Tuesday, March 20, 2018

Forget “the Lib Dem family”: Let’s have proper leadership elections

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The first Liberal Party leadership election I followed was the one between David Steel and John Pardoe in 1976.

I can recall two incidents from the campaign, the first of them being that Steel’s camp suggested Pardoe wore a wig. (Years later someone from that era told me there might have been something in it.)

The second is that the Steel-supporting Clement Freud (MP, panel-show contestant and rapist) produced a quotation from A.A. Milne to describe Pardoe’s campaigning style:
With one loud Worraworraworraworraworra he jumped at the end of the tablecloth, pulled it to the ground, wrapped himself up in it three times, rolled to the other end of the room, and, after a terrible struggle, got his head into the daylight again, and said cheerfully. "Have I won?"
Steel, incidentally, would be Rabbit, with the posse of advisers, assistants and minor Commonwealth dignitaries that used to accompany him being his equivalent of the Friends and Relations.

The point of all this is to remind my fellow Liberal Democrats that our leadership elections are not always very enlightening.

So while it would have been to see someone stand against Vince Cable last summer, there is no guarantee it would have led to the debate about our future that those keenest on a contest wanted to see.

Because I can think of two contested Lib Dem leadership elections where the debate that was ducked.
Let me first take you back to 2007 and the contest between Nick Clegg and Chris Huhne.

The most noteworthy event of the campaign was an joint appearance on BBC1’s The Politics Show on Sunday morning where a briefing from Huhne’s camp was produced by the interviewer. It was headed “Calamity Clegg” and listed instances where Clegg had endorsed cuts in public spending.
I blogged about it at the time:
Clearly, the headline "Calamity Clegg" was a huge misjudgement on someone's part - and adopting the American "flip-flop" charge was silly and vulgar - but surely we are allowed to discuss policy in a leadership campaign? 
Nick Clegg began this one by pledging to take the party out of its comfort zone, but has since failed to give us much idea of what that might involve. He can hardly complain if another candidate starts to speculate on his intentions as a result. 
And dismissing any attempt to debate policy as creating "synthetic differences ... [which] our opponents will use against us" is just silly.
As the ensuing years were to show, Nick Clegg was less wedded to high levels of public spending than the bulk of the party – just look at the cuts in local government funding the Coalition brought in if you doubt me.

This disagreement over public spending should have been at the heart of the contesnt, but there was a widespread attitude withln the party that it was poor taste of Huhne to raise it at all.

Fast forward to 2015 and Tim Farron vs Norman Lamb.

The idea that Farron’s Evangelical variety of Christianity might prove a difficulty for him as leader was in the air, but for the most part it was raised obliquely.

Lamb put a lot of emphasis on his support for the ‘right to die’ because, I suggested at the time, it was an issue where most Lib Dem members agreed him but one where Farron’s beliefs would make it hard for him to do so.

If Lamb had raised Farron’s religion more directly, I doubt his action would have been well received within the party. Certainly, when some of Lamb’s supporters engaged in what sounded like negative push-polling, it was an embarrassment to him.

The result was that Farron’s religion was not discussed and the suggestion it might prove a handicap to him as leader was never broached.

It looks to me as though we Lib Dems are too scared of rocking the boat to have really informative leadership elections.

Some like to talk of the “Lib Dem family,” but in my experience happy families are those that can have lively discussions, even rows, and make their peace afterwards.
Featured on Liberal Democrat Voice
We Lib Dems, by contrast, resemble an unhappy family where everyone is sat around the dining table on their best behaviour and terrified of saying the wrong thing.


David Evans said...

I agree with this post wholeheartedly.

Sadly, although Lib Dems are wonderful people who believe in many good things, the other parties only pay lip service to, they are absolutely appalling at facing up to problems with other Lib Dems, especially those in power within the party.

Thus, with Nick, early in coalition, when people asked why he was making fundamental mistakes, that it was already clear were allowing the Conservatives to undermine the party, they were rebuffed or ignored. I remember a Lib Dem LGA conference in Bedford where about three quarters of the way through a Q&A session, the polite "Tell us how well we are doing" questions came to an end and one person asked Nick about the problems the party was facing and suggesting that he get some advisors from within local government who were experienced in the tricks the other parties use to undermine us. There followed a rather tetchy five minute lecture from Nick on how hard people were working and why things would be just fine, and that was the end of the Q&A session. Follow up questions were not possible because Nick was off the stage and gone.

