Four questions for the Liberal Democrat leadership candidates

16 Jul 2019

Dust off your membership cards and panic search for your email passwords. It’s time to vote in the Lib Dem leadership election. 


Forget the Conservatives. Johnson v. Hunt could never hope to compare to the theatre, the spectacle, the preferential voting, in a race of only two candidates. If it’s unyielding optimism, centre-ground but not centrist politics, and a particular eight letter swear word that you’re looking for, then the Liberal Democrat leadership election is the leadership election for you.


That said, you’d be forgiven, not least by me, for not having kept abreast of the contest. The country is, understandably, gripped with horror at the competition in the Conservative party. To save you the time if you haven’t been following, here’s a whistle-stop tour of the candidates.


Jo Swinson sets out her three priorities as ‘building an economy that puts people and the planet first’, ‘harnessing the technological revolution’, and ‘rallying a liberal movement against nationalism and populism.’ A Coalition Business Minister, she was first elected MP for East Dunbartonshire at age 25.


Former Energy and Climate Change Secretary, Ed Davey, was first elected MP for Kingston and Surbiton in 1997, and describes his priorities as ‘decarbonising capitalism’, ‘translating liberal policy into action’, and building intra-party momentum to win elections.


Now we know the candidates. But, without delving into heavy ideology and the sort of niche policy debate Lib Dems thrive upon, on face value there is not a great deal that differs them. Unashamedly Liberal? Yes. Proudly European? Of course. Ambitious for the Party? Absolutely, in the great Lib Dem tradition of relentless buoyancy.


Both are inarguably qualified, having each over a decade’s experience as MPs and ministerial experience under their belts. And both have proven themselves capable of identifying injustice, and pushing for change. During the Coalition, Swinson was instrumental in achieving shared parental leave and, in 2003, Davey was successful in repealing Section 28. 


Thus, with the pair of candidates being seemingly so solid, how does one make their decision? A good place to start perhaps would be with their position on the most pressing Party issues.


1. What are you going to do to bridge the Party’s generation gap?

Spirit, debate, and ideas within Young Liberals are alive and impassioned. Yet not often are policy motions by Young Liberals selected for Conference. Our young members have an enormous range of knowledge and experience, from devolution to young people in care, to rural communities and living with special education needs. It seems something more than just a crying shame that, at Conference, our policy ideas are not given the time of day.


If that were not frustrating enough, conferences, dinners, training days, and campaigning all cost money – money that students and younger people struggle to find. With the presumption of disposable income where there is none, the Party can prove financially inaccessible to young people. 


I have been fortunate that my local party are enormously friendly but, without a strong voice in the conversation on policy, without the ability to attend Party events, and not to mention the condescension that undoubtedly we all know, young members find themselves isolated and abridged from the main party, not taken seriously, and not valued.


2. What’s your Brexit plan B?

Blasphemy of me to suggest perhaps, but there is no guarantee that we will see a People’s Vote with remain on the ballot paper. I found myself hugely frustrated, frustrated to the point of wanting to leave the Party in April of this year when, during the second round of indicative votes, our MPs abstained on the Clarke (Customs Union) and Boles (Common Market 2.0) motions (with the exclusion of Norman Lamb and Tim Farron, who brought themselves to vote for at least one).


It seemed inconceivable to me that we hadn’t a position beyond remain, that we hadn’t agreed on some sort of compromise. Leaving the EU is never going to please us, but if it came to a choice between something upsetting and something devastating, why did we not see it sensible to choose what is only upsetting? It would not have lessened our pro-EU beliefs. It would have been pragmatic, a plan for all eventualities.


If that wasn’t blasphemous enough, then I’m sure I’ll be condemned for this. There is no guarantee that we will see a People’s Vote at all. What is to happen if we do leave the EU? After all, if a People’s Vote is rejected then, surely, re-join will be too. Have we considered how to adjust our pro-EU, internationalist position to a Britain outside of the EU?


Since the referendum, we have berated David Cameron for not having planned for failure. It seems to me as though we are doing the same thing.


3. How are you going to make people want to be Lib Dems? 

Policy agreement is not always enough to spur a person into joining a political party, and most are not overly ideological. Furthermore, joining a political party is not always the done thing in some worlds: it certainly wasn’t in mine.


If we are to increase in membership, which we need, and to keep the membership motivated, which we need, the way of life within the party needs to be appealing.


Culturally, disciplinary procedures desperately need firming, work on which I know has begun. Young members must feel safe, all members must understand that holding an executive position, a council seat, or just a membership card, does not give legitimacy to harassment or bullying. Complacency regarding diversity, and the seeming authority of the white, male membership, needs fast addressing.


Our Party must not just appear to be wholly diverse but actually be so.  A vocal commitment and active work combating this should be a priority.


Structurally, the membership needs to better understand the inner workings of the Party, and the great deal of jargon and minute intra-Party structures need explanation. It is easy to feel powerless without that understanding.


There also needs to be sufficient, well-advertised financial support for working class members. Languages of the devolved regions must be supported. We mustn’t expect heaven and earth to be moved in a day by the membership, we do welcome work, but it must be clear that we do not expect more than they can give.


All members must know that they are safe and supported and have access to whatever they might need, and opportunities to grow. That way, we will ensure a membership who want to contribute.



4. What is our position on the coalition going to be?

Our attitude towards the coalition in recent times has been quite apologetic. It’s good to acknowledge where we went wrong. But we mustn't roll over to vitriolic Twitter brigades. Same-sex marriage, the Green Deal, pupil premium, no tax on the first £10,000 you earn, blocking the Snoopers Charter, are all examples of work to be proud of.


With Conservatives in government, austerity was inevitable to become policy, regardless of the presence of Liberal Democrats. What the Liberal Democrats did was stem some of the damage the Conservatives could have done. Not entirely, no, but I honestly don't believe that is a realistic notion to ‘what if’ about. 


However, there’s no use now in arguing the same point, with the same people, whose position didn’t change the first time. As much as we may be proud of our achievements in government, it’s a subject that divides and creates frustration inside and out of the Party.


As leader, it must be decided how the Party moves on from the coalition. No doubt we will still be questioned on its legacy, but the new leader must be firm on our legacy, and be clear on where we are headed, in order to finally allow us to move on.



Whoever is elected, I don’t believe that the Liberal Democrats will be in a bad position. What is crucial now is if the new leader understands that this is precisely the moment we have been waiting to reach.


Under Vince Cable, we stepped back and steadied ourselves. Now, with good standing in the polls, and good momentum in the Party, the new leader must make bold, considered, decisions to capitalise on that. No more holding back.


And I? I suppose I should decide who to vote for.



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