Cable needs to speak up and answer questions before he gets crowned as leader

‘Can I put these back in the garage yet?’
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.

Labour’s right is doomed if they just wait for someone to save them

One thing I’ve found from reading many different political blogs over the years is how they reveal the different cultures that exist within each party. It’s not just in the style of blogging, but the way they reveal – deliberately or not – how a party runs in practice.

That’s part of the reason – along with the sheer joy of schadenfreude – that I’ve been reading Labour blogs recently and watching the ongoing reaction to Jeremy Corbyn’s victory. While the left of the party appear to have mostly accustomed themselves to the shock of winning and are now planning what to do next, the right – call them moderates, Blairites, modernisers, Progress, whatever suits you – still appear to be frozen in shock, gibbering inanely and sure they’re about to wake up from their nightmare. However, the one thing they don’t seem to be doing is organising. There’s plenty of talk of what needs to be done – most of it variants on removing Corbyn from the leadership – but no real discussion of how to do it, making this little more than the plot of political underpant gnomes. (Step 1: Decide to remove Corbyn, Step 2: ????, Step 3: Corbyn removed, and onward to glorious moderation!)

Some of this may be down to a collective action problem – no one wants to be the first to raise their head above the parapet and formally move against the leader – but the general tone of all these calls for action is that someone should do something, but that someone definitely isn’t the articles author. There’s the sense of people waiting for a saviour to come in and rescue the party for them, allowing the right back into their positions of power without having to do any of the dirty work involved in getting there. There’s lots of ‘people must act’, very little in the way of ‘we must act’, and nothing of ‘and here’s what we must do’.

It feels to me that the culture of Labour’s factions is the problem here. They’re used to operating as monolithic blocks, following the lead given by senior figures and doing as they’re told. However, as well as electing Corbyn, the leadership election was a catacysm for the Labour right’s leadership, with their chosen candidate getting a vote share that would have lost her a deposit in a parliamentary election and the rest of their principal figures running to the back benches to hide. With their leaders unwilling to fight, the rank and file of the Labour right are left to mill around aimlessly, talking of how one of them might emerge from their fortress of solitude to take on the leadership and give them purpose again. Without anyone to lead the fight for them, though, they seem very unwilling to get up and do it themselves.

The problem for the right is that waiting for someone to come and lead them is going to leave them dwindling away into even more irrelevance. I think Corbyn is likely to join Iain Duncan Smith and Ming Campbell in the annals of short-lived leaderships (Labour’s inability to organise being the actual Opposition right now is dooming him) but as James Graham points out, even if he does fall, the Labour right have no vision for what they’d do with the party. Not only are they short of plans for how to actually remove Corbyn, they have nothing to say about what they’d do after he goes. Assuming that the party will automatically turn to the right after Corbyn fail to notice that it’s the left of Labour who are coming up with the interesting ideas and the new narratives, even if the leadership aren’t good at pushing them. If the right could actually come up with an answer to ‘what do you want power for?’ that isn’t ‘to stop someone else having it’, then they might be able to achieve something before Godot turns up.

The rise and rise of Liz Kendall

I’m not going to make predictions about my own party’s leadership election, but I’m happy to guess the result of another’s four month before the result: Labour’s new team announced in September will be Liz Kendall as leader with Tom Watson as her deputy. I don’t have any solid psephological or political scientific grounds on which to make this call, but it’s a hunch that seems to fit with the facts at hand. Burnham and Cooper are increasingly portrayed as being part of the Miliband era which is now being routinely denounced as an aberration against the Party with all the fervour of a show trial, Mary Creagh likely won’t get the nominations to stand, and Kendall is being pushed as fresh, new, different and various other words used to avoid discussing any actual politics. (The Watson prediction is easier – Labour voters tend to balance across leader and deputy, and he’s the most obvious contrast to her. If I’m wrong and Andy Burnham wins, then Caroline Flint or Stella Creasy would likely be his deputy.)

