British politics has a lot of odd traditions and one of the more recent of them was begun by Michael Foot. He was the first major party leader to resign immediately after an election defeat, something that hadn’t happened before but is now de rigeur for defeated party leaders.

However, while there are some good reasons for a defeated leader to move on to other things ASAP, this creates a whole new set of problems for the party, especially given how our political system is now. This is shown most clearly by what’s happening with Labour right now where the party is attempting to find a new leader while also trying to work out what went wrong in 2015. The problem this brings is that the candidate who might have the best assessment of the situation now is by no means guaranteed to be the best choice to be leading the party into the next election but the way things are set up, that’s what they’ll get. (Ian Dunt makes a similar argument today)

The problem with the British system is that party leaders – particularly in opposition – are expected to combine multiple roles. On one hand, they’re the person responsible for directing and co-ordinating the work of the party in between elections, while on the other (particularly as a general election draws near) they’re the party’s lead candidate and potential Prime Minister. The assumption we make is that somehow, one person will be the best fit for both of those roles, despite the evidence showing that it’s much more likely to find someone who’d excel in one position and not the other. For instance, William Hague did some very important work in sorting out the organisation of the Conservative Party while he was leader but was absolutely terrible as a lead campaigner, while Charles Kennedy was a brilliant campaigner for the Liberal Democrats but none of the tributes to him from the last week have been about his organisational abilities.

The conflation of the two roles is a problem for all parties, but particularly pronounced for major parties whose leaders are expected to be Prime Ministerial candidates. This is a situation that doesn’t happen in other countries: German parties choose their ‘Chancellor candidate’ a few months before the election is scheduled and even in the ridiculously lengthy US election process, there’s a two-year gap before candidates for the next Presidential election declare themselves. Labour, by contrast, are hoping that the questions ‘who can best rebuild the party?’ and ‘who’ll be the best Labour candidate for Prime Minister in 2020?’ have the same answer, even though we have very little idea of what the political situation will be like in 2020. We don’t even know who’ll be leading the Tories then, and Labour will be handing them the advantage of being able to choose the best leader to combat their choice, rather than the other way round.

I’ve written before about interim leaders and how Labour need a John Smith right now rather than thinking they can magically summon a new Blair, but I think there’s a more fundamental question of ‘what is a party leader for?’ that’s not being addressed in the Labour contest. Liz Kendall’s suggestion of a 2018 ‘break clause’ for a new leader is perhaps the most sensible idea put forward in a contest that’s been particularly short of them and would give Labour the chance to properly divide up the roles of leader: choose someone now to get things on track, then decide in 2018 if they or someone else are the best person to put forward as Prime Minister.

Yesterday saw an expected yet still disappointing response from the Government to the various post-election electoral reform petitions. Expected, because we all know that there’s no way this Government is going to concede electoral reform, yet disappointing because it reveals that the minister for constitutional reform may have absolutely no idea what he’s talking about.

In response to petitions demanding a properly proportional electoral system, his response was that ‘we had a referendum on it in 2011′. The 2011 referendum was lost, and lost badly, but it was definitely not a referendum on adopting a proportional system. The question was, if you forget:

At present, the UK uses the “first past the post” system to elect MPs to the House of Commons. Should the “alternative vote” system be used instead?

You’ll notice, of course, that there’s no mention there of any proportional electoral system, merely a question about whether one majoritarian system should be used in place of another. Also note that it doesn’t ask for any affirmation of the current system above all others: the question was not ‘do you agree that “first past the post” is great and should never ever be changed?’

There were other referendums during the last Parliament, of course, with several cities being told that they had to have votes on whether they wanted an elected Mayor to run their Council. Bristol and Salford voted yes but a whole host of England’s largest cities – Birmingham, Manchester, Leeds, Sheffield, Newcastle and others – voted No.

Despite this, the Government is pushing forward with plans to give these cities – and ‘city regions’ – their own mayors whether they want them or not. Manchester’s ‘interim Mayor’ has already been agreed and selected by ten people without any consultation with the electorate, and other areas are going to find that George Osborne will be imposing one upon them if they want to have any new powers, with ‘devolution’ being used as an excuse for even more centralisation. In this case, despite the people voting against it more recently than 2011, the Government’s going to go ahead and do what it wants.

