Thursday, 7 August 2008

I Love Lembit

I do, he's been great to me. And I warn you now though I hope I don't have to, ANY comments along the lines of "yeah it's just because you're a young woman", either online or in person, will take you down like a lead weight in my estimation.

I can be a very stubborn and forthright girl. Some might even say arrogant and belligerent. I find it gets me taken seriously in spite of my age and gender, so I cultivate it. My deep-thinking introverted caring-sharing half is, when occasion demands it, locked in a special box until a nasty situation is dealt with. I find myself in just such a nasty situation about now.

Last week I was very pleased to be included in the Lib Dem Voice Golden Dozen. I was much LESS pleased to find I was sharing places on a list of seven most popular posts, by click-through from the Lib Dem blog aggregator, with no less than THREE posts about Lembit, and none of them particularly positive. In at number one we had a cheap dig from Martin Land. At number two, a rather more sober but still miserable post from Nich Starling, who as I recall hasn't been the only person over the last few months to moan publicly about the fact that media coverage of Lembit's personal life detracts from the party's real messages. And at number three, ironically enough it was a post from Femme de Resistance pointing readers to the latest News of the World story about the man's lovelife. The really sad thing is, this rash of popularly read Lembit blog posts aren't even all related to one specific event -- the buzz about him is constant, ever since I joined the party I've heard enough of it to last me a lifetime in any given month.

Now, call me odd if you like, but it makes me deeply uncomfortable to see someone I'm meant to be on the same side as held up as a subject for a cheap joke, a bitter moan or a point and stare session. In fact, I'd go so far as to say I don't like to see anyone receiving that kind of treatment. I'd go even further: I am exactly the sort of girl who will hear gossip and rumour about a person and rather than take it on board, will go and make a point of scratching the slate clean in her head and making her own decision about the person. I've met some of my best friends that way. I've also come to love Lembit in the handful of occasions I've spoken to him.

It might help you out, if you're wondering why I'd have occasion to get to know him at all if I tell you exactly how and when these meetings occurred. Give you some background. And I hope it will give you a different view of him if you see him through my eyes.

The first time I was in the same place as him was at the very fraught and emotionally charged Special Conference held by the Welsh Liberal Democrats last year (was it only that long ago?) to debate whether or not to go into a rainbow coalition against Labour in the Assembly. That's the thing about being in the Welsh party specifically - it's quite a tight "family" and you'll get to see Lembit, if you're a particular fan, more often than you would elsewhere because of his role in the regional party. I was in fact sitting behind him and a handful of our AMs, keeping my head down as I was very new to the whole situation and more than a little intimidated by the roomful of huge characters I've since come to regard as friends. The only time I spoke inside that room was to dress down the stranger sitting next to me (who if I remember correctly was this gentleman who I must be quick to say has been much more pleasant on every occasion since that I've seen him) whose ire got out of control and led to him leaning forward and verbally attacking Eleanor Burnham to the point where she looked quite shaken... I noticed some of the 'grandees' on the seats in front of me looked round but hardly imagined that they would register who I was or what was happening - there was a lot going on in that room and well, I *thought* I was being fairly subtle. As a brick, as it turned out.

Obviously the circumstances were not the usual ones under which large groups of Lib Dems get together in a hotel, and I didn't have time for chit-chat with anyone as it was straight home to Pembrokeshire afterwards. However, a few months later I found myself quite unexpectedly at the big party conference in Brighton. Federal conference all on my own was a huge experience and worthy of a big flashback blog post all of its own, but the bit I want to concentrate on is the part where I walked into the conference hotel on the second night. Casting my eyes nervously over the room for one of the half dozen people I knew and finding none, buzzing faintly with tiredness and the exhilaration of being at large in a seaside town full of Liberal Democrats, I spied someone beckoning me over and calling to me. Lembit was busy and surrounded by people, but he'd recognised me and wanted to know how I was getting on, expressed that he was pleased to see me there at conference. We had a nice chat. I told him about the fact that I'm terrified of public speaking, and he grinned a big warm grin and told me he knew just how to cure me of that and made me promise to come to his training session on the Tuesday.

I never made it to that training session. It's a long story but suffice it to say here, and let it serve as a warning to any first-time conference goers who may be reading, that conference is incredibly exhausting, and if you try to do everything that looks like you need to join in with, you WILL burn yourself out by the last day and be good for not much. Unless of course you're a better person than me, and my ego doubts that highly. Lembit caught me (I think in the auditorium) later on and said it was fine, and he didn't need any excuses, and not to worry about it.

