I wish I could remember the question, and the questioner, who prompted probably my best answer during the 2019 Liberal Democrat President election. It was at the hustings in Sheffield and the question was something like, ‘what frustrates you most about the party?’
It was a good question because it brought out an answer that clarified my thoughts and has been influential since – and hence my regret at not knowing who to thank. (Do let me know if you remember, and all the more so if it was you.)
My answer was that what frustrated me most is the way that each time our internal elections or selections come around, you so often hear the latest set of candidates complaining about the same things in the party and making the same promises to get things changed. Yet roll on a few years to the next set of elections and it’s the same again. We have a tendency of liking campaigns heavy on lofty aims and light on the plans for achieving them.
Now there will always be things to complain about and promises to make about fixes to come, as that’s the nature of campaigns. But success is moving on to a new set of complaints and promises next time around.
It’s what I think came through in my re-election campaign for President and what I hope will be even more true when the contest kicks off for my successor as President. There will always be a list of things to say the previous President got wrong (and I can certainly provide some prompts for candidates next time round if they need any…). But it is a success if we have moved on to a new list, as we did this time around.
This comes to mind as the selections are kicking off in London for the London Assembly. I’ve not yet studied in detail the list of candidates, let alone read all the manifestos, so what follows is general advice on candidate selection, written not knowing who it might therefore favour or not.
The first set of selections, ahead of the 2000 election, was fresh and different. Although as the campaign manager you might expect me to say this of Lynne Featherstone’s campaign, I think we did rewrite the model for how to do such campaigns. As I wrote before, it was, “dramatically successful, catapulting her from being a first-term councillor in a group of three from a small membership party into third place on the list and only a small margin behind the two who were expected to run away with the selection”.
Since then, there’s a certain sameness that has crept in to many of them, with each round of selections seeing similar lists of issue touted – how to take on Labour, how to build up the party’s strength in weaker boroughs, how to communicate a liberal message to a liberal city, and so on. There has been some great work by our Assembly members since 2000, but come selection time it’s notable how many candidates – though, to give particular credit to Caroline Pidgeon most recently, not all – revert to familiar sounding lists.
As I had in mind at that President hustings, we seem often caught going round the same loop again and again.
Which is why the best candidates to vote for are those who can break the loop they’re adopted.
I’m sure I’ve benefited from votes from people for whom I had the highest name recognition, or who had most recently met me at a party event or who thought my manifesto’s choice of font was acceptable. So I won’t begrudge anyone else winning votes on a similar basis.
But what will get the best results is really thinking hard about not what the candidates promise, but how good their plans and how suited their skills are to deliver on them. Sure, we’ll hear plenty saying how important it is to do things that sound highly desirable. But it’s best to judge them not by how desirable their list sounds but by how plausible their solutions are. And especially to ask that tough question: candidates have promised similar things many times before, yet here you are promising the same again – so what’s really different about you and your plans this time around?
(My 2019 President election answer to that in part was a simple one – my diagnosis of why some issues had never got properly focused on before was because of the gravitational pull towards Westminster of the President’s attention if they’re a Parliamentarian. So vote for me as the first non-Parliamentarian to break that cycle.)
Particularly with Caroline Pidgeon standing down, this selection contest has a big prize potentially at stake – an important elected role for many years in the country’s largest city. If someone is serious about doing well a job of that importance, they should have answers at least as good – and hopefully even better – than mine in 2019. If they do, then that’s where the votes should go.
So that’s my advice to other members in London: judge candidates not by how much you like their promises but by how plausible their plans are to deliver them.
Members have received invites to online hustings for the list selection and manifestos are also going out. However to dig into these questions, discussing the contest in more detail with other members is also often very useful, which is why I’d recommend Simon McGrath’s unofficial internal election Facebook group as a good place for that.
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