The two most important questions to ask Lib Dem leadership candidates

My wife keeps up with the news, but she can’t recall the last time she saw a national story about the Lib Dems. As Labour and the Tories struggle to hold themselves together, the Lib Dems fight simply to be heard. For most people in the country there is a fading memory of a liberal voice where the party used to be.

With the party’s leadership election looming, that matters. There will be a big temptation among activists to make the contest a battle of ideologies. “Which candidate is closest to my beliefs?” members will ask, endlessly dissecting policy statements, tweets and voting records.

Don’t do it. Your ideology is really important, but the harsh truth is that it doesn’t matter whether our new leader shares it or not. Other things matter more.

Our new leader being heard by the millions of people like my wife matters more. Our new leader connecting with those people, giving them a sense that the Liberal Democrats is for people like them and is fighting for the things they care about: that matters more. A leader who ticks every one of your ideological boxes but fails to connect with the voters will do your cause no good at all.

The Liberal Democrats, like the other parties, faces an existential crisis. We’ve been bouncing around 9% in the polls for the last five years and have just 11 MPs. Yes, the party has 100,000 members, a recovering councillor base and activists across most of the country, but that’s not enough. We live in one of the most centralised democracies in the world, and there’s only so much you can do without a strong presence in Westminster.

At a time when both Labour and Tories have moved to the extremes, when both are led by leaders disliked and distrusted by the public, when both support leaving the EU, for the Liberal Democrats to have barely been heard is a failure on our part and one we must fix quickly.

When you come to vote for the party’s new leader, you should ask two questions above all others. First, who has a proven record of getting coverage in the mainstream press. Second, who has a record of talking about issues that ordinary voters care about.

Think carefully – the very existence of our party may depend on your answer.


* Iain Roberts is a Stockport councillor, LGA Peer and consultation, communications and public affairs consultant specialising in the built environment.

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This entry was posted in Op-eds.


  • John Samuel 22nd Mar '19 - 3:19pm

    I’ve had the same feedback from friends from outside the party. “Do the LibDems even exist anymore?”

  • Richard Underhill 22nd Mar '19 - 3:33pm

    Layla Moran MP was on Politics Live on BBC2 at12.15 pm today, 22/3/2019. She was asked whether she intends to stand for the leadership and immediately replied that she had not decided yet. Presumably numerous others have asked her.
    With a female presenter and a mostly female panel there was a debate about feminism.
    One reason someone said that Layla should stand is that she is a woman,
    (so is our current deputy leader).
    The SNP have a female leader, so do the DUP. Neither is an MP.
    Our friends in the Alliance Party of Northern Ireland have a female leader, who was an MP when she was deputy leader, defeating the DUP’s Peter Robinson.

  • Lorenzo Cherin 22nd Mar '19 - 3:42pm

    Iain the comments are fine, the appraisal of the situation, the connecting with voters.

    Are these things our party is good at now?

    We have today apparently got people immediately pushing to revoke the article for Brexit. A measured approach in crisis might not do that, but ask for an extension to now get a customs union, stay in the single market etc.

    We have two excellent younger and female mps who could lead.

    Are either of them going to get a lot of coverage?

    Do either of them prioritise the issues you mention or do not but refer to, the ones that give us a connection to people’s .

    Does the dismissing of TIG, as authoritarian centrists, not reveal a modern party that prefers rather awkwardly, to be purist?

    We need to do as you ask, and ask what these leadership possibilities as candidates can do for our country as well as outstanding contributions to a party.

    We need a JFK, but even in his homecountry there is nobody even as good as our candidates, even opposing Trump!!!

  • OnceALibDem 22nd Mar '19 - 3:50pm

    If you asked those two questions about VInce in 2017 you would have got the answer ‘Yes’ to both.

    So it’s not the full answer. The party has tried two leaders – the energetic, tub thumping orator and the staid, respected, quiet one. Neither have really worked.

    But your wife is right – I have similar feelings. And the more tribal, the party can do no wrong elements don’t seem to accept that so it’s hard to see how things will change.