I don't do starstruck. I'll talk to anyone as I would any other human being. That said, I *do* do respect for boundaries, and I quite understand that the party's parliamentarians and high profile figures may not be able to be as warm with every lowly member as they would like to be, because they are so pressured, so I won't go out of my way to talk to them unless I have something specific I want to talk to them about and don't have someone less busy to talk to about it instead. So it's nice, and really noted, when they make the time to come and find me to chat to me. It doesn't necessarily mean I'm special - it means the person has a way of making everyone feel special. Some of our AMs are really good at that. Lembit is good at it too. Even at last year's Welsh autumn conference, where I only managed to attend for a few hours, and he was insanely busy and surrounded by cameras on account of being accompanied by Gabriela, he made sure he picked me out for a mouthed greeting and friendly eye contact.

Then there was Llandudno this spring. I finally made it to the public speaking training, just nearly six months late! I understand this is a professional calling for Lembit, encouraging and teaching people to be better at presenting themselves and their ideas. In fact I understand he can command hefty fees for doing it professionally should he wish to. But for anyone who hasn't had the pleasure of going to his training, he is really special at it. He makes you laugh, inspires you, and once again, makes you feel special. He not only gave me that bit more confidence I desperately need to speak into a microphone, he found me later in the day to give me specific constructive comments after I had summoned the courage to speak, and we chatted about friends of mine who had been close to his brother - he told me to set up an SAO (for the uninitiated that's an organisation within the party) called Lib Dem Friends of Goths and promised to join when I do it.

Here's the thing: Lembit is really human. And from the limited amount I know, he's also quite vulnerable as humans go. He's been through a lot over the last few years, and never once shirked his responsibilities as a result. He's also really bloody good at his job - I defy anyone not to pay attention when he's speaking, or to pick flaws in the way he handles his portfolios. We can have the tired debate about whether he asks for the negative media coverage when he courts the positive with regard to his private life. We can disagree about whether it is better to have a member of the party making the news in unusual places, connecting with people who are normally switched off by politicians, or whether we would rather have a dry policy-mad suit on our front benches in his place (I wouldn't). But you all know it's indefensible to snipe and gossip about your friends, I hope. And I hope you consider members of the party to be your friends. I do. So please, please, stop with the Lembit bashing, the News of the World devouring, and the moaning. Consider his feelings, or if you can't do that, consider mine and those of anyone else who is personally fond of him.


Peter Black said...

And yet you are supporting Ros for President! :-)

You are absolutely right about Lembit. He is a star and capable of inspiring on both a personal and a collective level.

My problem with him has always been the way he dissipates his talent. He has so much going for him but allows himself to be distracted by trivialities.

I don't really have an issue with the publicity he attracts, though I know some who do, but I think that he has let it get out of control to the point where it is undermining his position as a spokesperson. What is worse is that he will not take advice.

We all love Lembit but he can be very infuriating.

Chris Black said...

Well said Steph.

Martin said...

I used to have nothing but admiration for Lembit, but I now feel that he needs to go away and start to think about how serious he really is about politics. It's time he either made a proper full time commitment to the party and politics or went away and did something else. Whether you like my dig or not, the question to Nick was a simple one.

At a time when in my part of the country we are facing the threat of over development in the guise of 'ecotowns' do I really want our Housing Spokes to be Lembit Opik (there, no umlaults)?

I'm told he is finally come to visit South Cambridgeshire and Uttlesford, where two 'ecotowns' are planned on September 1st. More than THREE months after the Tory Shadow Minister visited. Two months after the deadline for submissions.

Just not good enough for a LD Shadow Cabinet Spokes I'm afraid.

I'm probably guilty of trivialising the issue, but beg you to consider that I didn't start it.

Thomas Hemsley said...

I agree, broadly. I remember meeting him briefly at the South West Regional Conference, when he was standing in for Simon Hughes, and he was really pleasant and attentive, even though I was nervously talking about some utter rubbish,

Alix said...

I too doubt there's any real problem with Lembit's publicity. I think anyone who thinks there is should perhaps put it in the context of our publicity and press as a whole party (i.e. dire, and shaped by forces totally and constantly inimical to us).

It's really very small beer if his press does generate any negative feeling towards us (impossible to measure anyway). Like worrying about what colour your tent is when you're using it to shelter from a snowstorm.

