Opinion: What is leadership and how to choose the next leader

With a leadership contest now underway we may want to ask ourselves what it is that we are looking for in a leader for us to be able to decide who to vote for. We cannot underestimate how important the next leader is for the development of the party and the defence and promotion of liberal values.

We may have all joined the party at different times for different reasons but there are many things which bind us as a social group – we all have a common identity as members of the party. This identity is crucial for both ourselves (as commitment to the identity leads to greater involvement in the party and rejection of the identity means people leave) and others (if non-members identify with it they may vote for or even join the party while if they do not they will reject or even ridicule us). Our next leader is inherently linked to our shared identity and for them – and therefore us – to be successful they would do well to follow these principles as set out by Alexander Haslem, an Australian professor in psychology:

Leaders are one of ‘us’: To lead us, leaders must represent us

We must listen carefully to what and how they say things to decide if they represent one of us. It is easy to know if they are not. Miliband talked about the ordinary working people making a distinction between us and them (or more precisely him and them). He did not say ‘we’ work hard and ‘we’ are struggling. That was the other people – the country – which he wanted to help out. He was not ‘one of us’. Great leaders talk about ‘we’ because they are ‘of the people’ as much as they are ‘for the people’. We should look for someone who clearly shows they are one of us.

Leaders do things for ‘us’: To engage followers, leaders’ actions and visions must promote our interests

Our next leader must understand the issues as the party members see the issues and advance ‘our’ collective interest as ‘we’ see it. They should be in it not for themselves or some other group – note Cameron’s comment about a career defining election – they should be in it for the cause of liberalism, fairness, social justice, and other values the party holds dear. We should scrutinise their past comments and actions to make a judgement about this.

Leaders craft a sense of ‘us’: Leaders are masters of identity and must craft a sense of who we are

Leaders have to work hard to construct our shared identity in our own minds and the minds of the country just as Jo Grimond had after he took over as leader of a Liberal Party gaining just 2.5% of the vote in 1955. He was one of ‘us’, did things for ‘us’ yet created and defined a new identity that became attractive to more and more people. Our next leader needs to be proactive in looking into our past, present and future to create and define our identity for today that we can all be proud of. It also means defining who we are not. We cannot be everything to all people, that is having no identity at all and no one votes for nothing.

Leaders make ‘us’ matter: Leaders must manage our identity using power and influence to make us matter

Our next leader needs to make our identity and commitment to shared values and ideals matter in the minds of everyone in this country. This means some people will not agree and even rile against it, but it must matter to them that we exist. This identity needs to be embedded into the party and the electorate. Our ‘core vote’ are those who identify with us i.e. our identity. Expanding the core vote is a matter of embedding this identity into the minds of the population.

Of course there are other ways to decide a new leader but it might be worth considering these principles throughout the campaign and when casting your vote. Happy voting.

* Matthew Gibson is a Liberal Democrat member from Birmingham

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This entry was posted in Op-eds.


  • matt (Bristol) 15th May '15 - 4:22pm

    All very interesting, but who are ‘we’?

  • Stephen Hesketh 15th May '15 - 4:51pm

    An interesting comment Matt.

    In my conversations with fellow members and interested friends and colleagues, I think we have a pretty clear idea of who and what we are.

    The confusion, if there be any, was brought about by Nick Clegg’s idiosyncratic view of what ‘we’ SHOULD stand for and those to his economic right who were happy to ‘Reclaim Liberalism’ and shift this party (our party) from beneath our very feet.

    Matthew Gibson’s article does much to explain why, thankfully, they failed.

  • Eddie Sammon 15th May '15 - 4:54pm

    A bit too academic for my liking, but it is exactly the right subject and we need to be talking about the leadership election everyday to make sure that we get the right result.

    I am concerned that Tim is going to take the party into the wilderness – away from mainstream concerns and policies and towards what the membership wants. Democracy should be about the whole country.

    I agree with this NewStatesman editorial published yesterday and whilst it is about the choice that Labour has to make – “Has Labour got what it takes to absorb the pain and return stronger, ready to win? Or does it face another long ­period in the wilderness, speaking only to itself?” – I feel that the same applies to the Liberal Democrats.


  • Eddie Sammon 15th May '15 - 4:55pm

    Sorry, forgot to post the link:


    Same choice faces the Lib Dems. I believe.