    And that’s the main reason I got disillusioned and left the party. Just didn’t have the strategy and organisation to improve things (and the bridges are now too burned to come back)

  • Paul Barker 22nd Mar '19 - 3:58pm

    I agree with the spirit of this piece & would add that our New Leader should be someone with a sense of long-term strategy & an enthusiasm to work with others.
    However, facts are important & we have not been steady around 9% for the last 5 Years. Both General Elections of 2015 & 2017 saw us crushed by the “Two-Horse Race” & both saw a slow but steady recovery after them. We are currently averaging around 10% & we have certainly been getting News coverage for our call to Revoke Article 50. We will get more coverage Tomorrow & can look forward to significant gains in May & a Parliamentary By-election in a target seat. Lets not talk ourselves down.

  • David Evans 22nd Mar '19 - 4:18pm

    Iain raises two very important questions for our potential leaders, which will be much more important to the future of liberalism as a thriving political force, than those that in effect say, “Would the candidates like to say something nice about an issue I care particularly about?”

    Niche liberal issues are often very important to us as people who respect every person as an individual, but generally gain little traction with most of the wider population and gain us few if any votes Indeed if we end up promoting too many niche issues, voters start to consider us out of touch with wider society and their concerns, and end up not voting for us at all.

    Once elected, it can be surprising how difficult it is to get even a few (Liberal) initiatives implemented, and how much is simply keeping the show on the road and then get re-elected at the end of it – just look at Obama’s record of what he didn’t do, or consider the horrible example of Theresa May – one anti liberal policy and an anti liberal party, three years, still with less than a 50% chance of getting it enacted.

    So one important question could be – “We all know, even if we are in power, how difficult it can be to get even a small part of our full agenda actually implemented, and then get re-elected a second time to make sure it is fully embedded. So which of our many policies would you be prepared to sacrifice (if any) to ensure that we get re-elected so that another generation of Lib Dems can also get their chance to do their bit to take liberalism forward?”

  • Actually this is IMHO totally irrelevant. I predict whoever our leader is we will have the media saying “X fails to make impact as leader”. Paddy’s ratings as leader and the media comment about him in his first few years were dire. And Charles and indeed the others were not much better.

    The broadcast media cover us with a set formula based on our votes and MPs which were low unfortunately at the last election and below the SNP. The print media don’t cover us at all (or hardly) as we are not in favour with any of them.

    The only way will be for us to grab attention through good parliamentary by-election results and local election results. And build up our local parties by raising pots of money and sheer bloody hard work. Sorry a “deus ex machine” nirvana in the form of a leader doesn’t exist.

  • chris moore 22nd Mar '19 - 4:27pm

    Hello Lorenzo,

    you say @Does the dismissing of TIG, as authoritarian centrists, not reveal a modern party that prefers rather awkwardly, to be purist?

    Mark Pack did a large – unscientific survey of Lib Dem members’ attitudes to TIG.

    The strong majority favoured cautious co-operation with TIG, to a greater or lesser degree.

    At a parliamentray level, as you know, co-operation with TIG MPs, is a reality already in Parliament.

    There have been some knocking comments about TIG being “authoritarians” from one or two contributors on LDV, but they are not representative of either the vast bulk of members, let alone the national party.

    All the best

  • Tony Hutson 22nd Mar '19 - 5:04pm

    I completely agree Iain. I remember being at the last leadership hustings in 2015, where all the questions were about nitty gritty policy issues and poor Tim and Norman sat there trying to come up with they disagreed on anything substantial. This time we should make the assumption that all candidates are basically signed up to the LibDem philosophy and policy platform, and ask them instead to tell us what they would DO as leader. What kind of experience have they had which equips them for the job, what skills, what strategy would they set, and yes how would they ensure we were in the media conversation again. I’m not saying policy doesn’t matter, but the truth is there will be no real differences between them, and in any case the leader doesn’t make policy. What matters in the leader is their ability to LEAD.

  • Mick Taylor 22nd Mar '19 - 5:22pm

    The three suggested candidates, Ed Davey, Jo Swinson. and Layla Moran could all be excellent leaders. The question for the party is which one would resonate with the public? The other relevant question is should the new leader be someone who didn’t serve in the coalition?
    I don’t know the answers. I hope there will be a large field to choose from and that we will behave in a civilised way and treat all the runners with courtesy. What the party does NOT need is an acrimonious contest like the one the Labour Party had when Corbyn was elected. We need to debate principle and suitability as I hope the winner will last rather more than 2 years.

