After a significant amount of media hype, and some technical difficulties with the livestream, Vince Cable’s grand new vision for the future of the Liberal Democrats was unveiled on September 7th 2018.
Cable’s vision for the Liberal Democrats sought to catch onto the current people-powered liberal resurgence, closely associated with Trudeau’s Canadian Liberal party and the success of La République En Marche! in France. Cable set out to do this with a series of radical structural444 reforms designed to revive the party of the centre ground.
Though unsurprising to many, Cable’s pledge to step down after Brexit leads the headlines in the wake of his speech. However, what is far more interesting for those following the fate of the Liberal Democrats is the three major reforms he hopes to get through the membership before he departs.
The first of these is a supporters’ scheme, described by the Lib Dem leader himself as ‘Momentum for moderates’. Free to join, the new system seeks to attract the support of the liberal-minded who aren’t quite ready to take the party membership plunge. It will undoubtedly draw comparisons to the Labour party’s controversial Momentum movement.
Furthermore, the contentious decision to refer to the Lib Dems as a ‘moderate’ party has rekindled the age-old centrist vs liberal debate within the party. The leader has received some support on his choice of language from Lib Dem leadership favourite Layla Moran, who recently described herself as “incredibly proud of being rational and moderate" on BBC Newsnight.
A supporters’ scheme seems a sensible move for a party driven by pavement politics like the Lib Dems, who already rely heavily on non-members at a local level for leaflet distribution and word of mouth rapport building. Nevertheless, plans for supporters to be able to vote for the next Lib Dem leader prompt questions about what sort of leader this new influx of voters could endorse. Best guesses? A pro-European figure like Gina Miller, should the anti-Brexit crowd climb on the wagon. Alternatively, a radical new populist liberal face to shake the foundations of the ‘old boys club’ liberal establishment.
How, you may ask, could such a figure be sourced from the current Lib Dem dozen in Westminster? This is where it gets interesting.
The second big pledge in Cable’s new plan for the Liberal Democrats is to open up the party’s leadership to non-MPs, presumably in an attempt to expand their prospects for leadership candidates. This will be supported by the third pledge: abolition of the minimum membership time in order to stand for office, which currently sits at one year.
The introduction of Cable’s significant proposal would mean the Liberal Democrats’ leadership elections being exposed to a much wider pool of applicants. While an approval and shortlisting process should provide some regulation, this hasn’t settled the concerns of the membership.
Attitudes towards this policy from party members and affiliates seem divided.
A cohort of members see the idea of opening the leadership to non-MPs as lunacy, with core concerns being the credibility of a leader from outside Westminster. Others feel that a party leader ought to have worked their way up the good old fashioned way. The idea, one can assume, is that you cannot possibly be leader of the party without having hauled your fair share of local Focus leaflets round suburban semi-detached streets in the pouring rain.
Other feelings towards Cable’s key reform are very much mixed. Disgruntled radical liberals, increasingly dissatisfied by the party’s move away from the mischievous establishment-challenging party it once was under Kennedy, sit firmly to the left of Cable. Another cohort of members search desperately for a popular leader in the style of Corbyn or Trudeau to lead a trendy liberal resurgence. In the middle sit members who simply seek a defibrillator for the stuttering heart of their precariously placed party.
With the party’s autumn conference in Brighton coming up next week, I can’t imagine there will be a shortage of topics for discussion.
In lieu of a conclusive verdict on the reforms, as it is rather too early to tell how they might work, I would instead question why these specific reforms were chosen at all.
When choosing the hill upon which he wished to die, Cable had an almost infinite array of popular reforms to choose from. Would he challenge the party’s much criticised disciplinary processes? Perhaps he could push for the return of the headline grabbing liberal policy of old? Should he finally allow the Young Liberals to debate the green belt at conference?
The ultimate question is why, with such a vast number of options available to him, did Vince Cable choose this particular mix? And what will it mean for his legacy as leader?
Whatever his motivation, Cable’s speech has certainly stirred up quite the debate about the future of his party, and what it really means to be a Liberal Democrat.