  • Stephen Hesketh 15th May '15 - 5:01pm

    @Matthew Gibson

    Thank you Matthew. An excellent article. Far too many leaders in many walks of life either never glimpse or pay only lip service to the vital strengths and characteristics you highlight.

    For a modern inclusive collaborative fairness-seeking Liberal and Democratic party looking to elect a new leader, such personal characteristics are absolutely vital.

    Having seen and heard him make speeches, produce video messages, campaign in the community, talk to fellow activists in groups and on a one to one basis and in him leading a team turning a Tory-voting constituency into a strong Liberal Democrat one, I believe these characteristics are important parts of Tim Farron’s personal make up.

    Nick Clegg could generally be relied upon to put in a good performance, the difference with Tim is that it is not a performance.

  • As so often is the case, the View from Ham Common is very clear today
    and relevant to this article —

  • Phil Beesley 15th May '15 - 5:06pm

    “Great leaders talk about ‘we’ because they are ‘of the people’ as much as they are ‘for the people’. We should look for someone who clearly shows they are one of us.”

    I read that a few times and exploded internally. And then I thought about faking a candidate.

    “We should look for someone who clearly shows they are one of us.”

    And then I thought further. Why not have a multi-faced candidate who is just like you, however you happen to be facing.

    That’s when I gave up thinking. People vote for people who are different. People do not vote for mirrors.

  • Stephen Hesketh 15th May '15 - 5:17pm

    Eddie Sammon 15th May ’15 – 4:54pm
    “I am concerned that Tim is going to take the party into the wilderness – away from mainstream concerns and policies and towards what the membership wants. Democracy should be about the whole country.”

    Eddie – I think you are confused as to where Nick Clegg, the ultimate in ‘anchoring us firmly were we didn’t belong’, led us.

    If I have to pretend I am not a passionate preamble-believing Liberal then myself and many others will not be actively involved in this party.

    If we have to dishonestly pretend we are equidistant between ever rightward-shifting Labour and Conservative parties then why should the electorate vote for us and trust us?

    One of the problems with modern day politics is that it is infected by professional political managers rather than leaders and parties who say what they mean and mean what they say.

    The man who stood and the people who delivered Focus leaflets to your door in Southport did so because ‘we’ collectively believe in something far more important than the mere exercise of power.

  • Eddie Sammon 15th May '15 - 5:23pm

    Stephen, it is true that the membership deserve to be heard and need to be given recognition for their work.

    I shall try not to free ride so much. But I do think it is important to communicate with politicians and activists.

    Best regards

  • Good leaders should be able to present us with a better vision of the future, including an inclusive approach to those who are struggling financially or with their health or social circumstances, but the next Lib Dem leader will have an uphill struggle if the latest analysis of the election results is anything to go by.

    In particular, I have been disappointed by Labour’s reaction to their defeat. David Milliband, who I thought behaved impeccably during the whole Election 2015 campaign, suddenly appeared from nowhere to say the Labour campaign disappointed because it didn’t reach out to aspirational voters. Tristram Hunt has said the Labour Party must speak to the people who shop at John Lewis. It would be funny if it wasn’t true! Even Tony Blair didn’t say that!

    The next Lib Dem leader will have difficulty in arguing for a social justice agenda.

  • paul barker 15th May '15 - 8:19pm

    One thing either Norman or Tim has to look forward to is a campaign of harassment of them & their families, friends & neighbours by “Journalists”. I hope they are prepared.
    I really feel for Chuka Umunna who is getting it from The Media, bloggers & his own Party. Just look at the articles ( & comments) on Labour List & Labour Uncut.

  • @ Paul. I so agree. Why should the private life of MPs or party leaders be paraded on the front pages of the newspapers. I am so tired of the media dictating the agenda to suit themselves.

  • Judy,

    perhaps if we were aiming to get 40% in the next election we might be nervous about social justice? But I think we would be ecstatic with 15% in 2020, don’t you?

    If Labour and the Tories both lurch to the right there will be plenty of room to argue social justice from where we are now – which is not on the left-right spectrum at all, but in a third direction called “Liberalism”!

    I also don’t think it was policy that was the big problem for Labour, but actually being too cautious , as witnessed by the anodyne stuff on the Edstone. And above all having a leader with a hugely negative approval rating, which was also our problem. I actually like and respect Ed Milliband, but when he speaks he is terrible! His anger was so synthetic and saying things like “Hell yeah”! Honestly!