‘But Nick!’ you cry, desperate to defend George Osborne. ‘These are different to the Mayors they rejected. These are Metro Mayors and regional Mayors, covering wider areas than those that voted in the referendums, so it’s a completely different thing!’ And you may well be right, but if you’re going to make that argument, you can’t also claim that any electoral reform is off the agenda because of the AV referendum as that was merely vote on a tweak to the current majoritarian system, not a change to a proportional one. I’m happy to concede that the referendum rejected AV, but had nothing to say about other electoral systems and if a future Parliament chooses to change the system it can do so – as long as it’s not to AV.

Unfortunately, we have a government where the minister for constitutional reform doesn’t seem to understand even the basics of what’s happened before, so we can expect lots more confusion over the Parliament. If that wasn’t a five year period in which some important constitutional questions are going to be discussed heavily, it’d almost be funny.

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I’ve spent most of today gathering together some data about Liberal Democrat Parliamentary seats for my dissertation, and figured that some of you might find it interesting.

The data set is Liberal Democrat seats won at a general election or by-election since 1992, so it excludes pre-1992 seats won at by-elections (which in practice means no Ribble Valley) and seats held by defectors, unless they were won at a subsequent election. I’ve tried to keep some continuity between seats when the geography remains roughly similar – I’ve treated the various Inverness and Nairn seats as one, for instance – but in some cases that’s not been possible.

There are 81 seats that have been won by the party since 1992. 60 of them were originally won from Conservatives (including 6 at by-elections and one defection), 20 from Labour (including 5 at by-elections and one via defection from Labour to the SDP) and one from Plaid Cymru.

There are currently eight held seats: the longest continually-held seat is Orkney and Shetland (since 1950), the others have all been won since 1997. Carshalton and Wallington, Sheffield Hallam and Southport were all won then, North Norfolk in 2001, and Ceredigion, Leeds North West and Westmorland & Lonsdale in 2005. Ceredigion is a bit of a special case as it was previously held by Liberals from 1979 to 1992 and for most of the period up until 1966.

Of the other 73 seats: as of 2015, 41 are now held by the Conservatives with Liberal Democrats in second place in 35 of those seats, third in 2, fourth in 3 and fifth in the Isle of Wight. Labour hold 16 with Liberal Democrats second in 9, third in 2, fourth in 4 and fifth in Leicester South. The SNP hold 11 with Liberal Democrats in second place in 8 seats, third place in 2 seats and fourth place in Dunfermline and West Fife.

The other five seats have been split up too much to have a single recognisable successor seat: Liverpool Mossley Hill (now all in Labour-held constituencies), Tweeddale, Ettrick and Lauderdale (now in SNP or Conservative constituencies), Truro, Teignbridge, and Falmouth & Camborne (the latter three now all in Conservative constituencies)

I’m not drawing too many conclusions from this yet – part of the reason for doing this is just to have the information I need in one place so I can use it more easily – but there are some interesting patterns in the data. Seats gained from Conservatives tend to follow the pattern of the party having been in 2nd place for a long period – in all the gains from Conservatives since 1997, the party was in 2nd place at the 1992 election. Gains from Labour are much more complex – in 1992, Liberal Democrats were second in four seats that were subsequent gains from Labour, but only one of those (Chesterfield) was won by Labour at that election. Liberal Democrats were second to the Conservatives in three (Bristol West, Leeds North West, and Falmouth & Camborne) that Labour would win in 1997, but the Liberal Democrats would go on to win in 2005. In all four of the 2010 gains from Labour (Bradford East, Burnley, Norwich South, and Redcar), Liberal Democrats were third in 1992, 1997 and 2001, before moving up to second in 2005.

It’s all interesting grist for my theoretic mill about the effects of the structure of competition within the party system, but hopefully some of you will find the information of use for its own sake.

I mentioned in my previous links post that I’m happy to take guest posts for Tim Farron here on the blog and Simon Banks was the first to respond. If you’d like to follow in his footsteps, then get in touch.