The question this bring up for me is a simple one: where has she come from? The first time I can recall hearing her mentioned was back in February when one comment about private health care apparently made her a leading contender for the party leadership but I honestly can’t say I’d heard her name before then, and I’m someone who pays attention to politics. It feels as though she’s a Michael Rimmer or Harold Saxon-type character, where her leadership credentials appear to consist mostly of the media telling us about her leadership credentials which are that other people in the media think she’s a credible candidate for leader.

It’s not even as if she’s offering anything that seems strikingly new to me, with her pitch being that the electorate is supposedly moving to the right (a claim at odds with the actual evidence) so Labour must apparently pursue the Tories out to the fringes because “winning is too important and we will do whatever it takes”. I don’t see anything in her vision for the Labour Party beyond it being merely about winning for the sake of winning, not because you might want to win power to do something with it.

So, I put this out as a question to any Labour members or supporters reading this: Is there something there that I’m missing? Has she been assiduously working behind the scenes to raise her profile amongst the party members and offering them a vision of the future? For those of you supporting her, why have you chosen her as your candidate and what do you think she gives that others don’t?

These are genuine questions – I’m genuinely trying to understand just why a candidate who seems to have been come from out of nowhere, prepared and presented entirely by the current political consensus is so appealing to Labour members, because it’s baffling me.

Why I’m backing Tim Farron for Liberal Democrat leader

farronforleaderIt feels odd to recall that the general election was just two weeks ago. It was a campaign where nothing seemed to happen, and then an election that pulled the rug out from under a lot of us and radically changed British politics. Two weeks ago, I was thinking that we’d be arguing over coalition wrangling right now, not a leadership election. Instead, we find ourselves with the party in the worst position its been in for at least four decades and the question we’re being asked is now a simple one of how do we survive this?

Leadership elections are often focused on issues of policy, tactics and organisation, because they can assume that the fundamental questions of party strategy and survival have been answered. The election has shown that we can’t assume that the Liberal Democrats will remain around just because we always have, but the result has shown that there is a greater need for liberalism in the UK, and if we don’t fight for it, then who will? Other parties may occasionally adopt the odd liberal policy, but that doesn’t make their cores any less authoritarian, and some may adopt liberal rhetoric to argue for illiberal ends, imagining that freedom can be reduced to nothing more than consumer choice but saying nothing about challenging unaccountable power.

The temptation at a time like this is to turn in on ourselves, contemplate our collective navel for the next year or two and then gingerly step back out onto the political stage with a suitably tweaked message and image. We could do that, and find that while we were away the Government has swept away the Human Rights Act, introduced mass surveillance of the entire population, slashed the welfare budget, put Britain on the path to an EU exit, privatised everything that’s not nailed down, and set in place the break up of the country. This is a time that liberalism needs to be bold and out there, defending rights, standing up for a fairer and more equal society and championing internationalism.

Whoever is the new leader of the Liberal Democrats, their main job for the next few years is to lead the fight for liberal values and build a liberal movement (not just a party) that can fight for those values. For me, the person who can do that better than anyone else in the party is Tim Farron. Watch his 2014 speech at party conference where he sets out the importance of liberal values in dealing with the issues we face now:

More than that, Tim understands that liberalism needs to be a proactive force, not just a reactive one. His call to build a new consensus is an important one and an understanding that politics shouldn’t just be about adapting to the current political situation and tacking from side to side within the current consensus, but seeking to redefine the tiny frame British politics is conducted within. If we’re serious about making liberalism relevant, the way forward isn’t to jump into the rapidly narrowing space between the other parties but to be proud and unashamed about making the case for truly liberal values.

Tim fits in with my vision of what liberalism should be and what it needs to be in the 21st century: an idea that stands up for people against unaccountable power in all its forms and an idea that challenges the assumptions of the political consensus, arguing for real change, and a better life for everyone. Liberalism should be out there challenging the status quo, insisting that there’s a better way, and building a wide movement to win that fight. As a party right now we need a leader who can campaign hard and push forward those liberal values.

Tim Farron is the right candidate at the right time for our party, and that’s why I’m supporting him to be the next leader of the Liberal Democrats.

