Tuesday, August 29, 2006
The wrong news
First, since it’s the serialisation of his book, it’s going to be the first of many wince-inducing articles about our former leader’s problems with alcoholism. I think that they are unnecessary, unfair, and cruel to a man suffering from a sickness and vulnerable to the same problems as many other people in public life. If senior party colleagues respected Mr Kennedy’s privacy in not revealing his battles with alcohol, I see this more as a service to Mr Kennedy than as a dis-service to the party and the public. It is not up to others to “out” someone as having a problem with alcohol. It is up to the person themselves. If we are the party of fairness and trust, I would argue that we should apply these principals to our leaders as much as all of our members and the public as a whole. It was the role of senior party officials and MPs to encourage Mr Kennedy to seek help, which they did, and to insist that he stand down when it failed. Which they did. The article accuses the party of a “conspiracy and cover up.” If we conspired to keep Mr Kennedy’s private illness just that, then we have nothing to be ashamed of in our conspiracy. I argue that it was nobody’s business but those to whom Mr Kennedy chose to make it so. He put his faith in trusted advisers, like we all do when suffering with problems. When the problems became bad enough to consistently impair his leadership, he stood down.
With our national media’s obsession with the private lives of public figures, is it any wonder that plans to reveal an alcohol problem were shelved. If it had gone ahead, our party’s leader would have become less well known as “Charles Kennedy,” and better known as “alcoholic Charles Kennedy.” The man and party would never have stood a serious electoral chance. Not for real, factual reasons, based on the actual problems in leadership that an alcohol problem induces, but due to newspaper screeching and prejudice which is the same reason we don’t have a more honest approach to alcoholism in the wider world.
My second problem with the article, Sir Ming Campbell’s leadership is again sidetracked from policy and serious debate, becoming mired in backward-looking accusations from the Kennedy era that do nothing but paint us as bumbling fools. I’m no media strategist, but to me, today should have been the day we capitalised on the clear distinctions between our policies on the NHS, and those of the government. Many of the other newspapers led today on the disturbing news that many of our elderly NHS patients miss out on food at meal times because nurses don’t have the time to administer the level of care required. I can vouch for this. I am often by my Grandpa’s bed at tea time in North Manchester General Hospital, and by the time the harassed nurses have doled out meals to the other 20 patients on the ward, most of whom should be in care homes rather than hospitals, my Grandpa’s food has gone cold or been fed to him by me.
Today we should be promoting our policies on care for the elderly and the future of the NHS, that mark us clearly out from Labour and the Conservatives, and see us offer quicker diagnosis and free care for the elderly. Instead, we are placed on the back foot and forced to defend years-old accusations about a former leader. We should have had the opportunity to take hold of the media cycle by the scruff of its neck and keep a tight hold of it until it was beyond the help of even the most determined NHS nurse! But we can’t now.
And it affects local campaigning as well. What chance do we have to make gains in Bury and start to make a real difference to the lives of local people in terms of our local environment, anti-social behaviour, local regeneration, fairer taxation and everything else, when issues are hijacked by this?
But the main problem I have with the article is that, again, Charles Kennedy’s name gets more media coverage than Ming Campbell’s. I get the impression from the media, and certainly from some of the local people I speak to, that Sir Ming is seen as little more than a stop-gap leader, biding time for someone else. This isn’t helped by assertions of the same in articles such as today’s, which says that “fourteen months before the 2005 general election… Sir Menzies privately agreed to a request from senior MPs to take over as caretaker if Mr Kennedy was forced to quit.” I get the feeling that a lot of people think that this has actually happened! This is not helped by announcements from Mr Kennedy that he is “ready for a political comeback.” Mr Kennedy remains an MP, and has done all along. Whether or not he makes a comeback to a shadow-Cabinet position should be a matter for the leader, not him. If he wants to tell people that he’s over his problems, then let Sir Ming appoint him to a position, and announce it together. Sometimes I feel that I quite fancy a stab at front-line national political activity myself, but unfortunately (or, perhaps fortunately!) I don’t decide!
Sir Ming Campbell is not a stand-in leader. He is our party’s full-time, permanent leader. The man is a respected MP of many years’ standing, with a distinguished and varied career before that, and was a former Olympic athlete before that. Sadly, his cause has not been helped by our party’s own attempts to commit very public electoral suicide on a number of occasions. The public scandals involving Mark Oaten and Simon Hughes, together with the ongoing Charles Kennedy saga, mean that, in my view, Sir Ming is struggling to cement his position. Resultantly, his own problems (such as his performance at Prime Minister’s Questions) are given far more weight than they deserve, whilst his successes (revised tax policies, by-election successes etc) are glossed over as something like the Superbowl Half-Time show whilst we wait for the real leader to re-emerge.
Imagine if his Olympic race was run again, but that two of his main competitors stumbled out of the starting blocks like amateurs and put themselves out of the race (Oaten and Hughes). His one remaining competitor (Chris Huhne) had never run a race of that magnitude before, and whilst he put up a brave challenge, he was never going to win. So Sir Ming crosses the line first, but is able to claim only a hollow victory. And all the while, his main challenger, Charles Kennedy, had to sit out the race serving a drugs ban! What kind of Olympic champion would that make?!
But the fact is that he is our Olympic champion. He is our winner, and he is our leader. We should publicly back him, and publicly shout down those that do not. Only when we do this can we seize back the agenda, put forth our good ideas, and beat those that challenge them and us. I want the local agenda to be about real issues for the people of Prestwich. I hope that it still is, and that distractions like today’s article remain away from my main aim of helping local people.