About Simon:

Simon joined the Liberal Party as a Cambridge History undergraduate in 1966 and the Liberal Democrats at their foundation. He’s stood in four parliamentary elections and for twelve years was a Waltham Forest councillor representing Leyton wards: for five of these he was Group Leader and handled “balance of power” for four.

He’s worked in Kenya and Finland, in race equality and for the last ten years before retirement for Essex County Council, most recently in the Voluntary Sector Unit. His voluntary interests include birds, history, the Campaign for Real Ale and the Society of Friends (Quakers). He’s a published poet.

After moving to Harwich, Simon contested two local by-elections there and he’s now in his second year as Chair of North-east Essex Liberal Democrats.

Why I’m supporting Tim Farron

After the loss of confidence and clear identity in the last few years, and the disastrous elections of 2014 and 2015, we Liberal Democrats need to rethink our approach, rediscover our essential Liberalism and come out with fire and fighting spirit to prove wrong those who say we’re finished.

We have two excellent candidates to choose from who both have a lot to contribute to the rebuilding of the party, but I believe Tim Farron is the man for the job.

He’s passionate in his love of liberty and Liberalism and his hatred of injustice and oppression. He can communicate this passion, excite and motivate. We need that. He’s a fighter and he has huge energy and charisma.

Like Norman Lamb, he’s thoughtful and perceptive. I heard him defend the role of democratic government in the modern democratic state at the SLF annual conference and I believe he understands the relationship between the state, individuals, communities, equality and liberty well in a balanced way. If there was one thing that hurt us deeply from 2010 on, it was the dishonouring of the pledge on student finance – not the issue so much as the ease with which we abandoned a firm promise. Tim Farron voted against the government on this. That makes him much less vulnerable to criticism.

But above all I expect him if he becomes leader to emulate Paddy Ashdown and go on the attack.

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farronforleaderI thought it would be useful to bring together all the blog posts written in support of Tim Farron’s leadership campaign into a single post. I’ve gathered these from Tim’s site, the Lib Dem Blogs aggregator and others I’ve seen links to. If you’ve written a post supporting Tim and it’s not linked here then please let me know about it, either in the comments or on Twitter, and I’ll add you to the list.

