The (Lib Dem) Leadership Contest Nobody’s Heard Of?

Local Liberal Democrat party member, Simon Sansbury, who also stood for the party in the last local council elections, explores the party’s ongoing leadership contest and weighs up who should get his vote.

The starting gun was fired some time ago, but you probably missed it. Voting opened last week, on Thursday 30th July, but you probably missed that too. There’s a race going on that I presume the majority of people reading this aren’t aware of, and possibly care about even less. Of course, these meanderings, which I cathartically explore here are my own thoughts. When I posted about the contest on social media I saw I was not alone in finding myself in this situation. Some have already made up their minds – but as with any election, it’s the undecideds, the swing voters that hold the key to winning, just as much as the people that strongly support each candidate. It’s all well and good people agreeing with you, but if they don’t remember to cast their ballot it doesn’t help at the count.

I refer, of course, to the Liberal Democrat Leadership contest. I’ve been a member of the party since 2014. In many,  ways, 2014 seems considerably longer than six years ago, but in that time we’ve had four different permanent leaders – some really stretching the definition of permanent. Two of them lost their seats as MPs – one being our most recent leader Jo Swinson. It’s without irony that I found it easier to choose which candidate I’d support in the most recent Conservative and Labour leadership contests – in which I didn’t have a vote. In this one, I can’t decide. Yet.

In last year’s contest, I really struggled between Ed Davey and Jo Swinson. Ed brought experience, gravitas and detail. Jo brought an energy and excitement that, on the back of strong local & European elections in 2019, was compelling and alluring for many. Jo Swinson went on to win that election, but sadly not the one that counted in December. I’ll comment about the ‘faux surge’ of spring 2019 later.

It struck me that Jo was the kind of person that could excite and engage you, launch a rallying call – but wouldn’t really change your mind if you weren’t swept along by her style. Ed on the other hand, had detail and presence and could change your mind by discussing the subject in depth – he just had to get you to listen long enough.

If I was battling with indecision last year, I’m almost immobilised by it now. I’d genuinely love to hear views from outside the party as much as within it. Politics in many ways is a weird little bubble – the dedicated, hard-working and committed people that campaign are to some degree always more than a little bit detached from the real world. Even being a member of a political party means you’re something of an oddity. Ninety-eight percent of the UK population aren’t officially affiliated with a political party in any way*.

My own journey towards active membership of the Lib Dems was by no means predictable. I’ve always been interested in politics; from a young age I was moved by the detail of policy, that the ‘how’ was as important as the ‘why’. As a child of the Thatcher era, I had to wait until I was twenty-five to register the election of a non-Tory government (in which I voted Labour). I have also always been concerned about the environment – you can neither have a functioning economy nor a healthy and prosperous community if there’s no planet, no safe water to drink, air to breathe and food to eat. I’d been a (non-active) member of Greenpeace – but my friends would sometimes refer to me as ‘Tory boy’.

Wanting to get involved, but not knowing really to which wagon I should hitch myself, I found that I liked some things from the left, some things from the right, and yearned for a commonsense middle ground. I often found that in the Liberal Democrats. That explains the ‘centre-ground’ of the left-right spectrum, but the Liberal Democrats are much, much more than that – and it is this difference we struggle to explain.

Reading the preamble to our constitution was the hair-on-end moment which cemented with me that these ‘were my people’. Liberalism to me is about the ‘freedom from’ and the ‘freedom to’. The state has a part to play in protecting the vulnerable and making sure assistance is there when needed, and putting in place all the support required to ensure the circumstances in which someone started their life shouldn’t dictate or limit their opportunities. It also has the role of regulating commercial activity to protect citizens and the environment from abuse.

The Liberal Democrats exist to build and safeguard a fair, free & open society in which we seek to balance the fundamental values of liberty, equality & community, and in which no-one shall be enslaved by poverty, ignorance or conformity.

Taken from the preamble to the Liberal Democrat constitution.

That’s how I got here, but what of this year’s contest?

Why aren’t I just content to repeat the vote I took a mere twelve months ago? At the time members hoped that Layla Moran would stand for leader, but she was a new MP (elected in 2017 after overturning a 9,582 Tory majority) and chose to focus her time and energy on that.

Last week, the party held an Environmental Hustings (online of course). When he was Minister for Energy & Climate Change in Coalition, Ed Davey forced the Conservatives to accept steps which quadrupled the renewable power generation in the UK. The success of this can be measured by the fact that the UK hasn’t burnt coal to generate electricity since April. Hustings are available from the Lib Dem Youtube channel or streamed on Facebook, and open to all to view.

Both of these candidates speak to issues I am passionate about. I want a fairer, greener, safer society. Both have personality strengths I admire. I met Ed when he came to Portsmouth for last year’s leadership contest and asked him for some campaigning advice (which hopefully you’ll forgive me for not sharing). I’ve always been struck by his detailed knowledge. Equally each time I’ve attended an event at party conference (even more abnormal of me I’m afraid) in which Layla has participated, she’s been impassioned, engaging, direct and energising.

They both have stories to share of their struggles. Ed’s is particularly heartbreaking. It’s not a competition of sympathy, so I won’t expand except to say that being a carer and experiencing loss from a young age gives him a perspective on life and on a fair society that far too many outside of politics will have experienced themselves.

As someone once said, there are two types of election campaign: ‘it’s time for a change’, and ‘this is not the time for change’.

