Left Out Liberal

A left-wing/liberal look at the UK's General Election of 2005.

Tuesday, April 19, 2005

Paxman vs Kennedy

Justin over at Chicken Yoghurt is right to describe this spectacle last night as: "practically useless as a means of extracting information useful to the electorate and more an exercise in trying to make Kennedy look like a dickhead."

I stuck it out for the whole thirty minutes. Kennedy tried hard and put up a valiant effort against what I thought to be an extraordinarily attacking interview from Jeremy Paxman. It's just another reflection of the fact that the journalists like to be centre stage with their criticism, being the ones to score the points just because they've made the candidates wriggle rather than getting them to fully describe and analyse their own policies.

Paxman decided to follow up Kennedy's inability to have figures to hand for his local income tax policy that he demonstrated at the manifesto launch. Of course, it was ridiculous that Paxman expected Charles Kennedy to be prepared for any example thrown at him, and the nurse and fireman earning over £40,000 living in Cardiff Central was hardly (a) an example that Kennedy could have expected, and (b) probably extremely unlikely given the situation in Cardiff Central. He's not a calculator. He doesn't have the average council tax for a band D property in every council at his fingertips. But Paxman huffed and sneered when it became apparent that Kennedy had the audacity not to have a mastery of such numbers.

As predicted, also, Sir Ian Blair's comments on Sunday that I criticised were used in a neutral way to attack Charles Kennedy's principled opposition to ID cards. It's appaling that a partisan opinion has been dressed up as the neutral and thus clearly factually correct statement from a respected and authoritative academic. This is only the beginning, and Tony Blair will doubtless use the criticism against Charles Kennedy in future.

One of the disappointments of the debate was the fact that it generated more heat than light. Paxman decided to ask Charles Kennedy about Lib Dem party conference resolutions that are "officially" party policy under the party's constitution, but are not presented in the manifesto. Once Kennedy told Paxman that they are not in the manifesto and so are not going to be implemented in this Parliament if they win, the issue should have been stopped. Instead, Paxman went off on a discussion about giving the vote to prisoners and allowing 16 year olds to visit sex shops... neither of which the Lib Dems are offering this election.

But therein lies another problem, and it's the same one I was discussing yesterday that Paxman touched on at the end of the interview. He asked if Kennedy had the "killer instinct". Kennedy said he had, yet the interview had demonstrated in part the problem that he faces.

The interview did not discuss Lib Dem key policies. 50% tax on incomes over £100,000 was not mentioned. Student tuition fees were hardly mentioned. Free care for the elderly was not mentioned. Citizens pensions were ignored. Jeremy Paxman should have discussed all of these as part of giving the Lib Dems a chance to discuss their key issues, but when it became clear that Paxman was more interested in discussing giving prisoners the vote, the penny should have dropped in Kennedy's head that Paxman had no interest in discussing the Lib Dems real policies. All he was out to do was to prove the stereotype that the Lib Dems are a little weird and detached from reality.

From that point on, Kennedy should have took the interview by the horns and redirected it to the key issues that are certain vote-winners and are achieving consistently high approval in opinion polls, particularly the 50% income tax. It's a strategy that Blair had to use all the time in the run up to 1997. Instead, Kennedy just kept saying, "And that's an issue I hope we'll come back to." Paxman saw what he was doing and didn't let Kennedy back in. In a way he was proving to Charles just how easy it is for the media to set the agenda.

Charles needs to learn this lesson, and learn it fast. The election time is fast running out, and his best media opportunities in the next two weeks must be seized upon every time. He's got to keep hitting on the same policies again and again until we can all recite them off the top of our head. We can't afford to let people keep thinking, "I don't know what the Lib Dems stand for" when they have the best and most clearly recogniseable policies, distinguishable from both the other parties, for some decades.

This golden opportunity cannot be missed.


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