One of the earliest blogs to back Tim was Jack Davies. In his post, Why it’s #time4tim to be the Liberal Democrats’ next leader, he talks about how Tim supported him in his efforts to become a Parliamentary candidate, and how Tim’s standing up for liberal values has inspired him.
Another early Tim backer was Richard Morris. His post, Why I’m supporting Tim Farron to be the next Leader of the Liberal Democrats talks about how he shares Tim’s views, how Tim’s not a conventional politician and how he can unite the membership.
Some bloke called Nick Barlow also wrote a couple of posts backing Tim here and here. They’re probably worth a read.
Stephen Tall notes that he hasn’t had a good record in predicting leaders, but in his post on why he’s supporting Tim, he says that Tim is a ‘gut-instinct liberal’ and ‘exactly what the party needs right now’.
Jennie Rigg gives us a list of reasons why she’s supporting Tim, all of which are great including ‘I have seen him change and learn; every time I have seen this happen he has been consistently, instinctively Liberal about how he applies new information.’
Chris Whiting gives us a bit of anticipation about who he’s going to be endorsing, but his presence in this list probably gives away that he endorses Tim for leader as ‘the best choice we have of rejuvenating the Liberal Democrats’.
Will Wilshere began the campaign as a Norman Lamb supporter, but he’s since switched to supporting Tim because of Tim’s ability to inspire campaigners and his views on foreign policy.
Sean Ash gives us 1906 reasons to support Tim Farron. Luckily, that’s not a very very long list of reasons but a link between Tim and the great Liberal general election victory of 1906.
Rich Clare is supporting Tim because we need a lion in the party leadership who can ‘explain complex issues in simple language, somebody who doesn’t sound like all the other voices in Westminster.’
Paul Walter writes that he’s supporting Tim because he’s a ‘lode star of liberalism’ who can ‘re-establish our identity as liberals’.
Stephen Glenn is proud to be supporting Tim as leader because he’s ‘the general to lead us into the sound of gunfire’.
Hannah on The Liberal Queen blog believes that Tim is the right man to lead the Liberal Democrats because he ‘will stand up for Liberal values and will help the Liberal Democrats rise again.’
Cllr Tony Robertson of Sefton Focus blog is supporting Tim.
The LibDemFightback blog has made Tim their choice for leader because of his record of rebellion during the coalition.
Joe Young urges a vote for hope and change in his endorsement, saying that Tim is ‘the best bits of what it is to be liberal all tied up in one package.’
David Shaw’s post, Looking into a Liberal’s soul, looks at Tim from the perspective of another Liberal who’s also a Christian.
Simon Foster’s Get Tim comes from someone who first campaigned with Tim at Newcastle University and says we now ‘need a liberal radical who will lead the rebuilding of our party.’
Simon Banks has backed Tim in a guest post on this blog, saying that Tim is “passionate in his love of liberty and Liberalism and his hatred of injustice and oppression. He can communicate this passion, excite and motivate.”
Also on this blog, Tony Hutson has shared in a comment the endorsement he wrote for Tim on the party’s CIX chatroom. He believes that Tim is “someone who instinctively ‘gets’ the campaigning base of the party.”
Veteran blogger and long-serving AM Peter Black uses his blog to tell us he’s backing Tim because he’s the best placed to repeat what Charles Kennedy did for the party and “has the best chance of changing the narrative quickly.”
Jenni Hollis says that if the party is to rebuild with ‘Operation Phoenix’ we need Tim as leader because he’s “the popular, media savvy, liberal man with a plan.”
Paul Hindley says Tim can deliver ‘values, vision and liberalism’ and knows “that in order to enact change you need to create a movement.”
James King says it’s time for Tim, saying that he can offer the party both “a reason for existence, and a means of getting that through to voters.”
Mark Valladares has chosen to back Tim, saying he has the boldness, integrity and passion we need in a leader.
New member and blogger Sam Willey is backing Tim after seeing him in action at the Newcastle hustings.
Ryan is another new member convinced that Tim is the best choice for leader after seeing him at a hustings – in Bristol this time. He thinks that “Tim has a natural gift on how he engages with people and inspires them to get involved.”
Jonathan Harrison gives a series of reasons for backing Tim, including his passion, his dignity, his ability to organise the grassroots and his commitment to radical policy for the party.
David Warren thinks we have two excellent candidates in the race, but he’s backing Tim because he’s “the better campaigner and therefore the best person to lead us in rebuilding this party”.
An early backer that I missed including in this update is Tom King. He wrote a long post at the start of the campaign looking at what kind of leader the Liberal Democrats need, concluding that Tim was his choice because he’s capable of “taking control of the party and helping us to create a new identity for ourselves.”
Gareth Epps makes his case for why Tim has to be the next Lib Dem leader on a number of points and concludes that “in the position we are in it just has to be Tim.”
Another guest post on this blog comes from Nigel Quinton, who explains why he believes Tim should be our next leader because of his energy, positivity and effectiveness.
Jonathan Calder of Liberal England, and famous for his role as Lord Bonkers’ amanuensis, has announced that he’ll be voting for Tim.
Keith Watts says now is the time we need a charismatic Liberal Democrat leader, and the person for that role is Tim Farron.
Dan Falchikov has also voted for Tim, but has words of warning that if the party wants to recover this is only the start of it.

That’s all the blog endorsements I could find so far, but if I’ve missed you out, please let me know and I’ll add you to the list. Also, if you want to write about why you’re supporting Tim but don’t have a blog or anything of your own then please get in touch with me, and I’m sure we can sort out a guest post for you here – and if any other bloggers are happy to take guest posts, let me know!

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Charles Kennedy was principled, different and will be sorely missed

The march against the Iraq War, February 2003

The march against the Iraq War, February 2003

I keep thinking back to 1994 this morning. It was in the run up to my final undergraduate exams and the news on the radio that morning said that John Smith had had a heart attack. By the time I came out of the library a few hours later, that news had changed and everyone was talking about his death. It was an odd time and felt almost like a period of national mourning as people processed the death of a man they’d all assumed would be Prime Minister in a few years time.

