Opinion: Ming must stay

Ming must stayDropping the pilot is precisely the wrong reaction to our local election results. Last week’s results were not fantastic, although Mark Pack has rightly pointed how well we held up in our key seats. That old saying remains true, though: while success has many parents, failure is an orphan. This seems to be the case with our “mixed bag”.

While we all take pride in the quality of our local campaigning when he win, we are naturally more inclined to blame the national leadership when we lose. So is it all down to local fighting or national leadership? The truth, of course, lies somewhere in between.

There is a national climate, over which our leadership and MPs have some influence, that sets a mood music. On issues like Iraq, in 2003 (when many of the 2007 seats were last fought), we enjoyed a flourish of goodwill even in our least active local parties. However, it’s hard to see how anybody would have replicated this success in 2007, even if there are plenty of armchair generals who think they could. There is something to be improved in our national message but I’m not sure it’s got anything to do with Ming.

Four years ago, we faced a Tory party led by Iain Duncan Smith, and dismissed by the national media. Liberal Democrats do not often have the influence to generate the national media climate; all our leadership can do for much of the time is skillfully tac with the wind to maximise our exposure. In short, given the prevailing conditions, our leadership held their own in the “air war”.

What will have made more of a difference in the seats we did extremely well or extremely badly is the “ground war”. It’s a Lib Dem platitude ‘where we work, we win’. But it’s pretty much right, with the caveat ‘where we work smarter we win even more’. The party’s biggest challenge is to grow its base: to get more members and activists, and to continue to transfer the skills of our campaigns department to our campaigners in the country. Councils we’d run for years could happily withstand the Tory advance, and often make gains from them with the right experience and campaigning. Where mistakes were made in administration or electioneering (or both), we unsurprisingly suffered. But while the national mood music meant there was some momentum against us, the biggest factor in any council seat result was down to local campaigning and local politics.

What do we need to do in the future? Two things.

Nationally, we need to do better at articulating a clear message of what Liberal Democrats are about; what the “liberal” part of our name means. That’s something we began to address in “Meeting the Challenge” that still needs more work. However, much of our work on costed, principled and distinctive policy is moving us in this direction.

Locally, we need to strengthen and expand the party’s excellent training and mentoring programmes so best practice is spread more widely. In the absence of being able to clone Chris Rennard, the campaigns department and ALDC’s mentors, we need to do that. Members all over the country need to be more willing to seek out and adopt that best practice.

Are either of those goals really aided by changing our leader?

Blatantly not.

Both are processes that involve internal development and reform, which Ming is applying himself to.

Figures out today show he’s the most trusted political leader in Britain. While Ming has obvious image problems, he’s got equally obvious strengths of character. His national profile may not yet equal that of Paddy or Charles at the end of their leaderships, but the point is he’s pretty much at the beginning of his.

It is hard to believe that the same commentators, often no friends of our party, are barracking Ming for not being Charles Kennedy, after they endlessly criticised the latter in his time. It seems the fate of all Lib Dem leaders to be liabilities in their lifetime and much-missed assets in retirement. I would have preferred Kennedy not to go, but I’m not convinced our local election results would have been drastically different if he had have done.

It’s not yet 18 months since Ming won a strong endorsement in a democratic election. Ming didn’t get my first preference in the leadership contest, but I have absolutely no desire to see him go. 26% of the vote in local elections is nothing to undermine the mandate he won, and we would be frankly mad to engage in another bout of changing the leader. We need to get down to the real work behind-the-scenes and on-the-ground.

Attacking Sir Ming is the wrong answer to the wrong question at the wrong time. He should stay.

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This entry was posted in Op-eds.


  • “although Mark Pack has rightly pointed how well we held up in our key seats”

    Torbay? North Devon? South Norfolk? Gordon?

  • Count me in!!

  • The national leader matters on national elections. The national leader matters barely a jot on local elections. I did get people complaining on the doorstep about the Lib Dem leader of the council. Nobody mentioned Ming. For that matter, nobody mentioned Cameron, and only one person mentioned Blair.

