I was once elected as a Liberal Democrat leader without a contest. Long term readers of this blog (I like to pretend there are some) or those few with memories of Colchester politics of more than four years will remember that I was leader of the Liberal Democrat group on the Borough Council in 2013-14, and when I was elected to that role it was without anyone else standing against me. It’s not an uncommon thing to happen in local politics (in all parties) as often senior positions within groups and councils are allocated on the basis of who has the time to do them, but it’s still uncommon in national politics. In recent years, only Michael Howard and Gordon Brown have become leader of a major Britain-wide party without facing any form of election, but now Vince Cable appears poised to join them as all his potential rivals for the leadership of the Liberal Democrats have now pulled out of the race.
Some people appear to be relieved that we’re not going to be having a leadership contest, but I’m not one of them. Not only does it mean that we as members aren’t going to have a say on the future direction of the party, but it also means that Cable’s going to become leader without any real scrutiny or examination of what he wants to do as party leader. Now I know several of you are now muttering about how the leader doesn’t run the party, Conference is sovereign, and all that but the leader has huge power to create the image of the party in the eyes of the public. They get the bulk of the party’s media appearances, the decision about which questions to ask at PMQs and the content of the leader’s speech, which is the only bit of Conference that gets any significant media coverage. Their formal power within the party’s structures may be low, but their informal power inside and outside the party is huge, which is why we put a lot more effort and attention into party leadership elections than other internal contests.
Which brings me back to my time as a leader. When I decided to put myself forward, I sent out a message to my fellow councillors explaining why and what I wanted to do in the role. At the group AGM before I was confirmed in the role I did a further speech to them and answered a bunch of questions before being confirmed, and I then wrote to all the local members and did press interviews on what I wanted to do. The point is that even I didn’t face an election, people ha da pretty clear idea on my aims priorities for the leadership (whether I was successful in those aims is a debate for another time).
The problem we have now is that we don’t have anything other than the vaguest idea about what a Vince Cable leadership will mean for the Liberal Democrats, yet we’re now in a position where it’s almost certain to happen. We had an ‘I’m standing for leader’ statement on LDV but nothing more since. As far as I can tell, there’s not even a ‘Vince for Leader’ website and his official website doesn’t even mention he’s an MP again, let alone his leadership bid. It’s not just that his ambivalence on keeping freedom of movement is a problem, it’s the issue of how he’ll deal with press questioning on it if – as he should as leader – he now speaks up for party policy in favour of it and remaining in the EU.
Beyond that, we need to know what his focus as leader would be. Would it be on building his and the party’s media profile? Developing policy (and in which direction)? Reforming the organisation of the party? Going out on the streets to campaign on the doorstep with members? Touring the country giving speeches? Working with other parties in Parliament to defeat the government? There are many different styles of leadership – and we’ve seen most of them in the Liberal Democrats – and we need to know what sort of leader he sees himself as being, how he’d strike the balance between all those different tasks that are required of a leader. If he is going to be appointed by acclamation by the MPs, we need to know how he sees the job so we have targets and promises to hold him to.
I’m not calling for an MP to be dragooned against their will into standing against Vince, and I understand the personal reasons that have been given for not standing, but if he is going to become leader of the party in a few weeks time, he needs to be out there now putting forward his vision for the future of the party and answering the many questions members have about the future direction of the party. Expecting people who hold power to be accountable is a key principle of liberalism, and we need to know that Cable understands that he’s accountable to the membership and needs to have their support before he’s crowned as leader. Waving through his coronation in the hope that it’ll all work out fine is just about the worst thing we could do right now.
We can’t have an election, but that doesn’t mean we can’t give the only candidate for the job a thorough interview and set out what we want to see him do in the role before giving it to him.