Today has a similar feel to it and not just because another leading Scottish politician has been taken from us at 55. The news came differently, as a bleep on my tablet announcing breaking news from the Guardian rather than someone telling me it, but it’s come with the same air of shock and surprise as your mind tries to cope with accepting that someone you thought would be around for years to come will be there no longer. There’s that same sense of national mourning at losing someone who still had so much to give, and was liked and respected by those of all parties and none.

I’ve been trying to get on with some of my dissertation work this morning, but it’s hard when Kennedy’s such a key figure in the period I’m studying and writing about. I found a line by Duncan Brack in Peace, Reform and Liberation that third party leaders were permanently searching for policy that was ‘principled and different’ which are two words that perfectly sum up Kennedy’s role in British politics. He was always unafraid to stand up for his principles, and was always ready to do things differently, most notably in standing so firmly against the Iraq War.

That wa not an easy decision to make when the Westminster consensus was that war was the only way forward. In hindsight, it’s easy to see he was right on that, as he was on so many other things, but at the time both he and the party faced down incredible levels of anger, derision, hatred and vitriol to stand up for principle and to do things differently. Today it feels like we’re also mourning for what might have been back then, where we could have ended up if more people had listened to him in 2003.

He’ll be remembered as an important and vital leader for the British liberal movement and we’ll recognise and celebrate his contributions to that tradition, but for today I’m gripped by sadness at what we’ve lost and what we’ll not have over the coming years. We can remember him not just by what he did but what he inspired the rest of us to do and what his example can continue to inspire us to do: be principled, be different and don’t be afraid.

Ridiculously out-of-date book reviews: The Clegg Coup

gerardcleggMy Masters dissertation is on the role and strategy of the Liberal Democrats in the British party system, so as part of that I’ve been looking at various academic and non-academic texts for background information. Today I plunged into Jasper Gerard’s The Clegg Coup, which may well be one of the worst books ever written about British politics.

It fails on multiple levels: for a start, Gerard’s writing style is rambling and unfocused with chapters, paragraphs and even sentences ending up in miles away from where they started. The book doesn’t have any focus, jumping between biography of Clegg, discussion of the Coalition and attempts at political analysis willy-nilly, though one overriding theme is that Gerard clearly likes Nick Clegg and distrusts anyone who doesn’t. The ‘coup’ of the title appears to be one that Gerard is fully in support of, happily denigrating anyone who disapproved of the direction Clegg wanted to take the Liberal Democrats.

Beyond that, though, it’s shockingly badly researched and edited. At some points, Gerard appears determined to crowbar in every piece of trivia he’s learned about people, but on the big points, there’s a shocking lack of knowledge. I’m not talking about obscure points of political history here but simple facts that could be checked with thirty seconds on Wikipedia. A lengthy section talks about how Clegg was working for Leon Brittan at the European Commission while Miriam Gonzalez Durantez was working there for Chris Patten, completely failing to notice that Patten replaced Brittan on the Commission and was Governor of Hong Kong at the time Gerard asserts Gonzalez was advising him on Middle East policy. The book’s littered with errors like that, including mention of Labour’s first leader, Kier Hardy.


The brakes/breaks confusion there is one of several homophone errors in the book, and at points it feels like there’s been a decision to have an error of fact or editing on every page.

The only truly interesting part of it is what it unintentionally reveals. There’s some interesting bits about how Clegg chose not to run an aggressively ‘Orange Book’ campaign for the party leadership, and there’s an interesting omission of any detailed look at his selection for Sheffield Hallam. However, beyond all that, it’s clear that Gerard sees party politics as very much an elite activity. There’s lots of discussion of people within the Westminster bubble, wealthy donors and think tanks, but almost no mention of party members or even voters. It presents politics as a rather consequence-free activity with little connection to the real world, where an eager hagiographer like Gerard can go far through knowing the right people and writing positively about them.

If I hadn’t been reading the book for any useful nuggets of information, however inadvertently revealed, I’d likely have thrown it to one side once the error count reached the dozens, but if you’re a fellow connoisseur of bad political writing, you may well find something to enjoy in it.

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