    Say that Ming is old, say that he’s insufficiently confident at PMQs, say that he needs to loosen up. But the only way a different national leader would have made a difference in last week’s elections would be if our leader had been the second coming of Christ himself. We did badly in some places – including mine – because we didn’t campaign enough on the right issues. Nothing else.

  • In my view the Lib Dems have great polices but uncharismatic leadership. The Tories have no policies but a charismatic leader.

    Sadly in modern Britain having a charismatic leader seems more important than having sound policies

  • Richard Huzzey 12th May '07 - 7:55am

    I think it’s very important who our leader is, and I’m not rubbishing the importance of the role. But I don’t think changing him would achieve any advance in the areas we need to improve in.

  • Richard if you don’t know i know people who well…the electorate who for 2 years have stayed well away from us. What do you think a signal, or as long as we think different then thats alright. Jesus, get a grip people, just look at the poll figures and speak to people. Ming is a disaster and you bloody well know it!!!!!

  • I think members are just a bit dissapointed with Ming. the local election results certainly weren’t ming’s fault but then again he certainly didn’t help. The problem the party has at the moment is a stronger oppossition and the fact we have yet to set out a greater vision for the country. Ming is also not the most charismatic man in British politics around and there are plenty of others in the party who have greater vision, charisma and integrity (simon hughes, nick clegg, chris huhne anyone?)so it can be frustrating for us to be ‘held back’ by this leader but at the same time i dont think a leadership election at this point would be too good for the party and it really depends on how ming fairs in the next general election that will define him.

  • Hywel Morgan 12th May '07 - 10:45am

    “although Mark Pack has rightly pointed how well we held up in our key seats.”

    Only partly. He’s shown that we polled well in some (largely Labour leaning seats) – however the key thing is are we doing better than we did 4 years ago and also to look at the whole range of Parliamentary seats.

    The party is in my view in serious danger of spinning these results to themselves which will not help us in future local elections.

  • Big Mak – but the voters have not deserted us – in fact we have had a fairly consistent share of the vote for the past few rounds of local elections.

    Last year you blamed Ming for the poor results in your area. This year we did much better in your area. Why aren’t you crediting Ming with that?

  • Hywel Morgan 12th May '07 - 2:40pm

    “there are plenty of others in the party who have greater vision, charisma and integrity (simon hughes, nick clegg, chris huhne anyone?)”

    This is the big argument advanced by the “ditch Ming” brigade. It seems though to have little basis in reality.

    If people point to the impact that Nick and Chris have made in their spokesperson roles then (a) it seems fairly minimal and (b) nowhere near that established by Ming in Foreign Affairs before he became leader.

    The failings of the party since Ming became leader are firstly not that massive (the issue is learning the lessons from them for the future) but secondly would have arisen even if Charles had remained leader so to lay them at Mings door is missing the point.

  • Hwyel – it’s a fair point that you have to bear in mind the comparisson with the local elections in the run up to the last general election … which is why, yes, that’s what we’ve done. And yes, the picture of us doing as well or better in held seats overall holds up – as does the picture of us doing well enough in a range of target seats to be hopefully of gains in many of them.

  • Hywel Morgan 12th May '07 - 5:53pm

    The powerpoint slides I saw the other day referred our vote share being up in 13 seats – excluding Torbay which suggested a more selective sample was being used. (might have been 18 seats but the point still holds)

    There are points that can be taken from places that had good results but if people believe that these results were generally OK then they are much less likely to take them on board.

  • Chris Rennard 12th May '07 - 6:18pm

    I obviously agree with Mark Pack’s initial point about where we did well.
    a) We did well in MOST Lib Dem Tory marginals at the last election – places such as Eastleigh, Westmorland & Lonsdale and Solihull.
    b) We did well in MOST of the seats that we narrowly won from Labour last time – including Rochdale, Bristol West, Leeds North West.
    c) We did well in MOST of the seats that we will aim to take from the Tories next time -including Eastbourne, Guildford, St Albans.
    d) We did very well in MOST of the seats that we will aim to take from Labour next time including Northampton North, Hull North and Warrington South.
    But the reason that we lost so many seats overall (in spite of maintaining vote share at 26%) is that we lost 155 seats (63% of all of our losses) in just 10 councils (of which only one might currently be considered as a key seat) and almost all our other losses were also outside our key seats. Rallings/Thrasher forecasts come with big “IFs” that are seldom properly publicised, but this is why they say that these local election results repeated in a General Election would see an increased number of Lib Dem MPs.
    So let us not despair, let us learn the lessons, move on and do better in future.

