Hug A Hoodie presents a Lib Dem leadership interview even more exclusive than James Graham's excellent offering. This is a full transcript of the interview which LDYS exec member Mark Mills and I recorded for the BBC's The World This Weekend last Sunday. In the final cut, reporter Terry Stiastny only featured a few soundbites from each of us, but you can read the entire exchange here.
This is a "Hansardised" version - the content has been preserved faithfully, but I've edited where necessary for grammar, syntax and style.
Terry Stiastny: What’s the leadership campaign been like from your point of view? Has it been a good debate about the future of the party?
Jonny Wright: Not really, it’s been a bit low key. It’s a bit depressing in comparison with the Conservative leadership election a couple of years ago. To give them credit, although I didn’t agree with much of what was said on either side, they had two genuine points of view about the future of their party, and they had a good debate about it. I think that sort of debate needs to be had within the Liberal Democrats, but it isn’t really happening at the moment. I don’t think either candidate wants to rock the boat.
Mark Mills: I don’t really agree. It’s been low key, but that’s partly due to the fact that as Liberal Democrats, we get less attention paid to us than we perhaps deserve. But they are having a debate, and knocking around issues. It tends not to be a policy debate, because we don’t have the great divide that the Conservatives do; we broadly agree on a lot of things. It’s more about how we move the party forward, and how we make the party work for Britain.
TS: How are you likely to vote when you get your ballot papers next week, and how have your views changed over the campaign?
MM: I started off as a very enthusiastic Huhne supporter. I voted for him in 2006 when Ming Campbell became leader, and am a very big fan. However, I’m wavering a bit. I’m a supporter of the idea of school vouchers, which Chris has come out against. I think that’s an idea we shouldn’t rule out, but should give serious thought to.
TS: So it’s an issue of policy, rather than personality, which is making you doubt your support?
MM: Both candidates are very strong in terms of personality, and I would be happy with both of them. I don’t think we have to worry either way. It comes down to some very small differences in policy, because both can get the message across, and both can command the credibility needed to be a leader.
JW: It is about small differences in policy, but the problem is that it doesn’t give you much to go on. To me, it is more a question of who I could see at the helm of the party; who I could see as a better leader. I voted for Chris Huhne last time, but only as the best of a bad bunch, at what was a slightly uninspiring leadership election. This time, I’m almost certainly going to vote for Nick Clegg. I think he’s a good communicator, and an extremely good public speaker. He’s very good at set-pieces: conference rallies and conference speeches. That’s what sets the tone, and that’s what the media will pick up on. I can see him doing very well in behind-the-scenes discussions with other parties, on amendments and motions, and even if it came to a hung parliament. I could see him being good in those sorts of situations. I agree with what Mark says; either of them would be quite good. But for me, it’s Nick Clegg.
TS: So many people have said they prefer one or the other, for one or the other reason, but would be happy with either one. Is that a healthy debate? Shouldn’t there be more argument?
JW: It’s a good thing and it’s a bad thing. On the one hand, it means there isn’t a massive split in the party. With the Tory leadership election, you had two clear wings: the modernisers, who wanted to go forward and change the party, and the traditionalists. You don’t have that sort of big polar split in the Lib Dems. That’s a good thing, because the whole party is working together, but on another level, it doesn’t make for good internal debate, which we still need to have.
MM: I think we’re debating very vigorously at a certain level, if you read the blogs and other forums for party activists in local branches, but unfortunately, much of it hasn’t filtered through into the mainstream media. There are ordinary members who just pay their money every year, and I don’t know how much of the debate has got through to them.
TS: What about the age factor? Nick Clegg is 13 years younger than Chris Huhne. Does that make a difference in a constituency like this one [Oxford East], with a very big student population living in a marginal seat?
MM: I don’t think so. I’ve seen Chris talk to a student audience, and he’s very good, as is Nick – they’re both very comfortable with that sort of audience. I don’t think the difference is that significant. When most people visualise a politician nowadays, they visualise somebody aged between about 40 and 60, and the problem comes if you’re outside of that band. Within it, I don’t believe there’s much of a problem.
JW: I’m not sure age was that much of a factor even with Ming Campbell. It was more to do with his mannerisms. He was very old school, and sometimes even looked a bit doddery. That had more of an effect than his actual age. Vince Cable [who is almost Ming’s age] is doing very well as acting leader and has received a lot of goodwill and support across the board. I saw Paddy Ashdown being interviewed on the BBC in the run-up to Lib Dem Conference; he’s the same age as Ming Campbell, but looks about 10 years younger. It wasn’t about his age, it was about the impression he gave, and the way in which people responded to him.
TS: To what extent are students interested in politics in general, and in the Lib Dems in particular? If I went up to the people in the JCR watching Neighbours right now, and asked them what they thought about the Lib Dem leadership contest, would I get blank looks?
JW: I’m not sure you’d get blank looks; people probably would have an opinion. But there’s a split amongst students, as much as with any other group. You’ll find people who are very active within politics, for one party or another, and they’ll definitely have an opinion on the Lib Dems, one way or the other. The majority of people are interested in politics in general, and will see the Lib Dem leadership election going on in the background. They won’t have massively strong opinions, but will be following things on the news, in the background, with interest, but perhaps not especially keen interest. And as with the population in general, there’ll be a certain group of people who really don’t care.
TS: Do you think you’ll get a leader who’s going to be able to appeal to student voters, who will get people interested in politics, and interested in voting Lib Dem?
MM: Yes. I think we have a very strong set of policies that appeal to students, particularly on tuition fees, which is a standout issue. But also, students tend to care very strongly about issues like the environment, like Iraq, and like international development, and those are issues where we’re generally seen to be very strong. We can justifiably claim that we have something to offer.
TS: Are these the sort of issues people discuss in the bar?
MM: I can’t remember the last time I heard a political discussion in the bar. We spend far more time moaning about out tutors, or talking about Neighbours. The Lib Dem leadership election is a political issue, in the same way the Conservative or Labour ones were. Politics won’t get people excited until it engages with their ordinary lives. When it comes to deciding who to vote for, whether for a local MP who’ll vote to scrap tuition fees, or one who’ll vote to keep them, that will matter to students.