» leadership ¦ What You Can Get Away With

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.

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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.

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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)

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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:
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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.

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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…

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A bit of Brecht for a Tuesday.

After the uprising of the 17th of June
The Secretary of the Writers’ Union
Had leaflets distributed in the Stalinallee
Stating that the people
Had forfeited the confidence of the government
And could win it back only
By redoubled efforts. Would it not be easier
In that case for the government
To dissolve the people
And elect another?

I saw that quoted elsewhere as reaction to the recent mass resignations from the SWP. However, in the light of the resignations from the Liberal Democrats over the weekend (Rose, Shaw, Sands, Doctorow), the continued haemorrhage of members since 2010 and the proclamations of Richard Reeves et al that social liberals should leave the party, is it perhaps a description of Clegg’s ambitions for the party?

As Gareth Epps points out, the real split in the party at the moment is between the leadership and the activists. Perhaps the only problem with Gareth’s analysis is to assume that the leadership want to close that gap, when their actions indicate otherwise. Clegg’s attitude in his Q&A on Saturday to members who raised concerns about the secret courts legislation was – as Alex Marsh points out – pretty contemptuous, and one common feature of this and other issues is just how much of a tin ear Clegg has towards the concerns of the membership. It feels as though he’s happy to talk at the membership, but not to talk with them.

It often feels that the perspective of the leadership is that the party membership are merely there to do as they’re told and clap at the appropriate times when the leadership congratulate themselves in public. This centralism might be how it’s done in other parties, but people don’t normally join the Liberal Democrats to be told how to think. The raison d’etre of the party is to campaign for liberalism and liberal values, so the membership obviously expect the party to be run on those principles. And while leaders complaining about the actions of the membership have been commonplace throughout the history of the party, those arguments felt like passing spats within a generally respectful relationship of equals, whereas now the members are being expected to keep quiet and clap louder, or else coalition Tinkerbell will die.

The introduction of accreditation kept several strong liberal voices away from Conference, others have left the party and the leadership’s response to Conference’s democratically expressed position on several issues has been to completely ignore them. Is the hope that eventually people will just give up and let the leadership have its way and that a new, more malleable, membership will take their place?

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I left a comment last week on Jennie Rigg’s post about potential leaders of the Liberal Democrats that I wanted to expand on.

Jennie was looking at the potential candidates for next leader of the Liberal Democrats, and one thing that comes up from her survey is that the party isn’t exactly overwhelmed with leadership contenders. What I wonder is if this is a result of what the party expects from Parliamentary candidates and MPs, effectively limiting the pool of leadership candidates by preventing potential candidates from even jumping the first hurdle – being an MP – long before any of the others come in to play.

I’m not going to name names (because that would probably start a whole other discussion) but at many party events, conferences etc, I’ve been struck by the talent and abilities of people in the party who aren’t MPs, and clearly aren’t planning to become one. It’s my opinion that many of these people would not just make great MPs, they’d be assets in senior leadership positions. However, because they’re not going to be in Parliament, those talents rarely get seen beyond a small area. Why is it, though, that these people don’t choose to go for Parliament?

As I said on Jennie’s post, one major problem is that to become a Parliamentary candidate for the party – particularly in a winnable seat – you are expected to put in a large amount of time and effort across a number of areas. As has been pointed out by the Campaign for Gender Balance and others, this is huge disincentive to stand for many people. Unless you get lucky and win selection in one of the party’s very small (and probably reducing) number of safe seats, then you effectively have to give up whatever career you already have to devote yourself to trying to get elected. While there are some exceptions who have given up almost everything and gone for it, I think others prefer taking an easier path. That’s not to say that their decision is wrong, but in the overall scheme of things, it could go towards explaining why Jennie’s survey comes up with so few candidates.

(And this post isn’t special pleading – I’ve got no desire to become an MP, as hooting like an idiot in the House of Commons isn’t my idea of a rewarding career)

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