Compare and contrast: Kirsty Williams and Danny Alexander on the future of the Liberal Democrats

Lib-Dem-logoIt’s rare that events line up to give you neat examples and ways to make a point, but that’s what’s happened today. In Cardiff, Welsh Liberal Democrat leader Kirsty Williams was making a speech setting out her vision for the future of the party in Wales and beyond, while somewhere in the aether between the Highlands and London, a piece by Danny Alexander on a similar subject was heading to the New Statesman. Even if they weren’t planned to appear on the same day, they provide a quite stark example of how much some people have learned from reflecting on the past five years in the two months since the election, and how little others have.

Kirsty Williams understands just what happened:

During the General Election, it became clear to me that people might have known what we stopped, but not what we achieved.
Yes, over those five years we did restrain some of their worst narrow-interest, anti Europe, anti green, nasty party instincts.
But I didn’t come into politics to mitigate the Tories. When I was growing up in Llanelli my political awakening didn’t coincide with thinking “if only someone could give Margaret Thatcher a bit more heart”.
I didn’t campaign for devolution and home rule because those Tory Governor Generals they kept sending over the bridge were just a little misplaced.
And I’m proud to be a foot soldier in the long battle between radicals and Tories that’s been fought in Powys in particular for generations.
Those differences and debates still matter. And we need to make that clear, and to win our case.
But we will have to persuade before we can prevail. And that needs a clear, distinctive and coherent message.

Meanwhile, Danny Alexander is busily praising George Osborne’s budget, and warning the party against becoming ‘a soggy Syriza in sandals’ and agreeing with Harriet Harman on not opposing cuts in tax credits:

I don’t like some of the welfare reforms in the Budget, but to make it the political dividing line is to fail to recognise the views of most people.

The most worrying thing about reading Alexander’s article is remembering that it was the instincts he displays here which were supposedly holding back the Tories during the last Government. He sounds like a man who’s swallowed the Tory mantra whole, even claiming that this budget is closer to his own ‘Yellow Budget’ and doesn’t see any lurch to the right in it. His conclusion is effectively that the party should be not much more than a vaguely liberal voice on the centre-right, embracing Tory economics while trying to make a case for civil liberties, the environment and the EU. It’s the sort of contribution that makes you realise why no one is lamenting his absence from the leadership election.

Kirsty Williams, on the other hand, is offering a much more invigorating vision of a party that’s free to go out and be unashamedly liberal again. She understands that while we can’t pretend the coalition didn’t happen, that doesn’t mean we have to pretend it was the greatest thing ever and no mistakes were made. She understands that if the party is to survive, in Wales or anywhere, we need a clear vision that marks us out as different. The only sogginess on display here is coming from Danny Alexander, happy to subsume the party in an undistinguished centrist mush. Williams is the only one making a case for the future of the party and liberalism as a force in British politics.

If everything is better with flags, it will be truly awesome with even more flags

By adding this picture, this post is now 32.9% more patriotic than it was before.
By adding this picture, this post is now 32.9% more patriotic than it was before.
Your starter for 10: Look at the following proposal.

Publicly-funded infrastructure projects – including roads, flood defences and broadband cabinets – will be branded with a Union Jack plaque.

Is this:
A) Something a UKIP MEP pledged to their conference when he lost his notes and had to make up a policy on the spot?
B) Actual Government policy, cooked up by Danny Alexander and Francis Maude, to ensure that neither party in the coalition can distance themselves from the stench of stupid?
C) A Labour party proposal, launched by a grinning Tristram Hunt and Chuka Umunna holding a massive flag?
D) A rejected plot from The Thick Of It, where Nicola finally snaps at Olly for proposing a policy of pure unadulterated ridiculousness?

The correct answer is actually and depressingly B, and Danny Alexander and Francis Maude will be launching the policy today. According to Alexander, the flags will be attached to everything from “roads in Cornwall to broadband in Caithness”, both examples that make you ask ‘how?’ Will there be a plaque every few hundred metres on the road, just to remind you, and just how do you attach a plaque to broadband? Meanwhile, Maude predictably trumpets this as part of the ‘long term economic plan’, which conjures up an image of a future where unemployment will be solved by employing millions in designing, making and affixing flag plaques to things.

Rejoice, citizens, and form an orderly queue at your local Office of Flag Attachment to receive your complimentary (and compulsory) full face flag tattoo to mark the taxpayer’s contribution to making you the person you are today.

Danny Alexander is a bad choice to lead on the economy in the election campaign

vincedannySo, despite months of people consistently saying it’s a bad idea, the Liberal Democrat leadership has confirmed today that Danny Alexander will be the party’s main spokesperson on Treasury issues for the election campaign, while Vince Cable will be restricted to commenting purely on BIS matters. Some people are claiming that this is no big deal, as those are related to their Cabinet positions, while others are not very happy.

The point here is that this isn’t a case of two people doing the same jobs they’ve been doing for the last few years. This is the announcement of the party’s key election team, the ones who’ll be dragged out to do the morning press conferences and the rounds of the TV and radio studios, as well as the ones who’ll have to debate their counterparts from other parties. These are key election campaigning roles, not ministerial government ones.

Mario Cuomo’s recent death has reminded me of his old phrase about the difference between the two: ‘you campaign in poetry, you govern in prose.’ You may have to make compromises if and when you get into government, but in the campaign you don’t. You show the best of yourself, put forward all your best policies and argue for them as strongly as you can.

The economy is going to be a central issue of this election, and the treasury spokespeople are likely going to be the most called-on for press appearances of all of them. The Liberal Democrats need someone in there who’s good at those sort of media appearances, not someone whose previous appearances in the media have been more reminiscent of Ben Swain from The Thick Of It than a polished and confident media performer. The job of being a party’s spokesperson – and implied candidate for that position afterwards – in an election campaign is not the same as being a minister. (If it is, those arguing for Danny Alexander should explain why Tim Farron is the chief voice on foreign affairs, another high profile role, despite having little Parliamentary experience in the area)

Regardless of the issue of how much distance and independence on economic policy the man who’s sat alongside George Osborne for almost five years can claim, an election campaign needs the party’s best given the most high=profile jobs so they can communicate the party’s policy to the media. To not give the most high-profile and frontline role on the economy to the party’s best-known and most respected voice on economics is foolish and hampers the party’s ability to campaign.

(UPDATE: I changed the title of the post, because the original one was far too long)