  • Adrian Sanders 22nd Mar '19 - 5:25pm

    The chicken and egg question is do we lack coverage because we lack seats or do we lack seats because we lack coverage? If coverage was the key to winning elections Farage would be Prime Minister, thankfully he isn’t. In my 40 years experience in the Party (Liberal, then Liberal Democrat) it has been electoral success that attracts coverage and we are suffering today, and sadly will suffer for some while to come, from the Clegg legacy that destroyed the number of seats it took decades of sweat, blood and ink to amass and gave us the chance to enter Government and reward those who had voted for us, but failed to do. PR for the tactical voters, sticking to promises for the protest voters and opposing illiberal policies for our core voters. Who leads is not unimportant but how the rest of us work to regain the trust of the electorate in all communities we are a part of is the more important task if we are to have a future.

  • Reginald Langman 22nd Mar '19 - 5:31pm

    My feeling is that there is disenchantment with the Conservative Party and it’s Leader and outside Labour Party membership with Mr.Corbyn.
    The Lib Dem’s could well offer a home for the disenchanted
    My personal view is that for both Local and General Elections tactical voting needs encouragement .
    In constituencies with a Tory vote the LibDems might easily be a good second choice. For Labour constituencies the second choice might well be The Greens. Now is the time to work on that.
    Somehow the LibDems has to overcome the Clegg regime and its effects. A new Leader fast is required.

  • John Marriott 22nd Mar '19 - 6:04pm

    It might sound cynical or even defeatist; but the only question I would ask would be “Who has the safest seat?”

  • Mick Taylor 22nd Mar '19 - 6:05pm

    Let me be clear, I think it its grossly unfair to criticise Vince Cable for his time as leader. He took the job when no-one else was willing and has been head and shoulders above both the prime minister and the so-called leader of the opposition. He has been the only party leader to offer anything approaching sensible comments about Brexit and the performance of the economy and the need for change in our political system, It is hardly right to criticise him because the British media have deliberately and calculatedly refused to publicise what he has been saying.
    By the way, the refusal of anyone else to become leader in 2017 should be born in mind when considering who to have as leader now.

  • Mick Taylor 22nd Mar '19 - 6:08pm

    The safe seat question is perhaps churlish. No sitting Liberal leader has lost his seat whilst being leader in my lifetime.

  • Alisdair McGregor 22nd Mar '19 - 6:21pm

    @Mick I think it’s harsh to make choice of leader now contingent on who was willing then. Many people were caught out by the 2017 General Election and had their personal circumstances in a place where they did not feel able to commit to the role at that point.

    As for the actual candidates: There are two of them I can feel enthusiastic about, and one I don’t. I definitely know my STV preference order already.

  • Tim Farron got LOADS of media attention for one particular view, for quite a lot of his tenure, and I’d really rather that he hadn’t, as it cost us significant amounts of support which we are still struggling to recover in a demographic close to my heart.

    It is not the case that all publicity is good publicity.

  • John Marriott 22nd Mar '19 - 7:37pm

    @Mick Taylor
    There’s always a first time. You should never say never. Remember Paddy and the hat? And, depending on which breakaway Liberal Party you choose, didn’t Archibald Sinclair lose his seat at the 1945 General Election? If you weren’t around back then I suppose that “in my lifetime” is your ‘get-out’.

  • With regards to the safe seat argument, no Lib Dem seat is safe. Vince, Jo & Ed lost theirs in 2015 so clearly not safe. Tim had a pretty safe seat when he became leader and almost lost it in GE2017. Sheffield Hallam used to be extremely safe but lost to Labour in GE2017. So I will make my mind up without worrying about current size of majority.

  • Leek Liberal 22nd Mar '19 - 8:08pm

    Indeed communication skills are very important. Nick Clegg was a good communicator, but his judgement in Government was sadly lacking. It’s a tough call. but we need to look beyond front skills to find a leader who can win votes and has the strategic nous to make Liberal difference to Government policy

  • Mick Taylor 22nd Mar '19 - 9:41pm

    My lifetime started in 1950 and I’m pretty sure none of the Lib and Libdem party leaders lost their seats when they were leader. Thorpe, Kennedy and Clegg lost after they ceased to be leader. Davies, Grimond, Steel, Ashdown, Campbell stepped down or died.
    Alisdair, I didn’t say I thought we should not choose a coalition minister, I merely asked the question and said I didn’t know the answer.

