Edition #43 of Liberal Democrat Newswire came out last week, looking at the chances of a Liberal Democrat leadership election being called this year, and the key party elections for major posts that we do know for sure will happen. You can read it in full below.
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Welcome to the 42nd edition of Liberal Democrat Newswire. This time I’m taking a look at the big Liberal Democrat elections due in 2014 – the three that are on for sure and then also looking at the the possibility of having the biggest of them all, a leadership contest. Plus read on for a special chance to win some great free business cards from MOO.
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In this newsletter:
Wanted: a new Deputy Leader
The first Liberal Democrat contest we know is on for sure is for Deputy Leader – or more accurately, the Deputy Leader of the Parliamentary Party in the House of Commons. This post has become vacant following Simon Hughes’s appointment as a government minister and, as the full name indicates, is a contest in which only the party’s MPs can take part either as candidates or voters. Nominations are opening today (Tuesday 7 January), closing next week, and with a ballot the week after if required.
Some previous Deputy Leaders have seen their status much enhanced by the role, with Vince Cable (2006-10) greatly increasing his national profile, especially with his famous Mr Bean quip to Gordon Brown at Prime Minister’s Questions. Holding the post of Deputy helped ensure Ming Campbell (2003-6) was in pole position to succeed Charles Kennedy as leader when Kennedy’s health problems forced a sudden end to his leadership.
The other two Deputy Leaders (Alan Beith 1992-2003 and Simon Hughes 2010-2014), however, were already high profile figures in the party, with both having run unsuccessfully for the party leadership previously.
This time round it is unlikely that a would-be successor to Nick Clegg will see the Deputy Leader role as a stepping stone in their career. That is because the post will be held by an MP who is not in government. This rules out possible future leaders who are not yet in Parliament and also those who hold a sufficiently senior government post that resigning it in order to become Deputy Leader would be so gauche and over-ambitious as to be counter-productive. Likewise, for Party President Tim Farron to seek the role whilst still President until the summer would risk a similar problem.
That leaves an MP, either not in government or in a sufficiently junior post that wanting to swap for Deputy Leader does not look graspingly ambitious. An MP who is standing down at the next election may also find that a hindrance, given that the post has always been held by someone for much longer than a year and a bit.
Likewise, any male MP may find themselves at a disadvantage given the Parliamentary Party’s rightful sensitivities about how male-dominated it and the other senior posts in the party are. Such sensitivities haven’t led to there being any female Cabinet ministers, true, but for better or worse other posts such as Chair of the Parliamentary Party and President have often been seen as a way to try to balance that out. Now Deputy Leader could fulfil that role too (and more effectively than Chair of the Parliamentary Party given its much higher public profile).
The most touted plausible name so far fits all these requirements – Lorely Burt. She is currently a Parliamentary Private Secretary (PPS), a sufficiently lowly job on the government ladder so as not to be an obstacle, and has been a successful Chair of the Parliamentary Party, making her my pick for the job. She may face a contest from someone such as Gordon Birtwistle, but looks the frontrunner by some distance at the moment.
New Party President required
The second major party election coming up for sure in 2014 is that for Party President.
Presidents serve a two year term of office and can then seek re-election, but if successful are term-limited and cannot stand for a third successive term. Current President Tim Farron comes to the end of his second term this year, with the contest to succeed him taking place in the summer. It will be by postal ballot of all the party’s members.
Although candidacy is open to anyone in the party, all eight Presidents in the party’s history have been Parliamentarians (seven of the eight at the time of being President, the eighth – Ian Wrigglesworth – was both a former MP and later a peer).
As with Deputy Leader, the post can significantly raise the profile of a would-be future leader in the party. It did just that for Charles Kennedy (President 1990-94, elected leader 1999) and leadership ambitions were a large part of the reason for Lembit Opik’s fruitless pursuit of the post. Many also point to the same motivation as being behind Simon Hughes’s stint as President (2004-8; he had stood for leader in 1999 and again in 2006). So the speculation that Tim Farron sees the role as a step towards running for leader fits the pattern for the post.
In fact, other than the first Party President Ian Wrigglesworth, all the Presidents at their time of election have either been MPs with likely leadership ambitions, past leaders (Bob Maclennan, former leader of the SDP) or members of the House of Lords. Parliamentarians, not grassroots figures, dominate the post.
The frequency with which such figures get elected is partly due the job involving dealing with other many other senior people who are predominantly in London, making it more attractive to people who already spend a considerable amount of time in London, even if they also have strong roots elsewhere in the country (which in fact is a bonus in winning cross-country support).
Further, the post of President is both time-consuming and unpaid. Being a Parliamentarian working much of the time in central London already lets a President flex their time and minimise their costs in a way that someone else, especially outside London, would usually find much harder. It also helps that as a peer (or ex-leader) is not a possible future leader, they often find it easier to put together a coalition of support amongst MPs.