Layla is making the most of her ‘break from the past’ narrative and shedding the scars of coalition (the ‘C’ word in my party). I live in a yellow bubble, but I’ve also had conversations (before COVID) on the doorstep, over the phone and on street-stalls. It comes up, but nowhere near as much in real life as on Twitter. The ‘Yellow Tories!’ insults seem to be shouted by people who also level similar epithets at their own party’s members.

In an article in the Spectator by Nick Tyronne, he said ‘Lib Dems don’t grasp how deeply they are loathed by Labour activists’. Yes, yes, we do. I’ve had one particularly energised gentleman in Fratton chase me down the road to shout and point in my face about the leaflet I’d just delivered. He went on to level his frustration at a Green candidate outside a Polling Station. Activists are by their nature rather invested in their ‘team’, and some get ‘over-excited’ – of course, we’re competing against one another, but I don’t see it doing anything other than putting voters off. They’re not ‘our’ votes or ‘their’ votes, but the voters’ votes.

Having said that, pointing out that the party managed to get a large chunk of its 2010 manifesto implemented as a minor party in a coalition isn’t any help if the policies that made you vote Lib Dem were in the chunk that weren’t. I could argue how much worse the Tories turned out to be without the Lib Dems alongside, but they ate us for breakfast. John Major’s phrase about trusting your pet hamster with a hungry python comes to mind.

Layla has demonstrated her ability to cut through, to get on the media (at a time when we struggle to get recognition as a bunch of MPs that could fit in a minibus), to work cross-party to lead the parliamentary rapid review of the government’s approach to Covid-19, and joining forces with the Daily Mail (of all papers) to fight against threats to lower food standards and destroy farming in the U.K.  Layla’s also spoken about demonstrating to voters the oft-asked questions; ‘what’s a liberal?’ and ‘what’s the point of the Lib Dems?’ (I’m sure my friend from Fratton would have answers to both). There’s something really powerful in that.

We’ve had moments when we’ve done badly as a party – I don’t just mean electorally, I mean we failed voters – when we made promises we knew we couldn’t keep, including:

  • Tuition fees
  • Ready to be next prime minister!
  • Cancel Brexit!

The party concluded a post-2019 General Election review. It was excoriating in many areas, and rightly so. In 2019 we drank our own Kool-aid, wanting so desperately to believe the outstanding success in May’s local and European elections were evidence of a surge. (In retrospect I’m minded to recall the ‘oh yeah!’ excitement of Neil Kinnock in 1992 – same excitement. Same self-delusion. Same result). It implies that as a party, we spoke to and listened to (seemingly at the absence of all others) the 20% that agreed with us about Brexit. The 20% of the country that were staunch Brexiteers were never going to buy our message about a second referendum, and they certainly weren’t when we leapt for ‘Cancel Brexit’. We ignored the 60% of the country who after three years of being stuck in the middle, held hostage by the two extremes, just wanted the bloody thing to move on.

For my part, I helped make those mistakes because I voted for the ‘Cancel Brexit’ policy. I was wrong and got caught up in our echo chamber. I was swept along and wanted to give the new leader (even though I didn’t vote for her) my support. There’s no point making the headline of your policy something that: a) You have to explain to justify, and b) Will disenfranchise voters whose initial assessment is that it’s undemocratic and upsets that sense of ‘fair play’ which c) You’d only get to enact if you won a majority government, something that frankly wasn’t going to happen. One of the speakers against that policy motion at conference warned of the danger of another policy promise we wouldn’t have the power to keep. I wish we’d listened to him.

Layla is the leader we need to work with other parties to make enough noise to get things done.

Ed is a statesman, the leader we’d need if we were in government.

When it comes to their campaign straplines:

‘Let’s move forward together‘ is inspiring.

Vision. Experience. Leadership‘ feels like a management consultant.

Which leadership style will regain people who previously voted Lib Dem, but either stayed at home or voted elsewhere in December? Which will welcome back those voters who were put off by our extreme approach to Brexit? Whose approach and style do we need to win over those Tory voters and to deny Johnson a majority in 2024? (Answers on a postcard please)

This also presents the contradiction that, as a party with policies to the left of the centre ground (I’m sure many would disagree), in order to reduce the Conservative majority it’s Tory voters we need to attract, who now may be less frightened by the prospect of a Corbyn government – but this plays into the left/right narrative. Outside of our respective political bubbles, most people do want a pick and mix of ‘left’ and ‘right’. I’m struck by how often when you get past the ‘My team good, your team bad!’ of politics the policies people agree with don’t match their party allegiances. It’s like people join a gang, and find it difficult to leave; they keep convincing themselves who their political enemies are – even when deep down they agree with them, but that’s probably a whole other article for another time.

Now that my digital ballot has arrived, I’ve only got until <checks calendar> August 26th to make up my mind. Some of my friends will joke if I say that I’m still a bit of one way, and a bit of the other, (but I think they mean something else). Thank you for allowing me to work out my thoughts in this way, and for joining me on this journey. I’m not yet committed, but I’m slightly leaning one way more than the other.

Alexa, how many days until August 26th?


* Calculated on the basis that party memberships were listed as 993,000 in 2019, when our population was approximately 66.76 million.


Image by NCVO London, via Wikimedia Commons and shared under a Creative Commons license 2.0.

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