Worth Reading 172: Rocky Mountain Rangers

Who are the Left? – With demonisation of ‘the Left’ ready to take on again, here’s a handy guide to working out which type of Leftie you are.
What Kind of Leader Do the Lib Dems need? – Tom King looks over the history of Nick Clegg’s leadership before revealing his choice for the future.
Norman Baker looks back over his political career and says farewell after losing his seat last week.
British bill of all kinds of wrong – Alex Marsh on the Tory attitude to human rights. “How many lives in the UK will be improved by the Government’s crass, populist approach to human rights? Very likely none. How many lives globally have already been, indirectly, negatively affected by its stance? Quite possibly thousands.”
The new “skew” of the electoral system in 2015 – Single Member Plurality (or First Past The Post, though no one ever knows where the post is) is a really bad and unrepresentative electoral system, that people study to work out just how unrepresentative it is. Who’d have guessed?

Farron-hunting season begins

I wasn’t at Liberal Democrat Conference last weekend, because I had a much more relaxing and stress-relieving weekend away booked instead, but it seems that the Conference was used to make a major declaration: we’re now in Farron season. Yes, those who’ve been waiting for months, even years, to begin having a go at the MP for Westmorland and Lonsdale have been given official sanction to do so by Paddy Ashdown.

(And yes, in a week where the media’s been filled with the elder statesman of Top Gear being suspended for punching someone, it seems it’s still all right for former Marine commandos to threaten volunteers with violence if we say it’s only joking)

Farron season allows for threats on all fronts, so as well as being criticised for being too popular and too honest, he also finds ‘senior party insiders’ are briefing against him in the Times. Here he’s come up against the magician’s choice of politics, where whatever choice he’d made would be criticised on spurious grounds. Having weekly briefings as part of his Foreign Affairs brief apparently makes him ‘like Sarah Palin’, whereas if he didn’t have them he’d be attacked for being either uninformed or too arrogant to want them. In the same way, during the campaign he’ll either be criticised for ignoring his constituency and spending too much time helping others, or spending too much time worrying about his own majority while others are struggling.

It is interesting to see that despite the leadership’s claims that all is well and the party is heading towards inevitable Cleggite triumph at the election, whatever the polls say, there does seem to be a concerted attempt to amplify the Stop Farron messaging. It suggests to me that some people aren’t quite as confident about Clegg remaining leader after the election as he seems to be, and have realised that they need to be getting ready for the next fight. I suspect there are quite a few people currently in the leadership coterie who would be likely to not be so close to power if Tim Farron was in the role, but would remain there if someone else got the job, and they’re the sort of ‘senior party insiders’ who don’t get told to shut up and deliver leaflets instead of briefing the Times.

All in all, it seems to me that Tim Farron’s the one getting on with his job with the same candour he usually does it with, while others are skulking in the shadows, laying the ground for the fight after the election. It’s just another level of intrigue to add to an election campaign that’s turning into a giant policy-free soap.

Worth Reading 143: In France 16, in Germany 354

Victory in Europe – What Cameron and Osborne actually negotiated and agreed over the UK’s contribution to the EU.
Leadership in question – Good piece by Chris Dillow on how the search for strong leaders is a search for a false god. The one thing rarer than talent is the ability to spot talent.”
A Few Questions About the Culture: An Interview with Iain Banks – What it says on the title, really: talking in depth with Iain Banks about how the idea of the Culture developed in his work.
How to waste a staggering £15bn – David Boyle has some interesting facts about transport policy.
Dark vistas – A rather bleak, but possibly accurate, look forward to the next election and the Parliament that follows it from Lewis Baston.

And for your bonus video this time, if you haven’t seen Too Many Cooks yet, you’re possibly still sane.

How the stalking horse became extinct

David Cameron could face a leadership challenge from his own backbenches if Scotland votes in favour of independence, as Tory rebels blame him for presiding over the break-up of the Union.