  • I’m a member of the Liberal Democrats and I want Ming to stand down.

    There we go, I’ve said it. Ming deserves praise for his commitment, his energy and the real improvements he’s made to the party machine.

    However, it’s time to face facts. He projects the wrong image and performs badly at PMQs. Given who he is, this won’t change. Both matter and if we don’t fix them soon we will lose support and a swathe of seats at the next GE.

    I know that the original leadership election gave him a clear mandate, but that election was severely compromised. It is not the ringing endorsement his supporters claim.

    I want the party to succeed and for that we need a real contest between Chris Huhne and Nick Clegg ASAP.

    A long standing LD member

  • 21 A pedant writes – that is 63% of our net losses, Chris.

    I agree otherwise – I have seen a spreadsheet for all the English seats we hold (local elections before last GE, Last Ge, local elections from 2005 and most recent local elections) that was generally fairly rosy.

    Torbay wasn’t – but we have had terrible results there before and gone on to hold the seat.

  • In reply to Chris Rennard (post 21):

    Those reasons MIGHT just explain this years council results, but they don’t explain:

    1) A gradual slide in the opinion polls
    2) The results in Scotland
    3) The Times poll on Ming’s popularity showing 54% of our supporters want him to stand down v 39% to stay.
    4) The complete lack of enthusiasm I am getting for Ming on the doorsteps.

    Ming does deserve praise for what he’s done, but THERE IS AN IMAGE PROBLEM. Please could Ming, Vince Cable, Simon Hughes or Chris Rennard please show me they understand this and have an answer!

    a LD member

  • Aaaagh – an IMAGE PROBLEM? So that’s it – he is intellegent, mature, detailed, reasonsable, and smart. He is not a spin doctor, not a PR freak or headline chaser.

    So with all the largely positive results in the elections just gone, this leader is being pushed to one side because of his image (and, I suggest from this, his age), and all because some LibDems want Tory defection targets Laws or Huhne as leader?

    Why aim for yet more leadership election blood-letting at a time when we need a competent leader to guide us through Brown’s first months as leader. Oh wait, we DO have a competent leader.

    Don’t go off one set of election results – it reeks of desparate power hungry image politics and it stinks.

  • You also have to ask why a slide in the opinion polls matters if, when people actually go out to vote, the % share is roughly unchanged.

  • The ‘debate’ over Ming’s future is, frankly, becoming rather wearisome. Having any other leader during these most recent elections would have made little difference to our results.

    Firstly, national leaders only have a marginal impact on local elections. Secondly, alternative Lib Dem leaders would also face the same difficulty in breaking into a news agenda dominated by the ongoing saga over when Blair will step down and, now, whether we have yet to see the ‘real’ Gordon Brown.

    The Tories have also struggled to make the news agenda in recent days – except when Cameron’s flakiness gets them in a muddle over their education policy.

    Ming’s real qualities will come to the fore once Brown is installed as PM and, particularly, when we approach the election when media balance rules apply. My sense is Brown’s government will struggle after a few weeks for the same reasons Blair’s is – Labour are tired. The Tories will struggle once they start to produce the results of their numerous policy reviews.

    Ming may well be perceived as a potential ‘kingmaker’ in the lead up to the next election. In that role, experience will definitely be an advantage. He’ll be taken seriously and justly so.

  • Graeme, opinion polls DO matter because they ask how people would vote in a General Election. Of course if you’re happy to get councillors elected but not MPs then that’s your business.

    Liam, image DOES matter. If you don’t believe me ask yourself why Blair did so well in 97 and why Cameron’s rating is so good now.

    I want the LD voice to be heard on justice, civil liberties, foreign policy, energy policy, etc and that means having a high-profile leader that the public actually likes.

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