But I also think it's quite right we are demanding of our spokespeeps, because the best of them are really spectacularly good. Look at how Vince has made Northern Rock his baby. The press don't go to Osbourne any more. Chris Huhne made the environment the buzzword of the moment for us, and got our policy certified as top banana by an independent body.

CH had help, because environment was a hot topic anyway and the papers were ready for it - but you could say exactly the same is true of housing, more than some of the other portfolios. Can there be a better time for a liberal solution on housing to be shaped out and trumpeted from rooftops etc?

I saw Lembit speak at a housing fringe event in Liverpool and he was as passionate and innovative and well-informed as one could wish. But most people don't get to go to fringe events at conference, or have the benefit of your acquaintance with him.

It would be great to see him use some of his non-political publicity to drive the portfolio. The biggest omission I noticed was a lack of response to the Caroline Flint thing about chucking people out of their council houses if they didn't get a job. It was a perfect marriage of housing+liberalism and we should have leapt on it (I'm sure he did respond, but it wasn't visible to me, an interested daily scanner of all papers, is my point).

And, while the media are normally utter bastards to us, there's a good chance they won't be to Lembit. He has a unique opportunity.

Hum, sorry this is long.

Anders Hanson said...

I suppose I am with Peter on this. I have a lot of regard for Lembit but he also frustrates me. But the anecdotes about Lembit in this post remind me of my first contact with him.

I first came across Lembit before he was an MP and I had just joined the party. He was prepared to come all the way down from Newcastle to help the Lib Dem Society at my uni in Stoke in our first debate with the other parties. He really boosted my confidence.

Our paths didn't cross for a while until I went to work for the Welsh Lib Dems and he chased after me out of a meeting in his constituency as he didn't recognise me and was concerned that I was a party member that he hadn't spoken to.

I think those stories sum up some of what Lembit is good at - enthusing people, trying to get them involved and (at the risk of exaggerating Lembit to a far higher plane than is probably fair) that Bill Clinton thing of making you feel you are the most important person in the room at that time.

I suppose my doubts are about whether Lembit is doing a good job at his portfolio (although I could say the same about some of our other shadow cabinet members) and also from having heard him preach about improving membership and local party involvement and then having been able to compare that with the reality of his own local party. I've criticised the celebrity side of him before, but on reflection I think it is largely because it is a convenient excuse for being rude about him.

This is a good post though and a good antidote to those people who only ever criticise him. Like you I get annoyed at the continually negative press he gets from some in the party, and although he will take criticism (after all I have done that to him directly) he is probably not as thick-skinned as you would think.

Steph Ashley said...

Peter: you couldn't resist, could you? Bless. I suppose I should have expected someone to point out the potential irony inherent in having this long post right alongside an 'I'm 4 Ros' button.

You do touch upon part of the reason I'm not going to be voting for Lembit as party president in your own comment - I think he is spread far too thin as it is, he has enough on his plate so to speak without another title, another hat to wear, and he probably doesn't have the time to devote to the role. Secondly, the division of opinion about him sadly makes him a less sensible choice for a role in which a key responsibility is to encourage cohesion of opinion among the membership. Thirdly, although he would probably dispute it, he has less in common with ordinary members than Ros does - she has taken the scenic route into politics, through community campaigning and county council, and as such possibly has a better understanding of the nuances of balancing party activism with everyday life, making her ideally placed to lead us in my view and that of many others.

I find it interesting that you say he will not take advice. Do you have any evidence, anecdotal or otherwise, to back that up? I can't say it's a criticism I'm qualified to comment on.

Steph Ashley said...

Martin: thanks for your input. I am generally a fan of your writing, and was surprised to see the post you made. It's good to have the justification of your comment here.

I would say to you and to Alix to have just a little patience and let him surprise you. I hope I'm right. I just think that if I was going through a very public relationship breakdown, I would find it hard to turn that around without a relatively short period (as short as say the parliamentary recess) of lying doggo. Actually I'd probably be gibbering, and fairly desperate to know I had support from the party. Call me ardent, call me optimistic, but I believe as long as he knows we're behind him and we believe in him, Lembit will pull things around and make a really good job of his shadow ministerial responsibilities. Also, it's worth bearing in mind that the mainstream media aren't in the business of picking favourites and giving them a platform, so Lembit unfortunately doesn't get to choose whether his portfolio or his private life gets the publicity. That's not to say he's not doing a good job, just that the good job he's doing isn't being picked up by the press - and I don't believe for one moment that the press would suddenly take more of an interest in our housing stories if someone else took the portfolio.