Likewise at the Gateshead conference, there was the disgracefully named "Shirley Williams motion" (which was not submitted by Shirley) on the mess that was the NHS Reform Bill; so named to undermine a similar but much more critical and demanding motion submitted earlier. As it was, after a lot of pressure being applied to members who were on the paid staff to vote the "right way", the Shirley Williams motion defeated the more critical motion by 6 votes in the emergency vote ballot. Possibly at that moment the die was cast for coalition, with many radical members losing heart, and the leadership became emboldened to do ever more to undermine internal opposition.

Of course it all culminated in 2014 after the Euro elections disaster and the "Lib Dems for Change" when in so many ways, the party machine and Nick loyalists in positions of influence like Lib Dem Voice, suppressed real debate on the problems and the last opportunity for recovery before the final catastrophe in 2015. The "Nick got more votes than anyone else in the party and so has a bigger democratic mandate, so leave him alone" argument was trotted out so often. How the same people can trot out the we need another referendum when leave got the biggest mandate ever has no logic to it whatsoever.

After that we had Tim with his false dichotomy "You know, there are those that would like me to take this opportunity to distance myself from the past five years, to say it was all some dreadful mistake, to say: 'I disagree with Nick'. But I don’t. So I won’t.' And of course Vince with his "I don't believe that the Lib Dem brand is toxic" comment.

All in all, a family that prefers to pretend that everything is peachy to a party prepared to face up to harsh reality.

Laurence Cox said...

There is no doubt that Nick Clegg was not the right person to lead the Lib Dems, but would Chris Huhne have been any better? How would we have fared with our leader being forced to resign and sent to jail for perverting the course of justice? Arguably, the right leader in 2007 would have been the leader that we have now - Vince Cable, but he was deterred from applying by the vicious ageist media attack on Ming Campbell.

It is easy to criticise Tim Farron for his Christian beliefs, but if we say to Christians "you are not welcome in the Liberal Democrats" then we are cutting ourselves off from many people whose political position otherwise matches our own. Norman Lamb refused to vote against Article 50 being triggered, yet despite that some people think that he should have been leader. How could we appeal to Remainers if our leader was so agnostic on Brexit?

Jonathan Calder said...

David: Thank you. I think more comments on this blog should begin "I agree with this post wholeheartedly."

Laurence: I have never heard anyone say Christians should not be welcome in the Liberal Democrats.

Laurence Cox said...


If you really believe that, I suggest you re-read Tim's resignation statement as reported in Lib Dem Voice https://www.libdemvoice.org/breaking-tim-farron-resigns-54611.html in which he says:

"There are Christians in politics who take the view that they should impose the tenets of faith on society, but I have not taken that approach because I disagree with it – it’s not liberal and it is counterproductive when it comes to advancing the gospel.

"Even so, I seem to be the subject of suspicion because of what I believe and who my faith is in.

"In which case we are kidding ourselves if we think we yet live in a tolerant, liberal society.

"That’s why I have chosen to step down as leader of the Liberal Democrats."

Christianity is a broad church and my interpretation of certain verses in the New Testament differs from Tim's. Nevertheless his interpretation is not unreasonable and we shall only know on the Day of Judgement, which of us has been truly following Jesus Christ.

There seems to be an authoritarian tendency in the Liberal Democrats that fails to distinguish between theology and politics. Even as late as last April Tim was being praised by Jennie Rigg for his actions on LGBT equality: https://www.libdemvoice.org/lgbt-lib-dems-acting-chair-praises-tim-farrons-position-on-lgbt-equality-53970.html
yet there were members of the Party ready to snipe at him for his religious faith, safe in their unelected roles as members of the House of Lords.

Unknown said...

I have very bad memories of that leadership election, Jonathan

I remember Norman Lamb having to apologise because of the polling tactics of his supporters. I remember a lot of really nasty stuff about "true Liberals" being bandied about by the Lamb campaign that was worthy of the Yes 2 AV campaign. It was a horrendously negative campaign.

Tim's record was gone over in the minutest detai.

That campaign came just after the worst election result in our history. All the grief and anger we felt cast a long shadow over it.

I would campaign for Tim Farron every bit as vigorously as I did before because I believed that he was the right leader for that time. Had we elected Norman Lamb, it is unlikely he would have been so vigorously opposed to Brexit and we would have been completely extinguished by now.

Jonathan Calder said...

Caron: I voted for Tim too and for some of those reasons.

My central point is that there is no guarantee a contested leadership election last year would have led to much of a debate about the party's future.

That is not an argument against contested leadership elections, but it does tell us something about the nature of the party.