Tuesday, 12 January 2010

Gittin' pally with Ally

As things happen I managed to catch the Daily Politics on the Beeb at lunchtime yesterday.

The appearance of Danny Alexander caught my attention (watch here) - especially considering I strongly criticised him over his last interview with Andrew Neil during the party conference.

There are a number of things worth mentioning on this, but first I have to say - I like Danny Alexander. His enthusiasm, eagerness, inquisitiveness and receptiveness to criticism mark him out as someone who will be a bedrock of LibDem politics for decades to come.

He comes across as a bit fresh-faced and serious, but there's nothing wrong with that in itself.

It was particularly noticable that he has grown in his presentational abilities since I last commented. He still got a rubbed a bit up the wrong way by Neil's aggressively pedantic orthodoxy towards the end, but he was much better in getting his message across by remaining calm as long as he did (although he was also helped out considerably by the televisual naivety of former Blair advisor David Hill who jumped in to offer support towards the end and in so doing diminished the aura of negative criticism inspired by Neil which tends to become directed towards the party under scrutiny).

However there are two matters which arose in the questioning that are worth dealing with.

The first was relating to the reason he was there in the first place: justifying Nick Clegg's 'wholesale' ditching of spending pledges.

Neil asked why Alexander couldn't spell any of these intentions out during the conference, when he asked whether LibDems didn't think they weren't unaffordable, as he claimed 'we all knew they were'.

Following the script, Alexander didn't notice the deft change of emphasis and tried to plough on, when he could easily have spotted the obvious out: things have changed in the period since September.

While the economic trends may be better than they were at that point (discounting the extraordinary seasonal events), the full scale of the government deficit has been brought more into the light. So when it was put to him that the proposed taxation policies may look good on paper but work less well in practice he found he couldn't quite escape the inquisitioners trap.

Personally, I think Labour's over-dependence on stimulus policies suffer from the laws of diminishing returns, so by arguing that easing quantative easing (ie reducing the speed of growth of the deficit) is a direct policy that can be initiated he would have gained more credibility for the details which he was stating would cut the debt.

More simply, dumping pledges which cost several billions is tinkering at the edges when compared to the hundreds of billions spent on preventing the collapse of the currency. You can't promise fiscal responsibility and cutting debt levels when the cuts you propose are smaller than the rate of growth. It is vitally important to start with the big picture.

Nevertheless he did make significant headway by arguing for the principle of equalisation as a basis of fairness, but on the point of 'bankability' of additional revenues he could have stated fairness isn't created on the swish of a magic wand - it is something that is won incrementally. Tax avoidance, such as not taking the gain on capital, is not possible if such a reform in favour of fairness is a permanent and universal shift in the philosphy of government - which is something the other parties have been demonstrably incapable of doing.

To successfully attack the rhetorical nature of opponents arguments it is necessary to highlight their inconsistency and incoherence and Alexander only started to do this - he didn't allow himself the courage of his convictions to give it enough weight to hit home and he didn't throw in combination to make the score a knockout.

The second point worth raising was when Neil's eyes lit up like the old dog he is to pitch a wedge in between the definitions of values and performance.

Danny Alexander could have responded niftily that performance is a measure of values, or that performance is a valuable measure itself, or something along those lines. Short, sharp and succinct.

Now this is a linguistic twist, and could be laughed off as such, but it is illustrative as a way to negate the tactical wedge. He would have debased the oppositional debating style set up in a two-way interview such as this and forced the questioner to reformulate the question to something which would open the door to actual information. In the end it was Hill's intervention that tipped the balance and changed the viewers' perception - Danny also just managed to get the strike in that he'd made a convert to the cause

To start with such a wedge presumes a distinction between ideology and realism, which in my personal philosophy is just not there, or at the very least, not necessarily. 'Evidence-based policy-making', 'dealing with the facts as they are not as we'd like them to be' etc is a well-established form of principled reasoning, but it is also one which is a struggle to get across in almost all circumstances - it just doesn't conform to entrenched traditional expectations - as such realism is one of the core tenets of any form of liberal ideology (only one, mind you).

When presented with such a opportunity a hardcore LibDem should really be alive to the situation and take it up, spotting a chance to explain how our environment is the making of our problems and that by better understanding it how we can take control of it.

Now if this were 'strictly come political interviewing' you'd be right to guess I'm a tough judge to please. I'd be tempted to give Danny Alexander an average mark, though possibly slightly higher than David Cameron on Andrew Marr's show at the weekend.

Where I'd draw the line of comparison, then, would be to note where Alexander is slightly flabby, he has much more depth to him than the shiny plastic Cameron - Alexander can get a bit more trim, but Cameron will never be anything other than soulless (especially if his advisors encourage more air-brushing and blandness as the way to appeal to the potential voters).

While I recognise the country may feel that a solid front and centre (or fringe and side-parting, as someone said to me) is required in the short-term, politics is a process, not a race; what gets people excited is not what will sustain.

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