The Independent understands that discussions have already taken place among Tory MPs considering standing a candidate against the Prime Minister if the Yes campaign is triumphant on 18 September.

The idea of a ‘stalking horse’ triggering a leadership challenge is widespread in British political commentary. It’s easy to see why: the idea of the brave challenger following in the footsteps of Margaret Thatcher or Michael Heseltine to challenge an unpopular leader, forcing a leadership election that would be a clash of the big political beasts is catnip to political commentators, enabling them to completely forget any kind of discussion about policy and talk entirely about personality and the election as a big game.

The problem with this vision is that it’s not actually possible in any party. The ‘stalking horse’ was a foible of the Conservative Party’s leadership election rules that disappeared when William Hague reformed the system after his election, and Labour and the Liberal Democrats never had a system that allowed it. The quirk in the Tory rules was that they didn’t require all potential candidates in a leadership election to be in the race from the start, but allowed them to enter at later rounds of the contest. As such, a stalking horse candidate could challenge the leader, and if they received sufficient support, other candidates could enter the race.

This was something that purely belonged to the Conservative leadership rules, and was in place because the decision was only made amongst MPs. Once parties put the leadership question to the wider membership, When an election’s a simple ballot in Westminster, it’s easy to have multiple rounds with different names, but if you’re balloting the entire membership, a set process and single ballot is a lot easier to administer.

The other reason for stalking horses disappearing is that they’re not a very good way of running leadership elections. There are two parts to the process of removing an incumbent leader: first, deciding whether you want the current leader to continue or be replaced; second, if they’re replaced, deciding who should replace them. The old Tory system conflated those two parts of the process, so that anyone wanting to remove the current leader had to vote for the stalking horse, but that vote could then make the stalking horse the leader, who the voter might like less than the current leader.Effectively, every vote has to be cast tactically, which might make for good drama but doesn’t mean they’re making the best decision on who’s going to be leader.

All the main parties now have systems that separate these two parts of the process, and none of them have a system that allows for stalking horses. So, if you hear or read a supposed political expert talking about stalking horses and leadership challenges, they’re letting on that they don’t understand the processes they’re commentating on. Someone can challenge a leader all they want but the rules now (especially for the Tories) mean they can only get them removed, not face them head to head.

(A couple of interesting books on leadership elections and structures, if you want to know more: Stark’s Choosing a Leader and Quinn’s Electing and Ejecting Party Leaders in Britain)

Interview with the Gazette

Earlier this week, I was interviewed by the Colchester Gazette in my new role as group leader. Unfortunately, they didn’t put the article online, but as I own a copy of the paper, a pair of scissors and a scanner, here it is:
You can click on the image to see it in a readable size. The headline wasn’t exactly something I said, but otherwise I think it generally reflects the conversation I had with James.


As the Gazette is reporting it, it must be official – I’m the new leader of the Liberal Democrat group on Colchester Borough Council.

First, the thanks – thanks to the group for backing me and selecting me as their leader, and thanks to my predecessor as group leader, Councillor Paul Smith, for the work he did during his time in the role. It’s a big role to take on, and I’m glad that they see me as the best person to do the job and take the group forward.

As leader, I want to change and improve the way we communicate with the people of Colchester. The election results from last week – and especially the low turnouts – are a message to all politicians of all parties that we need to do much better at listening to people. This means us getting out on the doorstep even more than we do now, but also expanding the way we use other methods of communications. I’ll be continuing to use this blog, my existing Twitter accounts and my Facebook page, but look out for more of that coming along over the coming months.

This isn’t about us coming out to tell you how wonderful we are, but about finding out what needs fixing in your street or in your neighbourhood, and how you want to see the borough developing in the next five, ten or twenty years. I want to show that our liberal values and principles can deliver the Colchester that people want to see, that we’ve got a vision for the future of the borough that people share.

Hopefully, I’ll have many more posts on these themes over the next few months, looking for your views on various areas, but if you’ve got any questions for me, then ask them here, on twitter or facebook, or by email, and I’ll answer them as best I can. And if you feel like coming along on the journey with me, you can always join us…