The last time the Liberal Democrats voted on party leadership a fair degree of guesswork and wishful thinking was at play. Guesswork for the Labour Party was also going through a much more protracted leadership campaign, the result of which would reveal the wisdom of the Lib Dem choice; and wishful thinking, in that the party was shell-shocked from the loss of support in 2015 and was very much in the stages of grief.
In that race we were blessed with two fine and distinct candidates in Tim Farron and Norman Lamb, both of which represented differing paths to recovery. Tim, having always stood apart from the Coalition and whose policy priorities were on the left flank, was the ideal opposition candidate. Norman, on the other hand, was a centrist and former minister who rather than distance the party from its government record would have been a reminder of it.
So from a strategic perspective, who was to be the better candidate? The first consideration was who would stack up best against our fellow opposition leader. At the time the candidates were Yvette Cooper, Liz Kendall , Andy Burnham, and Jeremy Corbyn. Three were painfully dull embodiments of the detached managerial-style Labour that the public had come to loathe, and the fourth represented the hard left of the party, for whom the conventional wisdom was didn’t stand a chance.
In this respect our choice was very clear. Tim Farron would be best placed to exploit the bland managerial style of Cooper, Kendall or Burnham. Against any of these, Tim would be able to peel off Labour voters, just as the party had done in the era of Blair/Brown. One snag was if the unlikely event happened and the Labour Party picked Jeremy Corbyn, the embodiment of the protest vote. Under those circumstances the ideal candidate would be Norman Lamb, whose responsible reminder of economic stability would appeal to centrists uncomfortable with Corbyn’s hard left rhetoric.
The other consideration was much wider: should the party be proud of its record in government or seek to distance itself from it? At the time of the leadership campaign we had just been hammered for the failings of the Coalition whilst the Conservatives had been rewarded for its various successes. The economy was doing well and there was no suggestion that this was likely to change anytime soon. Like the personality consideration, this too seemed remarkably straight forward. If the economy continued to perform well, there was no mileage in continuing to argue the Coalition’s case considering the public were more than happy to continue letting the Conservatives manage it. The obvious strategy would be to draw a line under the past, conduct something of a mea culpa and try to rebuild trust. The only unlikely circumstance where this was the worse outcome would be if the economy took a sudden downward turn, or if the Conservative Party did something reckless and abandoned the sensible centre ground.
In both instances the party chose the obvious choice and selected Tim Farron (admittedly at a smaller margin than expected) and unfortunately in both instances the unlikely events happened. First Jeremy Corbyn was elected leader of the Labour Party, effectively neutering Farron’s USP, then the Conservatives embraced Brexit, abandoning their previous commitment to a healthy economy.
The Liberal Democrats had gambled and lost. Thinking it a flaw, we’d cast aside what could have been our greatest strength.
Now that was an extraordinarily long introduction to the conundrum that we face now, but the choices and lessons from that election remain relevant. Tim proved an energetic and inspiring leader, but this failed to translate into a sizable recovery. I do not put this down to his performance or policy choices, in most cases I believe he did exceptionally well. The problem, as illustrated above, was that he was specialised for a parliament we expected but didn’t receive.
Just as in 2015 we are faced with the facts of where we find ourselves – a small party in a polarised society, associated with the remain vote in the EU ref, the residue of the smear campaign against Farron’s private faith, and continued contamination from the Coalition – and two factors from which to choose our leader: how does he/she compare to the other leaders? and what direction are they to take the party in order to exploit our strengths and minimise our weaknesses?
The candidates are yet to be known (although some have already ruled themselves out), but we have a general idea of what the political landscape may look like. Jeremy Corbyn has solidified his hold over the Labour Party, but the movement is very much a cult of personality so his chances of passing the crown to a successor remain remote. Without some major scandal, he’ll in place for some time yet. Theresa May might struggle on until Brexit is delivered, but equally she might fall and be replaced, possibly by Amber Rudd, Boris Johnson or David Davis. If the Tories were smart they would choose Ruth Davidson, but much would need to happen to allow that. Most expect the candidate to be Boris in order to out-populist Corbyn.
Whilst Corbyn remains in place, the left is closed to us. While we still get attacked over tuition fees, reminding people of economic competence is going to be a major sell in an era of hard-left Labour and a Conservative Party determined to tear us out of the single market. We shouldn’t fear a candidate with Coalition experience; indeed it will likely prove to be an asset as the contrast between Coalition and post-Coalition becomes ever more apparent.
None can deny that the smears against Tim affected us amongst our key demographic (I believe quite unfairly, but this is something we have to accept and move on). Our next candidate needs to clearly be a social liberal, pro-LGBT+ rights and a feminist. Like us, the Labour Party has never had a female leader, so beyond ending our own shameful record, selecting a woman would make strategic sense as well.
Our record on the economy didn’t help us in 2015, but it might have done in 2017 if we’d held strong and owned it. This is likely to be the case with our commitment to an EU referendum as well. A Survation poll had support for a referendum on the final deal at 53% and as Brexit bites this figure is likely to rise. True, it is frustrating that this didn’t pay off in the election we just had, but it laid the groundwork for a more resonant message later. Our next leader should embrace this USP, not distance us from it. Otherwise we may very well find ourselves fighting an election without the one policy that could have helped us win.
So which candidate fills these requirements? A survey conducted of 2209 members found overwhelming support for Jo Swinson (57% of first preferences), who does indeed fit the bill. The problem is she has ruled herself out. Whilst understandable (no one should ever be forced into what is ultimately a deeply unpleasant job) it does present the party with a significant problem: how can any leader maintain authority when the membership so clearly preferred another? Also Jo Swinson seemed uniquely qualified for this moment in time (in a few years hence Ruth Davidson could be Conservative leader and Labour too may have moved on); to not take advantage of this fact seems ill-advised.
Whoever takes over the leadership of the Liberal Democrats will do so at a time of both extreme peril as society becomes further polarised and centrists squeezed, but also one of unique opportunity. The country needs an energetic, pro-European, social liberal with a record of competence. We don’t have the luxury of time.
FINAL SIDE NOTE:
In 2015 the candidate I would have most liked to support for leadership was Nick Clegg. Whilst critical of him pre and early Coalition, I felt that his unpopularity and political beatings had turned him into an excellent leader and perhaps the finest MP in parliament. With a renewed mandate he could have been a constant reminder of a more economically competent time and a thorn in the Tories’ side. Alas, and understandably, he never stood, and a sound strategy was never explored.