Steph Ashley said...

Anders: your post predates my blogging days otherwise I would doubtless have remembered it and included a link. I take on board your near-accusation of hypocrisy regarding his local party involvement - it's something I have heard before. But I like to think if I were in Montgomeryshire I would understand that he doesn't have as much time as he would like to spend in the constituency.

I was thinking the very words "thin-skinned" myself when writing that last paragraph. He does come across as surprisingly vulnerable - I remember Jennie saying to me something along the lines of he's constructed a huge artificial ego to cover up his insecurity and that seems like a fair assessment from the feel I get from him in person. And when you realise he is human and not a magazine-airbrushed parody of himself, it makes you wince when you think about how much the party expects of him, all the while half the membership lambasting him. i have been advised this week that if I want him to come out to Pembrokeshire and do some recruitment training in the near future, I only need contact his secretary to arrange it. We ship him all over the country and he asks for nothing in return. Well I thought it was about time *someone* asked for something on his behalf - a little consideration really wouldn't go amiss.

James Graham (Quaequam Blog!) said...

I've just gone back to check what I've written about Lembit on my blog in the past. Apart from couple of veilled "cheeky" and "thumbs up" (if you don't know, you don't want to know) references, but generally I've laid off criticising him for how he conducts his private life.

I DO think the tabloid stories during the 2007 Assembly elections were a distraction, although to a degree that was a symptom of a wider failure to get the party message across for which Mike German shares the blame.

On a personal level I've broadly got on well with him but I don't think he's shone with his various portfolios over the years. He is fantastic on the stump and is clearly intelligent, but I simply haven't seen him make a dent with any brief he has been given.

He has been almost invisible since being given the housing portfolio. What I've seen us do on that area has been done by Andrew Stunell. I remember when Caroline Flint announced her plans for reform housing benefit. Lembit was on the Today programme that morning - talking about Nicolas Sarkozy and Carla Bruni.

A number of people in Cowley Street have nothing but praise for him when he briefly had the business brief. Apparently he had completely restructured the way the party manages its relations with business leaders people were appalled when he was yanked off the brief just as he was starting to make it work. I do think he should have been given more time to do that portfolio as it is an area I think he understands better than most of our MPs. But again, he hadn't made any impact.

But I've also had experiences where he has been a destructive influence. In 1999, LDYS worked on an ambitious campaign to gain more influence within NUS. We had a great slate of candidates and could have made real headway. But Lembit insisted on running his own personal slate of "independents" and did everything he could to undermine us. It wasn't a happy experience, dividing the student wing and generally setting us back years.

So in brief: is his personal life his personal life? Of course. Is he a nice guy? Sure. Is he charismatic and intelligent? Absolutely. But has he made the most of his various talents? No way.

If he had, and I am not exaggerating here, he would be the Federal Party Leader now, not Nick Clegg.

Steph Ashley said...

James, as ever you're eloquent and considered in your comments. I hadn't heard about that LDYS debacle - that does sound quite nasty.

I suppose if he has a flaw it is arrogance, though I guess that without that streak he wouldn't have got as far as he has, either.

I knew, but had managed to forget, how happy he was with the business portfolio and how he felt he was making it his own.

Perhaps, flippant or not, Martin Land had a point when he said he felt a reshuffle was called for.

James Graham (Quaequam Blog!) said...

I don't think he should have been moved from BERR. It was his first non-Welsh post in a decade, it suited him, and I'm not convinced it suited Sarah. And while he didn't make much of an impact, I understand he was doing a lot behind the scenes and even then I saw a lot more of him then than I do now.

Jennie said...

Well, I WAS going to do a long comment, but I think James has said most of it. Lembit clearly has lots of talent, but doesn't always use it as well as he might.

I have to admit, too, to having an instinctive distrust of very charming men (for entirely logical reasons), which possibly colours my opinion of Lembit more than it should.

Hywel said...

I agree with James - whilst I've had issues with Lembit in the past (though not on the scale of 1999 and he was very helpful in other regards) my criticisms of him are more that (in a Graham Hick type way) he's failed to achieve what his talent suggested he might have been capable of.

Were I an activist in Wales I wouldn't have been too impressed with him being in Venice proposing to his girlfriend mid-campaign.