Lib Dems should pick Hughes

The three Liberal Democrat leadership contenders head for Bury St Edmunds next week for the regional hustings. Political Editor Graham Dines looks at the choice facing party membersBALLOT papers should by now have dropped on 73,000 door mats in the final stages of the contest to choose a successor to Charles Kennedy, who resigned last month after admitting he was an alcoholic.

By Graham Dines

The three Liberal Democrat leadership contenders head for Bury St Edmunds next week for the regional hustings. Political Editor Graham Dines looks at the choice facing party members

BALLOT papers should by now have dropped on 73,000 door mats in the final stages of the contest to choose a successor to Charles Kennedy, who resigned last month after admitting he was an alcoholic.

Next week, the three leadership hopefuls - Simon Hughes, Sir Menzies Campbell, and Chris Huhne - will be in Bury St Edmunds for the East of England regional hustings, quite a feather in the cap for the constituency party.


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After the Whitehall farce of the past five weeks - confessions from an alcoholic leader, the exposure of a rent boy enthusiast, and the sexuality of the party's president - the serious business of finding the right person to lead the Lib Dems can now begin.

As the candidates trek around the UK drumming up support, party members must weigh up the skills of the three men.

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PARTY president Simon Hughes, an MP for 23 years, is the darling of the left. He has invested heavily in the rubber chicken circuit - attending dinners up and down the land and meeting thousands of activists in their home territory - and hopes to cash in as the most “member friendly” of the three contenders.

But his no-nonsense approach to politics unravelled when his constant “I'm not gay” refrains were proved to be a lie and he was forced to admit his sexuality.

Being gay is no crime. Repeatedly denying what all Westminster journalists knew was certain to make sure it became public and the manner of his admission seemed somewhat grubby and left a nasty taste in the mouth.

Yet Mr Hughes had the political nouse to launch his campaign in Manchester, cashing in on his nationwide appeal - even though he is a Londoner by adoption, he is not seen as one of the metropolitan elite which now dominate the Labour and Conservative parties.

He insists that the admissions of Charles Kennedy, Mark Oaten and himself will have no long term effect on the Lib Dems' prospects and believes that voters are more interested in politicians' honesty than in their private lives. “Temporarily, problems come to all parties - the public is much more concerned about long term solutions.”

And he asserts: “I do not believe that the 1906 election result was the last ever Liberal landslide. I believe the Liberal Democrats have huge potential for winning big too in the future.”

That will endear him to many in the party, especially in the north, midlands, and Scotland where the Liberal Democrats are strong and the principal opposition to Labour.

Britain, he says, has never needed a liberally minded party so much as now, given the threats to individual freedom and personal privacy being put forward by Labour ministers. And the party had been right at the last election to propose a different rate of tax for higher earners while cutting the tax burden on low income families.

AN Edinburgh lawyer and Scottish MP, Sir Menzies Campbell made the strange decision to launch his campaign in a Westminster restaurant, making nonsense of the party's support for devolution.

At 64, age and his heart problems will be factors in the minds of Lib Dem members who may question whether he has the strength and the health to fight a General Election.

Sir Menzies - known to all as Ming - is a former Olympic athlete and UK record holder who has declared himself fit for the chase. “Under my leadership, the Liberal Democrats will not be making polite interjections from the sidelines. We will be hammering on the doors of power.

“I believe that there should be no glass ceiling for our party, no limit on our aspirations, and no anchor on our ambitions.”

Shakespearean stuff. But if elected, his patrician tones may not go down well with voters with judged alongside likely Labour opponent Gordon Brown and the Old Etonian turned compassionate Conservative David Cameron.

THE dark horse in the contest is 51 year-old Chris Huhne, who only entered Westminster last May after spending six years in the European Parliament.

Mr Huhne, a former journalist and the party's economics spokesman, launched his leadership bid at Green Works, a London workshop where unemployed and disabled people refurbish unwanted office furniture for community groups.

He believes Liberalism “is the last of the great systems of values and ideas, as relevant today as ever because it puts the individual at the heart of politics”.

At the heart of his manifesto are civil liberties, the nuclear deterrent and the environment - the latter raising eyebrows as he flew from Wales to London rather to launch his campaign rather than travelling by the more eco-friendly train.

He endorses the Lib Dem philosophy that the rich should pay more tax and that British troops should be pulled out of Iraq by the end of the year, and calls for the British state to be decentralised on a regional basis.

INSTINCTIVELY, the majority of grass roots activists seem to prefer Simon Hughes. But they know that the only way the party can flourish is by continuing to attract centre right voters in the south and west of England who during the past decade have been disillusioned with the Tories.

With David Cameron repositioning the Tories to woo the defectors back, supporters of Sir Menzies and Mr Huhne believe Mr Hughes could hasten those departures if he takes the Lib Dems further to the left.

THE new leader will be named on March 2, a day before the party's spring conference opens in Harrogate. Under the single transferable vote system the Lib Dems use, the person finishing third is crucial to the outcome should the leading candidate not secure outright victory of 50% plus one of all those voting.

If Mr Hughes is third and thus eliminated in the first round, those of his supporters who cast a second preference are likely to back Mr Huhne. If Mr Huhne is third, his votes are likely to fracture between Sir Menzies and Mr Hughes.

Should Sir Menzies end up in third place - which is highly unlikely - the probability is that most of his supporters' second preference votes would be destined for Mr Huhne.

On second preferences, the odds seem stacked against Mr Hughes and to be sure of victory he needs to be over the top in the first round of voting.

Denying his sexuality before admitting it should not disbar him from leading a radical, egalitarian party, and when all factors are weighed up, Simon Hughes should be the natural choice of a majority of rank-and-file Liberal Democrat members.

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