Good questions and bad answers: how to choose the next Lib Dem leader
I’ve not been a fan of how we do selection hustings in the party. Too often they are formulaic, bland and don’t put the candidates properly through their paces. In the Davey versus Moran leadership contest, the party is trying a lot of different new things – including one hustings in the format of a job interview, and also having party members vote for the topics to be used in several special thematic hustings.
As well as formats, the questions themselves are important. So here is my list of top hustings questions, honed after watching at first hand more than twenty years of our leadership elections, not to mention many other contests – including my own experience last year of being on the receiving end of hustings questions.
To go with the necessary impartiality of my own post during this contest, these questions are also all ones that, based on what the two candidates have already said, it’s possible to imagine either one giving the best – or the worst – answer to. There are other important questions that hone in on particular possible weaknesses of each too, For those, I encourage members to look carefully at the answers candidates give and view them through the eyes of the voters. What a party member finds convincing as an answer – or outrageously inappropriate as a question to dare ask – isn’t what matters in the end for a leader’s success. It’s what the voters we’re after think.
With that caveat, on to the questions, along with explanations for their selection, the superficially appealing bad answers to watch out for and what would go into a good answer.
What two attacks on the Lib Dems do you think have the most impact and how will you deal with them?
Why this matters: opposition politics expert Professor Tim Bale and I dug into this in our recent podcast on what opposition parties must do to be successful. It’s easy to get a bunker mentality where attacks are ignored for being wrong, unfair or trivial. But if they are what voters are noticing…
Bad answer: “I don’t care about negative campaigning from others. I’m going to stick to talking about our positive message.”
Why it’s a bad answer: You might not care. Voters do. Unless we deal with the effective attacks, we’re sunk.
Good answer: There’s no one idealised good answer to this question, which is partly why I really like it. But a good answer will have two key aspects. First, the honesty of addressing what others have or will say about the candidate – as it’s the personal record of the party’s leader that’s been at the heart of the attacks on the party in the last two general elections. Second, the defence will be one that can persuade sceptical voters, not only party members. It’s relatively easy to rebuff attacks if your audience is party members. At election time, however, the audience is voters.
How will you persuade a Daily Mail reader to vote Lib Dem?
Why this matters: the Daily Mail has regularly been one of the newspapers most read by Liberal Democrat voters. That’s because the newspaper’s readership is so large than even having a small proportion of is readers vote Lib Dem produces more Lib Dem voters than a higher proportion of readers of a much smaller readership newspaper voting Lib Dem. A small proportion of a very big number is still pretty large.
Bad answer: “You hate the Mail, I hate the Mail. Why should we appeal to Mail readers?”
Why it’s a bad answer: It’s a lazy crowdpleaser of an answer. It panders to the audience – you’ll find very few Mail readers among Lib Dem hustings attendees – while snubbing a big chunk of those who actually vote for the party and needlessly insulting a group of journalists whose coverage of the party matters.
Good answer: Sure, knock the Mail‘s excesses in an answer. There is a leadership election to be won, after all. But a good answer will then go on to show understanding of one of the country’s most influential media outlets by highlighting those areas where the Mail‘s editorial line – especially since the departure of Paul Dacre – sits comfortably with Lib Dem beliefs – such as the recent write-up of problems with racism in policing. And a really good answer will show an understanding of the difference between the Daily Mail, the Mail on Sunday and the Mail Online website.
Which voters will the party target under your leadership?
Why this matters: political strategy and effective campaigning are a matter of priorities. Try to do everything equally and you end up achieving nothing. You need to make choices to be effective.
Bad answer: “I want everyone to vote for us: Leavers, Remainers and abstainers.”
Why it’s a bad answer: The soundbite may get members clapping. But it’s either foolish – are we really not going to target anyone at all, ever? – or dishonest – because it’s hiding from you who the priority really will be under their leadership.
Good answer: A good answer has to give a meaningful priority without serving up an easy hit of ‘candidate X snubs town Y by saying s/he doesn’t want their votes’. So my version of an answer is, “There are liberals in every community across our country. We should focus on winning them over as the basis of long-term durable support“.
The Thornhill Review reminds us that we need to start with understanding what voters think. So what market research with voters did you do before coming up with your message in this leadership contest?
Why this matters: Leadership contests are full of talk about what messages the party should have, what policies should be chosen and prioritised and what the party’s vision should be. For the winner, those all have to work for voters, who can be very different from active party members, and key decisions are best made with the use of evidence.
Bad answer: “If I get elected, we’ll do some.”
Why it’s a bad answer: That’s too late. Evidence needs to come before decisions, not after. Even if a candidate is willing to chop and change what they say after they finally get some evidence, it deprives you of a proper chance to choose between candidates if one is saying, ‘I might be about to change a whole lot of what I’m saying’.
Good answer: “The expense limits means it’s not possible to do lots of dedicated research just for this contest. So let me tell you about the three polling experts I’ve had advising me and how we’ve been making use of the extensive free data from the British Election Study…”
What do you disagree with in the Thornhill Election Review?
Why this matters: the review is a major piece of work, central to the party’s recovery.
Bad answer: “Nothing. I agree with the whole review and we must implement it all.”
Why it’s a bad answer: There are some controversial elements of the recommendations and there are several findings which could be acted on in ways different from those the report sets out. (For example, as I’ve discussed with Dorothy myself, there are other ways of tackling the party governance problems than doing the big bang review the report points to.) Saying you agree with everything in the report, therefore, is an easy applause line, but one that suggests an absence of close study of the report and careful thought about the best way to act on it.
Good answer: “I agree with the report’s recommendation on X. But a better way to act on that is instead to do Y.” That’s the sort of well-informed dodge that any leader needs to be good at.
Will you make training in proper shoelace tying mandatory in schools?
Why this matters: Well, it’s true that most of us tie our shoelaces badly… but the real point of this question is that politicians get asked absurd questions. Good politicians can deal with absurdity with aplomb.
Bad answer: “I’ll certainly look into it.”
Why it’s a bad answer: Boring, boring, boring. With a hint of never being willing to say no to anyone on anything.
Good answer: “Shoelaces? Velcro is the future.”
I hope you find these questions and answers useful. Feel free to crib from them for your own questions to candidates – and let’s see how well they adapt their answers so they give good ones that don’t sound like they’re just reading from this email…
Details of all the hustings are on the party website, along with other information about the contest.
What are the best and worst hustings questions and answers you’ve heard? Do join the conversation on Facebook.