verdict on Radio 4’s PM program that it was Chris who made converts) was that he started with the real challenges we face in the world – globalisation and global warming – and quite frankly, unless we ‘meet the challenge’ of the world as it is – we won’t be addressing the real issues facing us. And he delivered ideas. The others all said that we need new ideas – Chris actually gave some. The most radical and challenging is the beginning of the switch away from personal taxation to eco-taxes – a tax system that really is based on responsible consumption and the use of this tax to redistribute to those at the bottom of the income scale to take them out of tax.

You can see his speech in full on the Chris Huhne campaign website (or watch it on the BBC’s website – RealPlayer or Windows Media Player required) but two other key issues he raised for me were firstly – a head-on personal commitment from him as leader to use his personal influence to ensure that we ethnic minority MPs elected at the next General Election. And whilst he is pleased that we have such a talented influx of new women MPs (I blush) we need more. No one else put this at the top of their agenda.

The other key issue he raised was the organisation of the party machine. Chris showed understanding that we need to have a fearsome campaigning machine – which means tools and money for the Campaigns Department – to compete in this ferocious world of political contest.

So – needless to say – he ticked my boxes!