A personal specification for a leader

With another leadership election looming, what do we need in a leader? What’s essential and what’s merely desirable? If we don’t think clearly about these things, we’re likely to make bad choices.

We don’t have a Person Specification for the job, but maybe we should at least think that way. What would it look like?

Unfortunately, it wouldn’t stay the same. At some times, the ability to inspire the activists or to gain the attention of the media is vital. At others, the activists are already inspired, and the media are listening, but keen to find weaknesses. Then judgment is crucial. So I’ve not divided the points into Essential and Desirable, as would be normal with other Person Specs. I’ve also not mentioned specific issues such as the climate emergency, though I think not choosing a leader strong on that would be unwise.

GOOD JUDGMENT: This branches into several points –

  • The ability to think deep and long
  • To understand how things will seem too different people, to unengaged voters, to the media – including a warning system for bad calls
  • To prioritise sternly and wisely, seeing what matters most
  • To see how issues interconnect.


  • To use the most straightforward English that can get the point across and few rather than many words
  • To give persuasive examples of points (often “human interest”) and to marshal facts authoritatively
  • To think sensibly on her/his feet when challenged
  • To understand the issues – for, without that, nothing will be clear and persuasive.

THE ABILITY TO INSPIRE – activists (who do most of the work and are the party’s local face), supporters in general and at least some of the general public. To offer real hope.

THE ABILITY TO WORK WELL WITH OTHERS – leading without being dictatorial, listening to a wide range of opinions including unexpected or unwelcome advice, working well with people of diverse characteristics and background, learning, making people working with her/him feel valued, understanding his/her weaknesses and others’ strengths.


  • Of being an activist, for, without that, relations with activists will be awkward
  • Of life being hard
  • Of some field of work outside politics
  • Of management, if only of a small organisation or branch (unlike Corbyn).

A CUPBOARD FREE OF SKELETONS (and, remembering Jeremy Thorpe, no tendency to acquire them).

GOOD HEALTH (necessary, I’m afraid, both physical health and mental resilience, though that does not preclude issues like depression, which both Lincoln and Churchill had).

TO BE LIBERAL in spirit, in values, in head and heart.

COURAGE – to take hard decisions, to be willing to do what is unpopular but right, to show fighting spirit, to admit mistakes (if only in private or to yourself).

No-one is going to score near the top on all points, but significant weaknesses should make us think.






* Simon Banks is Chair of the Essex County Co-ordinating Committee and a former councillor, candidate and local party officer.

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  • @Simon Banks: “EXPERIENCE –

    Of being an activist, for, without that, relations with activists will be awkward
    Of life being hard”

    Totally disagree on these two. If they have the attributes you describe under “the ability to work well with others”, having been an activist is unnecessary. This party fetisheses “activists”. The ability to push paper through a letterbox has no bearing on someone’s ability to lead the party.

    Similarly, the second point strays onto the awful territory of Identity Politics, which basically states that you have to have lived something to represent it. Demonstrably false, otherwise you’d need a HoC with 66 million people in it because everyone’s life experience is unique.

  • There are times when appointing an internal candidate is essential. One would hesitate to do this for the person leading an organisation, however that is the position we are in. First we need someone who is an MP, then they must be willing to do the job. And of course their majority would be important.
    Since having a leader is essential, we do not really have a lot of choice.

  • Laurence Cox 18th Mar '20 - 1:11pm

    Simon, I think that I could put your leader specification more simply: the ideal leader has the personal characteristics of a combination of Paddy Ashdown and Charles Kennedy (minus the alcoholism, in the latter’s case). Apart from the lack of a Y chromosome not disqualifying anyone, those two leaders exemplify in my view what we need in a leader. At the present time with us barely in double figures in opinion polls I would lean more towards Paddy-style rather than Charles-style.

  • Lorenzo Cherin 18th Mar '20 - 2:01pm

    Could the party be far better to reclassify leadership?

    What nonsense says, no to the leader not being an mp, then says, now, Not Ed is leader, but Ed and Mark, are leaders?!

    The leader needs qualities a dozen mps lack. No coalition baggage, mainstream priorities, warmth, charisma, toughness, likeability, non controversial personal history, common sense on identity politics, enthusiasm for government, fondness for new ideas, popular connection.