  • @ Andrew. Yes I take your point. 15% (especially under a proper PR system) would do me fine! In fact my view of social justice is that we present it as a simple given that we look after people in need, not as a special kind of favour because we are nice people, but because that’s what a decent, grown-up society does.

    Yes the stone was ridiculous and invited unwelcome Biblical comparisons! As I said on Twitter, a Martian could have written it. It really meant nothing. It turned out to be Ed’s political epitaph.

  • Little Jackie Paper 15th May '15 - 9:32pm

    Andrew – ‘If Labour and the Tories both lurch to the right there will be plenty of room to argue social justice from where we are now – which is not on the left-right spectrum at all, but in a third direction called “Liberalism”!’

    I really don’t think that this is the divide any more – or at the very least it’s much, much weaker now than even 10 years ago. Times change, people move on – the Thatcher era divides are breaking. I keep hearing that Cameron is some sort of uber-Thatcherite; he’s just won an election on a manifesto that included a triple locked pension, a freeze on rail fares and a (dubiously funded) £8bn for the NHS. He’s about to deliver more devolution to Scotland than anyone else.

    Much has been made of Labour, ‘timidity,’ but Ed M came up with a number of policies – non-dom abolition, energy reference pricing and mansion taxes that had some credible level of support across the political divide and all of which I personally would see as social justice. His serious political win, Syria, also had broad-based support. [As an aside, imagine this election against the backdrop of a failing Syria campaign.]

    I suspect that an EU referendum in 2016/17 will have very little relation to the left/right divide of the 1980s. Times have moved on.

    My point is that the language of, ‘lurches to the…’ might resonate on the internet, but really this is just an echo chamber and hot air. What we have now is a political landscape that is rather different – things have changed and people have changed. What one makes of those changes is another matter.

    It is very hard to see Cameron’s majority as the product of an appeal to Thatcherite right-wing headbangers. If the new leader of Labour carries on any of Ed M’s Labour then it is likely that what s/he continues will have resonance across the political spectrum, not just to the classic left. In short, we are now post-Thatcher and all leaders will have to work in an environment that doesn’t have the easy certainties and framework of the over-interpreted 1980s.

    I don’t have easy answers, and I can’t say I’m confident that liberalism has a big place in the new landscape. Whether social justice has a place time will tell – but anyone of any party making the case will have to make it to a very different population of voters compared to the leaders of the past three decades.

  • there is a lot of truth in this: http://www.theguardian.com/commentisfree/2015/may/13/leftwing-labour-latin-america-grassroots-revolution-spin?CMP=share_btn_tw

    apart from the fact that Monbiot ignores the Lib Dems (or perhaps more strictly Liberals, cf. Michael Meadowcroft), who first showed the way in community politics. I found this article through the Green Party website, not ours…

    Can we recapture that spirit of inner city Liberalism that saw us control cities like Liverpool? Or will we let the Greens take it over?

  • BTW is there a limit to election expenses for our leadership candidates?
    Personally I think they should be limited to just one leaflet put out with the ballot papers. I know we like to bombard the electorate but surely we don’t want to waste much-needed money bombarding our members?

    Let them do what they want on social media – but no Facebook adverts!

  • Ed Milliband did exactly the right thing in not talking about “we”. He knew that it would sound patronising and fake if he tried to make out that he is part of the struggling populace. Didn’t George Osborne say “We are all in it together?” But “we” are not are “we”? George Osborne has never been “in it” at all. I would much rather wealthy politicians just said what their views are and what policies they will implement, rather than trying to act as if they are “one of us”.

  • It was quite by chance and forgive me for NOT knowing the name of the Labour Party Leadership contender who said it on Radio Four,It was a lady candidate,beyond that,I cant say who she was,BUT,as a jaded voter,VERY sceptical of politicians motivations,after decades engaged in politics I know only too well what a dirty game it is,this lady said something so obvious,yet Id never heard any candidate for the leadership of any political party,yet sums-up all our hopes and dreams and is so very very simple yet so profound.She said all people really want is: “A home,a job (Something to do) and someone to love”.Faultless,flawless cutting through all the spin and codswallop politicians spout.If leadership candidates get THAT and never forget it ,framing their policies with that in mind they just might do a bit of good.

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