Is it time for co-leaders?

We are all reeling from what was a very disappointing set of General Election results.

Personally I was hoping for at least 15 per cent of the national vote share and a substantial increase in the number of MPs, but it wasn’t to be. On a night of losses I was particularly sad to see Tom Brake defeated. I had the pleasure of meeting Tom back in 2016 and I know he was an excellent constituency MP.

Of course, the headline loss was our new leader Jo Swinson in Dunbartonshire. I can’t help thinking that the pressures of having to head up a national campaign was a factor in her defeat. Clearly she wasn’t able to spend as much time in her constituency given the need to travel the length and breadth of the country spreading the party’s message. That was something she did with distinction. I was particularly impressed by her performance in the Andrew Neil interview, where she matched him very well.

This wasn’t the first time that a Liberal leader found themselves in a difficult situation in their own constituency. Sir Archibald Sinclair lost his seat in 1945 and in 1970 Jeremy Thorpe hung on in North Devon by a few hundred votes. Back then the demands of a national campaign were not so great. There was no 24 hour media in those days days and in 1974 Thorpe spent a lot more time on his home patch, sometimes broadcasting live from there. That is probably not an option in the 21st century.

So now we have a vacancy for the leader’s position and I feel that some might agree with me that there is not an obvious front runner for the post. That is no surprise given that only a few months back the membership voted for a young MP by a substantial majority. I am sure we thought at the time that Jo would be in position for many years to come.

…Which brings me to the idea that we should give having co-leaders a try. It seems to have worked pretty well for the Greens. It takes the pressure off one individual and acknowledges the reality that at the present time the Liberal Democrats are not realistic contenders for majority government.

There is a lot to be said for a collective leadership, not least because, as someone once said, two heads are better than one.

* David is a member of Horsham and Crawley Liberal Democrats

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25 Comments

  • David Becket 10th Jan '20 - 12:09pm

    I would agree that Jo’s performance at the Andrew Neil interview was brilliant.

  • I have nothing against this idea in principle but it really hasnt worked that well for The Greens, how many times did we see the Other Leader ? I dont even remember his name & Im not sure I would recognise him.
    Parties can choose Co-Leaders but they cant force The Media to see them as Equal.

  • David Becket 10th Jan '20 - 12:54pm

    The only two leader system that might work is a Leader from outside parliament and the second leader from the House of Commons.

    However before we go down this path members must have a chance to hear all our 11 MPs. Where better place than in York in March, with all MPs given a chance to address conference.

    This would involve ditching the bureaucratic conference agenda and producing a different format to meet the current need.
    Are our Conference Committee up to the task?

  • National politics is tending to equate parties with their leaders. That’s about a very basic emotional response of “dependency” on the leader. Co-leadership undermines that. It could sound a good and progressive thing, but it’s better to do what’s needed to get lots of MPs and use that position for a progressive agenda.

    Right now, Ed Davey seems to be doing a good job, so there isn’t a public vacuum.

  • marcstevens 10th Jan '20 - 1:39pm

    Paul Barker I was going to say exactly the same. The Greens having two leaders has undermined their party and one of them is not an MP. Although you could say it’s more understandable for a party with just 1 MP to have a back-up leader but for a party of 11 there is more choice. Getting a Leader on the social liberal wing is the best for the party to make progress.

  • John Marriott 10th Jan '20 - 1:42pm

    No!

  • Richard O'Neill 10th Jan '20 - 2:15pm

    Pretty much everyone thinks Caroline Lucas is the Green leader even during periods (like the present) when she is not. But I’d question how well the Greens are doing. Even with the Remain Alliance they have only one MP. Yes, they increased their vote share but so did this party.

    It is just unfortunate that Jo Swinson lost her seat so quickly. That was absolutely gutting.

    One thing the party now has is time on its side. As with Labour, an election defeat is traumatic but offers a chance for renewal. After the disaster of 2015 the anti-Brexit cause was clung to like a life raft because it gave the party a sense of purpose and a hope of renewal. That is gone now, but what might take its place is potentially exciting.

    Mabye making Deputy Leader a more formal role, and electing them by public vote would create an opportunity of spreading the load a bit more.

  • Sebastian Field 10th Jan '20 - 2:52pm

    I don’t think it has worked well for the Greens at all. Nobody knows who the two co-leaders are, to the point where several commenters think that one of the leaders is an MP ie Caroline Lucas. She isn’t and hasn’t been for some time. We don’t need gimmicks at this stage, we need a steady hand at the tiller which is what Ed Davey seems to be giving.

  • I’ll be honest I’ve no idea who the Greens’ leader(s) are. I know Caroline Lucas and that’s it. Couldn’t name another one.