    We have good people none of which have all of these.

    Blair did. And faults too. Nobody else springs to mind.

  • @TCO – “This party fetisheses “activists”. The ability to push paper through a letterbox has no bearing on someone’s ability to lead the party.”
    Is that what you think an activist is? In my local party we have hundreds of people who deliver leaflets for us – and we are hugely grateful to them. But activism goes well beyond that and includes issues campaigning, door-knocking, social media campaigning, email writing, ward organising, leaflet design and general campaign leadership as well as leaflet delivery. I would have little respect for any council or parliamentary candidate who had not fully involved her/himself in most of those activities, let alone a leadership candidate.

  • Simon,

    I was trying to think who might meet your criteria. Joan of Arc comes to mind if you substitute French for the ability to use the most straightforward English that can get the point across and few rather than many words.

    In the absence of a Saint, I would be inclined to agree with those advocating sticking with Ed Davey and putting the leadership election on the backburner.

  • @Mary Reid perhaps things are better in other places, but in my experience local parties make no reference to someone’s actual skills, and the older members look down on new members who haven’t “put in their shift delivering leaflets”.

  • Patrick C Smith 19th Mar '20 - 1:09pm

    The real acid test for any Leader is to inspire conspire public confidence and community team work and human compassion in time of national crisis and that exits throughout c-virus.

    Commeth the Crisis,commeth the hour and commeth the Leader..

    I concur that we require someone ideally built in the mould of Paddy Ashdown but we are within limits now and I am for Sir Ed Davey as he bodes well for Liberal Democrat tradionalists and `progressives’ and has a greater store of `emtional intelligence’ that was missed of the list but is essential in any brilliant Leader.

    I believe that the ability to identify with people-who as voters are ultimately in control-whatever politician or motives.

    To be capable of engaging through statecraft on international issues like unravelling Brext in the midst of CV and to calm stampedes at supermarkets are required currently.

    Sir Nick Clegg whom I admired greatly as a excellent international Leader-who spoke 5 EU languages fluently that was under valued and ill-used- as he was so able- by his Country during the Coalition serves as template .Sir Nick believed in accepting people where they were in life and meet people where you find them.

    Paddy Ashdown,Shirley Williams,Charles Kennedy and Sir Nick Clegg and now Sir Ed Davey are all ex tempore at this leadership innate ability and are all principled and humane Liberal Leader templates with a surfeit of legacy to follow.

  • This is a good wish list for a leader’s qualities and abilities but unfortunately, we can’t specify then get what we want.

    For one thing we must choose from a very small pool. The Conservatives and Labour struggle even with much a much bigger selection to choose from and as for the choice US voters get… words fail me!

    For another thing, the worst candidates, the rogues, the incompetents etc., will be highly plausible, making all the right noises and ticking all the right boxes or they wouldn’t have got that far.

    What we can and should do is simply not tolerate failure. That’s how football clubs do itand it’s also what the Tories do to get, on average, the most politically adept leaders of any UK political party. Loose an election and they’re out (for LDs the equivalent would be to fail to make clear progress since ‘winning’ as such isn’t a feasible short-term goal).

    Obviously, would-be Tory leaders know this so in their rise they must learn the key political skills of building a coalition in a broad-church party, of finding and taking the best advice and so on. It’s a tough school and few graduate.

    LDs in contrast don’t have any real equivalent for their rising stars. Any serious policy work is outsourced to committees that demonstrably can’t deliver a coherent narrative and, as far as I can tell, there is little in the way of useful staff support. The result is too many MPS appear to source their thinking mainly from the current zeitgeist and not from a Liberal alternative. Moreover, as the Coalition era shows, once elected the leader is effectively unaccountable.

    This may create a great stepping-stone to a lucrative career for the ex-leader, but it doesn’t work for the party. As long as it continues the LDs are a guaranteed fail. We should change that by creating a party environment, part cultural, part constitutional, that constrains (in a good way) the leader’s freedom to act; giving them the freedom to lead but cutting them down if/when they falter.

    Leadership is a high place, but it should always be a breezy one – one it’s easy to be blown down from.

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