Given my work commitments I come to my comments on the meeting with Nick late and with the benefit of having read James, Millenium, Paul and Mary first. But it seemed to me that all of them were impressed with Nick close up precisely because of his honesty, openness and humanity.
For those who wonder about my backing Nick over Chris, they would only have had to be in that room with him on Monday to understand why. As already beautifully articulated by my fellow bloggers, he is someone who is immediately engaging, who is genuinely interested not only in people but in their ideas, who is both passionate and compassionate and whose fundamental motivation is anger about injustice and the poverty that blights lives and opportunities. If he doesn't agree with you he will not slap you down with his superior intellect or knowledge, he will listen carefully and also accept if there are issues where you might have a point. On one occasion having travelled back on the train with him from Birmingham and used the opportunity to bend his ear (particularly about public services) I sent an apologetic email, hoping his ears weren't bleeding as a result! He sent a gracious reply "not bleeding, ringing with new ideas" - that for me is the measure of a leader. S/he will listen to the office cleaner (me) as well as the members of the board (party grandees). For this reason I have confidence that he will respect the sovereignty of the party on policy making and will not be the kind of leader who does a "back me or sack me" sort of stunt every time it looks as if he isn't going to get his own way.
However, it is precisely this open, honest, warm character which we at once embrace and criticise. And frankly Paul, I wouldn't put much store by Danny Finkelstein of all people, like he really wants us as a party to succeed.............er..........don't think so.
So what about the substance of what Nick said on Monday? Some of the key things for me were:
- I appreciated his answers on what moving out of our comfort zone meant, giving me a sense of his ability to think ahead to what the big issues are that we need to be addressing. He touched on three key themes which he saw as those big issues, POWERLESSNESS, SOCIAL STAGNATION and the POLITICS OF FEAR. Also highlighting the ENVIRONMENT and GLOBALISATION as important issues for us to consider, whilst recognising, for example, that only 6% of the population think the environment is important. This for me is one of the key tasks of a leader, to start where people are, with their concerns, like powerlessness and fear for example and then to offer a prophetic voice, showing the way forward and making the connections with those other macro issues, like the environment which will increasingly impact on people at a micro level. When pushed by Paul he went further to talk about his fear that the Parliamentary Party is too Westminstercentric and politicians need to be more outward facing.
- Others have touched on this, but I really liked what he said about policy, I get frankly sick to death of hearing so called well informed commentators banging on about us not having any policies - we have plenty, sound, well crafted and innovative. As Nick rightly pointed out, it isn't policy that is the problem it is getting our message out! For him our focus must be strategically as opposed to policy driven. This is the issue for me that we need to be considering as we choose our next leader.
- He demonstrated an astonishing grasp of foreign affairs and I feel confident that as leader he would be more than a match for both Labour and the Tories. I particularly appreciate his willingness to take on our obscene relationship with the US and his view that we are in essence a "vassal" state.
- He put to bed once and for all the misinformation on School Vouchers and also showed how important his thinking has been in shaping current party policy on the Pupil Premium. He dealt effectively with the other bit of misinformation about his view on Health Insurance - his views are clearly in line with party policy - as he puts it taking control away from Whitehall and giving it to the Town Hall.
- I was particularly taken by his response on what he would ban. A really difficult call for all of us who see ourselves as liberal but still think we need clear boundaries on some things. His answer will have rung true with virtually every parent in the country - the impact of advertising on children. My kids are grown up (allegedly!) now, but even when they were little it was bad (but mum, why aren't you using Ariel, it washes whiter? etc), but it has certainly got worse - the relentless targeting of children as young as two. An example of why as liberals we have the caveat of freedom when by exercising your freedom you don't impede another's.
- And on diversity, for me probably the biggest challenge of all that we are facing as a party, he made clear his commitment to an academy, one for which he already has donors lined up. I have to say I think this needs more work on it - this should be more of a bottom up than a top down strategy, but I trust that will come. But also he acknowledged that there may come a point (he will give it two terms) when we will be forced to do more in terms of positive discrimination.
So to the swimming trunks, with hat tip to my good pal Andy Strange..........maybe therein lies the clue. Being open and honest is something we all say we want people to be, but there are times when perhaps a little more covering up is appropriate, we don't quite want it all to hang out! I am absolutely the world's worst commentator on this point, I struggle with it myself sometimes (!) and I worry about people who are so wonderfully controlled you wonder if they have even an ounce of passion beating in their breast. So, what is the answer? Do we want someone who is extremely controlled, intelligent, articulate, silvertongued leader, who doesn't communicate with the electorate.............or someone who is a little less controlled, intelligent, articulate, passionate and real who can communicate outside the party bubble?
This is a serious question and to those who think the most serious question is policy I would ask you to reconsider. Frankly there is little to choose on policy between them and the party makes policy anyway. Secondly, we could have the most beautifully crafted policies in the universe, but if all they will ever do is sit on a dusty shelf with no hope of being implemented because our influence as a party has dropped to zilch - what would be the point of that?
I am prepared to accept that whoever wins we are not going to have a leader who shares all my policy priorities and have to be prepared to sacrifice some of what I want for the greater prize of a revitalised and more relevant party. We have to stop talking to ourselves, I share Nick's sense of urgency about this. I don't see that same sense of urgency in Chris who has focused on playing to the activist gallery rather than showing his ability to reach out further and who has seemed to make the biggest plank of his campaign trying to demonstrate why Nick shouldn't be leader as opposed to why he should!