Tuesday, June 01, 2010

Who will be Lib Dem deputy leader and does it matter?

Who was the first deputy leader of the Liberal Democrats? Until I had cause to look it up recently, I had assumed that it was Alan Beith, who lost the leadership election to Paddy Ashdown in 1988. But in reality it was Sir Russell Johnston.

This suggests that the post does not much of a media profile. But that has not stopped the two declared candidates having extravagant ambitions for the post.

Simon Hughes' plans were described by the Guardian as follows:

In proposals that might alarm some Tories, Hughes wants the Lib Dems to have shadow spokesmen in the four government departments in which they are not represented at all, including Defra, International Development, and Wales.

He has suggested that the party appoint spokespeople in every other department who should normally be the senior Liberal Democrat on the relevant select committee.

He would also like to persuade the Speaker that a Liberal Democrat is normally chosen to speak after the coalition and Labour in the Commons.

Hughes would also like to see the parliamentary party continue to meet weekly and for a form of weekly shadow cabinet to be retained.

While Tim Farron wrote on Liberal Democrat Voice:
As Deputy Leader I would ensure that we had the infrastructure to continue to campaign and to do media and policy development, independently from the coalition. I would be never off your TVs and I would say things that make you proud to be a Liberal Democrat, I would fight to retain our principled stands on issues such as Local Income Tax, tuition fees and Trident, while being joined at the hip to the leader.
Maintaining a clear separate identity for the party while we are in coalition with the Conservatives is clearly an important and challenging task for the Liberal Democrats. But isn't that task for the leader and the party's wider democratic structure? It is not at all clear to me that it is particularly the role of the deputy leader.

I don't have strong feelings on the outcome of this contest, not least because, for the reasons given above, I am not convinced that it matters that much.

I suspect Tim Farron would be the safer choice. You would be less likely to wake up and hear him say something off-the-wall on the Today programme, whereas that slight unworldliness is part of Simon's charm.

On the other hand, Tim's campaign looks a little too much like an attempt to put down a marker for a future leadership bid for me to warm to it.

Still, I don't have a vote in this contest, so my opinion doesn't matter that much either.


NoetiCat said...

"But isn't that task for the leader and the party's wider democratic structure?"

The party leader is a bit busy right now would't you say?

Peter Sloman said...

I think the best precedent at the moment is the role played by Sir Percy Harris (who had earlier been MP for Harborough) as deputy leader and chief whip during the Churchill coalition of 1940-45. Harris took reponsibility for the internal workings of the party, especially in relation to policy development, and led the non-ministerial Liberal MPs in the Commons.

Part of the difference then, though, was that Liberals within the government weren't really doing any party politicking. This time round, Clegg et al will still be putting the party's case in the media and will still have good reason to attend to party policy development, giving less scope for the deputy leader to develop his own role.

Unknown said...

Two things:

(a) "Who was the first leader of the Liberal Democrats?" "some ting off" - Typo.

(b) "But isn't that task for the leader" - Thinko. Nick and the other ministers have responsibilities to the government and cabinet which compromise their ability to express disagreement with the compromise reached, which runs the risk of having the party's identity undermined. We need a high profile individual to serve as a representative of the LibDems outside of government responsibilities (I hate to say it but, functionally speaking, the deputy leader for the next 5 years will be our equivalent of the chairman of the 1922 committee, albeit with a higher profile).

It might make sense for it to be Tim, simply because Simon (and Ming for that matter) already has a high media profile. That said what Simon is suggesting above is exactly what I think we ought to do so if I had a vote (which I don't) I would be backing Simon.

Jonathan Calder said...

Typos fixed.

However busy Nick is with ministerial responsibilities, he is not going to give his deputy sole responsibility for party strategy.

I like the parallel with Sir Percy Harris. It is a shame his great-grandson cannot be deputy leader.