  • John Bicknell 23rd Mar '19 - 8:53am

    I doubt that media coverage will improve, prior to a General Election, whoever is chosen as leader. The media outlets have decided that the Lib Dems are irrelevant, and are unlikely to change that opinion in the short term. In a GE campaign, the broadcasting rules will ensure that at least some coverage is given to the party, and this opportunity should not be missed. Tim Farron was, and no doubt still is, a brilliant speaker to a sympathetic audience, full of wit and passion. However, few outside the party saw that, and he was much poorer in television interviews during the last GE campaign, which was how most of the general public got their impression. I think that the ability to present a case in a clear and compelling manner, and to remain calm but retain authority under intensive grilling, would be qualities I would look for in our new leader.

  • It isn’t just the media that seem to have ‘lost interest’ in the LibDem party it is the leadership.

    Both Cable and Parron missed vital votes because the had ‘more important matters’ to attend to.

    There seems far more effort put into ‘Talks’ with others, and faffing about with internal matters regarding ‘supporters’ than in articulating anything other than ‘Down with Brexit'(an issue on which there are far better ‘media stories’ from the two main parties).

  • David Evershed 23rd Mar '19 - 2:27pm

    Notoriety gets you on the media but does not win constituency parliamentary elections.

  • Paul Barker 23rd Mar '19 - 4:27pm

    Some of us seem to have forgotten that for the media to ignore The LibDems is normal. Most Journalists, like most voters are either Tory or Labour (except in Scotland). Why would they do us any favours ? Its not simply bias, they genuinely dont “get” us, they can’t see what we are for.
    The one thing that no “Journalist” can resist is something New. We are not New but an Electoral Alliance with TIG (& I hope The Greens) would be; that is the point of all that effort spent talking to possible Allies.
    Before that, we still have the leading role in defeating Brexit & we can look forward to sweeping gains in May, we are far from being as irrelevant as the Media portray us.

  • The first question I ask is what policies do they support? Will they support the party moving its policies in the direction I would like them to go? This is the most important question. I never want to feel like I did under the Coalition government, when I couldn’t go canvassing because I didn’t support our policies and I couldn’t defend them. My second question is how centralistic or controlling are they? Do they think the leader should lead and not carry out the will of the party? The leader should not come up with new policies; the leader should not announce reforms of the party. The leader should work within the party organisation to make changes just like any other member.

    My third question is about how they come over on TV. They need to come over well. I suppose this includes how I feel about how they come over.

    My ideal candidate will not have attended a fee paying school; will have been a councillor and will not have won their ward at the first attempt, will not have won a Parliamentary seat at the first attempt; has been unemployed; was not in the Coalition government; is a social liberal and not an economic liberal and sees the role of government as intervening to improve things for the poorest in society; and comes over well on TV. I don’t think anyone of the candidates spoken about will be my ideal candidate.

  • Michael BG – my preferred candidate would be a social liberal equivalent of Nick Clegg but attended state school, and with better political skills.
    I also prefer someone who have capable economic expertise, because he/she must handle economic debate to win TV interviews.

  • @ Thomas
    “I also prefer someone who have capable economic expertise”

    The problem with this is that they are likely to be economic conformists like Vince or even worse economic liberals. Some understanding of how the government can use the economic levers to manage the economy would be good, but they mustn’t believe that the economy works well for everyone if they government does little. Ideally they would believe that achieving full employment was the most important economic policy for a government, but I can’t imagine any of our MPs believing this (maybe I will be surprised).

  • From past experience nothing will improve until we win and gain a parliamentary by election. Which candidate can best do that? Probably Swinson, especially if the little fellah is with her. Will there be one. Will it be in a place where we still have a good chance, because of our failings over the past decade there are not many of these. We live in hope, but that must be tempered by reality, there is not much left.
    I know it is angst to many but I will say it, perhaps merger with the Independents, soon to be a party, they have potential leaders of charisma and quality.

  • My experience tells me we have to win and gain a by election. It will need luck, one in the right place for us, and there not many these days.