    My own opinion is the party needs a leader who stays in post for a decade or more. We only have two credible candidates anyway.

  • I think that having two leaders is always going to be a very bad idea unless there is some compelling reason for contemplating such a thing. I see much greater justification for having a good clearout of the existing Grandees. The party badly needs fresh thinking, a challenging membership and a shift in focus from the dreams of the Party hierarchy to the genuine ambitions of the electorate.

  • Johnathan Bartley is the gentleman none of you can recall, surprisingly, given that LDV is the home of political obsessives (myself included). And given that pronouncements on the environment these days are invariably bordering on the hysterical, I though he did well enough at the GE.

  • We have two (acting) leaders at the moment – former Deputy Leader Ed and President Mark.
    In practice, the press assumes Ed is THE leader, which is fine and allows Mark Pack to concentrate on the membership and on improving the Party’s campaigning ability. I’d be happy for this system to continue for a few months , giving time for our other MPs to be better known, at least to our members.
    I do not believe we can approach the next General Election with two leaders though. This was debated and rejected by Conference last year, and for me there are two reasons against – people will want to know who is the “real” leader in the event of a large number of Lib Dem MPs having a real say in Parliament, and also the probability of the media repeating the “Two David’s” debacle of the 1987 General Election, where reporters asks David Steele and David Owen awkward questions aiming to get conflicting answers. Coordinating via then-new mobile phones, they succeeded in making the Liberal – SDP Alliance campaign look shambolic.

  • James Fowler 11th Jan '20 - 10:17am

    No. As mentioned above, remember the ‘Two Davids’. It’s fine to make mistakes, but not learning from them is the definition of insanity. Practically, leadership is about making choices and taking responsibilities, but it also has a immense symbolic status. In the end, there can only be one.

  • David Warren 11th Jan '20 - 10:24am

    Thanks for all the comments.

    It would appear that the idea of co leaders isn’t going to take off any time soon. That said we are going to have to look at a way for whoever is leader in the next General Election to balance constituency and national campaigning.

    Maybe there is a role for other senior party figures to be out and about around the country like the Deputy leader and President.

  • I think the idea of co-leaders is in principle a good one and all things being equal would be a good thing to do. However, I do think David makes a good underlying point that we need more people to be figureheads and spokespeople out there in the media. Paddy was, to an extent still viewed that way so I’d say Deputy Leader, President and Leader in the Lords should be pushed to the fore to be prominent spokespeople, so it doesn’t all fall on the shoulders of one person.

  • Personally I would like to see some leadership … any leadership. The party has been moribund and silent since the election. No leadership election. No debate. No opposition. Not even an email from the party…

  • “I’ll be honest I’ve no idea who the Greens’ leader(s) are. I know Caroline Lucas and that’s it. Couldn’t name another one.”

    Neither of them is Caroline Lucas. The joint leaders are Sian Berry and Jonathan Bartley

  • Perhaps Parliamentary leader (would-be PM) and national leader with different but very public remits. Parliamentary leader with day-to-day parliament and policy responsibilities whilst the ‘national leader’ very much about the principles of Liberalism and thematic publicity (Farage did that rather well for his cause outside parliament didn’t he!?).

    It might look like two-poles of power but then I actually don’t think that’s a bad thing after a decade where policy hasn’t always reflected the principles that well, that there’s a need for a “conscience” and a tapping of shoulders from time-to-time!

  • Michael Sammon 11th Jan '20 - 5:31pm

    No. More than one leader would be a committee. We need a candidate for PM and somebody accountable at the top. Swinson just was not the right one.

  • No, Michael Sammon, you don’t need a candidate for PM; not any time soon! You need Liberalism to be a popular cause, a grassroots cause like Brexit and its politics was for others, and now more than ever with its basic tenets under threat. A parliamentary presence is a bonus. A figure to stand at a future leader’s debate is useful, but ‘A’ begets ‘B’! If your focus is only Westminster the party will continue to wrong foot itself!

  • Neil Sandison 12th Jan '20 - 11:46am

    Perhaps if Jo Swinson had had a Johnathan Bartley she would canvassed those extra votes she needed to retain her seat ? . The Co- leader was well used by the Greens during the GE ,Brexit leader Nigel Farage did not stand for the GE but got wall to wall coverage .As did the SNPs leader who didnt stand for Westminster .Politics has moved on its time we did.

  • David Warren 12th Jan '20 - 7:22pm

    Couldn’t have put it better myself @neilsandison

  • It is good of David to restart this debate. Maybe it would be the best compromise to have TWO DEPUTY LEADERS, one of whom should be from outside Parliament. Also, I think it would be a good idea to have a “leaders team” of four or five people, consisting of the Leader and two Deputies.

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