A detour into the history of the Party Presidency

It’s easy to forget how many Party members are of very recent vintage sometimes. Given that our membership at the time of the General Election was in the region of 45,000, and is now more than double that, many of our readers will have no reason to be aware of the history of the post.

So, here are some of the things that might be of interest…

Sal Brinton is the ninth person to hold the position of Party President, and the longest serving of them all – her second term is of three years, the first of such length. No-one may serve more than two terms, and until 2017, terms lasted two years. Her predecessors were;

  • Ian Wrigglesworth (1988-90)
  • Charles Kennedy (1991-94)
  • Robert Maclennan (1995-98)
  • Diana Maddock (1999-2000)
  • Navnit Dholakia (2001-04)
  • Simon Hughes (2005-08)
  • Ros Scott (2009-10)
  • Tim Farron (2011-14)

You can probably divide them up into three categories;

The Social Democrat Era

The first Party President, Ian Wrigglesworth, was the only non-Parliamentarian to hold the position (1988-1990). Admittedly, he had been the MP for Stockton South until the previous year, losing his seat as one of the many Social Democrats who finally could resist the return to traditional voting patterns in 1987. In a keenly fought election, he gained just over half the votes on a 71.2% turnout, beating out Liberal favourite, Des Wilson, with Gwynoro Jones a distant third.

Two years later, Charles Kennedy glided to a pretty overwhelming victory over a pre-ennobled Tim Clement-Jones, and was then re-elected two years later, defeating Martin Thomas (who was, interestingly, also ennobled not long thereafter). Charles was the first to use the Presidency as a springboard for the Leadership, but not the last.

His successor was Robert Maclennan, the third consecutive former Social Democrat to hold the position, amidst suggestions that, with a former Liberal as Leader, the Presidency acted as a balance between the two strands within the Party. He was unopposed in seeking a second term in 1996.

Breaking the mound

‘Coronations’ became something of a model for the next decade. Diana Maddock became the first woman and first Peer to hold the post, although she stood down after just one term, to be replaced by Navnit Dholakia, the first, and still only, BAME Party President, who went unopposed in two elections.

Then it was back to the Commons, and a contest between two potential future Leaders in Simon Hughes and Lembit Öpik (the pre-Cheeky Girl version). The London radical beat the media personality pretty handily though.

Democracy reasserts itself

Lembit was back four years later, and seen as the hot favourite in a contest with a seemingly obscure baroness from rural Suffolk, Ros Scott. However, a highly-organised campaign, utilising her network of local government friends and colleagues, a campaign team of all the talents (and her husband) and astute use of social media delivered a 72% share of the vote in what was seen by the media as something of an upset.

Somewhat unexpectedly, she stood down at the end of her first term, opening the door to a third ambitious MP, Tim Farron, who scraped past Susan Kramer in a very tight contest.

The tradition of not opposing sitting Presidents if seeking a second term held true, bringing us to the three-cornered 2014 contest between a Peer, Sal Brinton, an ex-MEP, Liz Lynne, and an up and coming activist, Daisy Cooper. Frankly, Liberal Democrat Voice readers got that one wrong, which perhaps tells you more about our readers than it does the wider membership…

So, that brings us up to date. Next time, I’m minded to offer my thoughts on what skills our next President should bring to the table…

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This entry was posted in Op-eds.


  • Lawrence Fullick 18th Feb '19 - 10:56am

    Looking at the list of Lib Dem Presidents all at some time parliamentarians have we lost the Liberal tradition that the President as well as being another person to speak for the Party to the media should be if necessary able to criticise the Leader on behalf of the membership?

  • David Becket 18th Feb '19 - 11:35am

    Whilst I am not in favour of electing a leader from outside parliament I suggest the President must not come from our MPs/Peers.
    This is an opportunity to get fresh blood at the top af the party. In a previous post I suggested the idea of a Presidents Fund, which would help the President do a full time job.

  • >You can probably divide them up into three categories
    or two catagories: Charles Kennedy and the rest.

    I only remember Tim as his tenure was recent, and I had to think to remember Sal.

  • Most of the work the president does is behind the scenes. Chairing interminable committee meetings, travelling the country to address local parties, supervising the top staff at party HQ. It is not a glamorous job and, apart from at party conference, they are not supposed to be particularly high-vis. What matters is whether they do the key job of making sure the members’ voice is represented at the top of the party.

  • David Becket 19th Feb '19 - 10:22am

    @Tony H
    We desperately need somebody high-vis who can promote the party and attract support. We do not need somebody whose main task is to get involved in the internal workings of the party. One of our problems is that too many are concerned with internal workings that they fail to connect with the world outside.

  • Neil Fawcett 19th Feb '19 - 11:03am

    I agree with @TonyH and disagree with David Becket.

    We have 11 MPs, various AMs and MSPs and a host of Peers, Mayors and Council Leaders to fly the flag with the public.

    Only the President has the primary role of representing members within the party and ensuring the organisational side of the party is moving forward.

  • Nonconformistradical 11th Nov '19 - 10:59am

    “A President who tries to do that won’t get much noticed as the media assume the Leader runs everything”

    Sal Brinton seemed to appear in the media quiet a lot

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