  • Arnold Kiel 25th Mar '19 - 7:23am

    I have not seen or heard enough from most current LibDem MPs to make a judgement (which in itself might be a problem). I am sure they are all good people, but it would probably not be an offence to suggest that each of them represents a rather incremental approach to the revitalisation of parliamentary liberalism in the UK, especially under FPTP. They would hopefully defend their own seats, but for Liberals to make a difference in British politics, many more unknown candidates in dozens of constituencies would need an enormous amount of pull by an idea and an attitude that must arouse broad interest and be communicated forcefully by a very charismatic group of people. Individuals and campaigners like Paddy Ashdown or Nick Clegg spring to mind.

    Times are revolutionary, the Tories and Labour are vulnerable. There is an empty center ground to be seized, but not incrementally only radically: open the LibDem party structure to all moderate MPs looking for a new home, starting with TIG. Emulate Macron’s en marche. Do they call themselves a party yet? I frankly don’t know. Throw away your draft manifesto and start again with a clean sheet. Don’t be afraid to to even erase the letterhead that says Liberal Democrats and start anew. Tories and Labour are set to lose because they want to preserve their outdated old ways. Be different.

    Some temporary leadership ambiguity is ok. It is in itself an interesting topic for the press. It will eventually sort itself, and Vince prolonging for a few months would not be detrimental if interesting things happen on his watch that await their unleashing.

  • OnceALibDem 25th Mar '19 - 3:46pm

    “My experience tells me we have to win and gain a by election. It will need luck, one in the right place for us, and there not many these days.”

    The hope for a winnable by-election strategy is the last resort for party strategists. And owes a lot to the party mythology

    Just a reminder though. This happened in 2015-17 with Richmond. The polls barely moved.

  • OnceALibDem: I am basing the transformation in fortune came from Torrington, Orpington, Rochdale, Warrington/Crosby (SDP Alliance), Eastbourne. Right place at the right time. As a result of the coalition there are very few right places even if the time is right. I think we should really consider all but merging with the Independent Group.

  • OnceALibDem 25th Mar '19 - 9:21pm

    The last of those was 29 years ago. Though you missed Brent East. Which was only 15 years ago.

    A by-election may help revive the party’s fortunes but you’re basing any plan on luck as to where and when it happens.

  • @OnceALibDem

    It is not party mythology. There are more examples than @theakes cites. After winning the Ribble Valley by-election we moved from around 10% – indeed polls very similar to today’s – up to 16% and didn’t drop below 12% in a poll for the rest of the Parliament and indeed mostly got around or above 15%.

    After the Christchurch by-election the bump was less noticeable as we had had a bump from the local election results that year but before the local elections we had been getting around 15%. After Christchurch we got around the mid 20%s until the death of John Smith.

    After Richmond we moved from below 10% to at or above 10%. It is quite likely that we would have had a sizeable bump IF the Manchester Gorton by-election had not been cancelled and we had gone on to win it (and we might have seen some serious Labour infighting!)

    On the local elections things look encouraging. By my calculations we are running at a national equivalent share of 23% in the last 25 by-elections compared to 11% four years ago when this year’s seats were last up for election. Conservatives are about where they were at 35%, Labour are weaker at 28% – down 1% (but they got 35% last year).

  • Richard FIsher 26th Mar '19 - 6:22pm

    The last time the sitting Liberal leader lost his seat was in the General Election of 1945 when SIr Archibald SInclair (who had served as Air Minister in the wartime coalition) was famously on the losing end of the closest 3-way fight in modern electoral history: no more than 70 votes separated the candidates in the Caithness division. Jeremy Thorpe came within 400 votes of doing so in 1970, compared to which Tim Farron positively romped home last time…

  • Steve Comer 28th Mar '19 - 4:35pm

    Generally Liberal/ Lib Dem Party Leaders benefit from the increased media coverage. Thorpe has a close shave in 1970, which was why insisted on running the press conferences from Barnstaple in February 1974, but his majority went up from 300-400 to over 10,000 (though it dropped back a little in the October elections.

    Steel, Ashdown, and Kennedy all increased their majorities as Leader (as did David Owen I believe!). Tim Farron didn’t, but he has the same problem as Thorpe in 1970 in leading a party whose support was at best flatlining.

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