Moreover, Parliamentarians have an ability to build a profile across the party that most non-Parliamentarians do not have. Social media is starting to change that, but canny Parliamentarians do still start from a strong position not only to win media coverage but also to build up a large social media audience too.
At the moment, the field is wide open, though the post’s history suggests at least one peer is likely to come forth as a credible candidate.
From my own extensive travels round to different local party events (often selling books, of course!), there is no sign yet of an outsider already putting in the work to build up their profile in the way that Ros Scott did so successfully to heavily defeat Lembit Opik for the Presidency.
Any peer who stands is therefore likely to be one who is already fairly high profile in the party. A well-regarded MP who is standing down in 2015 and so can spare the time from their constituency, or a retiring MEP (the well-regarded Sharon Bowles comes to mind), may also be worth a flutter.
It would be hard for a non-Parliamentarian who hasn’t already been putting in the spadework to challenge such a candidate and win. Their measure of success, however, may not be about winning, for the Presidential contest offers the chance to influence the party’s direction (such as on a major policy or organisational issue) by forcing the eventual winner to address certain issues during the contest. You can therefore run, set the agenda and succeed – even if you do not get elected.
There is no sign so far of such a candidacy being put together – but there is time yet for that to change.
Yet more party elections: the committees
If all that was not enough internal party election excitement, there will also be the usual biennial round of elections for the party’s federal (UK-wide) committees this autumn.
As I will be up for re-election as a member of the Federal Policy Committee (FPC), that election of course particularly interest me. It is of wider significance too because the FPC elected this autumn will be the FPC that has to agree the party’s manifesto for the 2015 general election. The committee’s ability to force changes in the manifesto is a very real one, making its role much more significant than that of similar bodies in Labour or the Conservatives.
Under the party’s revised triple-lock arrangements for agreeing any coalition deal or similar after the next election, the veto for the party’s Federal Executive (FE) has been removed. That makes who gets elected to the FE less important than previously, though the FE will still have a central role and the Party President, by chairing the FE and by dint of being the President, will be an absolutely key figure in influencing any close decisions.
And will there be a party leadership contest too?
The European and local elections in May present the biggest danger point to Nick Clegg’s leadership during this Parliament.
For much of the Parliament his position has been buttressed by the widespread agreement within the party that staying in the coalition until the next general election, or near to it, is the right strategy. Changing leader some way ahead of that would, therefore, simply put a new person into the same position that Nick Clegg finds himself, having regularly to agree compromises and being part of a government in which the majority of ministers are not Liberal Democrat, with all the consequences that flow from that.
However, the closer we get to the next election, the greater the temptation to think that a new face may change things, and may have a short enough period in coalition that they stay a new face rather than simply becoming another face of the existing coalition.
The rules state that a leadership contest could be triggered by a vote of no confidence by the party’s MPs or a request from 75 local parties following their own local meetings.
Something of course would have to trigger such as demand for change, and the May elections are the most likely trigger. They offer both the right timing (only a year out from general election polling day with, by the time a leadership contest is conclude, significantly less time to run), and the possibility that a very poor result, such as having zero MEPs elected, may trigger a panic.
It’s why many Liberal Democrat insiders have long viewed them as the greatest point of danger for Clegg’s leadership in the Parliament.
However, there are several factors which reduce that danger. Although Vince Cable continues to be the most popular Liberal Democrat in polls, his margin over Nick Clegg is not huge. Moreover, the overall mood in the party is not one that is spiralling down to a summer 2014 confrontation.
The Eastleigh by-election was won. MPs who have seen the party’s polling know that amongst the sort of voters who will get them re-elected Nick Clegg’s ratings are good and that local elections in their own patches have been vastly better than across the country as a whole. Even in the margins of Parliamentary Party Away Days there is little imminent leadership plotting.
Plus there is no leader in waiting who could, Michael Howard style, take over swiftly and smoothly, quickly calming down problems thanks to a widespread acceptance that they are the only person for the job. Neither Vince Cable, Ed Davey nor Tim Farron, for example, have that breadth of support amongst the party’s MPs.
To add to the absence of leadership turmoil, party membership has risen in each of the last two quarters, turning round a long-term declining trend that long pre-dates entering into coalition. Lib Dem Voice’s surveys of party members since the summer have shown a net figure thinking the party is headed in the right direction similar to the figures from autumn 2008. Nick Clegg’s own ratings in the surveys have recovered from their previous lows.
None of these figures are sparkling, but the fact they are not hitting all time lows suggests the leadership debate is for after, rather than before, the general election.
Unless panic is caused by a dreadful result in May.
Win your own MOO business cards
Liberal Democrat Newswire and MOO.com have teamed up to give away some business cards to three lucky readers. On their site, alongside their business cards, you will find an array of products such as postcards, sticker books, greeting cards, the Luxe range and MOO’s unique MiniCards (which I’m a great fan and regular user of).
Three sets of 100 Classic Business Cards are available to be won by readers. Just email in by noon on 20th January 2014 with the names of all the Liberal Democrat Party Presidents. Three lucky winners will be selected from the correct entries.
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