Three things we don’t need in this leadership campaign: a goody, a baddy and more policy

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In politics it’s always tempting to think we can resolve problems by resorting to the same old solutions. That usually involves lionising a goody, demonising a baddy and a rollicking good debate about policy.

In the debate over our leadership, I’m seeing many people seeking to create a goody and a baddy, and loads of people banging on about policy.

But I don’t think we should be focusing on those in this leadership campaign. Here’s why.

Let’s start with the first problem. The traditional good v bad argument. We need to stop this nonsense. The fact that Ed served in the coalition should absolutely not rule him out from being the leader. In fact, we are fortunate to have somebody with his experience in government on the ballot paper. His achievements on the environment are matched by few in modern politics and he has an inspiring, touching personal story to tell too.

Layla is a talented politician, an effective campaigner and an excellent communicator. She may well enable us to access a demographic that has largely ignored us in the past three elections. It’s right that she’s willing to try to talk to people who just want a bit of ‘hopes and dreams’ in their politics and bought into that element of the Labour message. That’s a good thing and we should welcome it rather than deliberately misinterpreting her words.

This isn’t a battle of good v bad, it’s one liberal taking on another. Let’s not engage in the unattractive factionalism that we dislike so much in other parties. That gets us nowhere and gives succour to our opponents.

On the matter of policy, I’m pleased we are continuing to talk about it. Our ability to do so is one of the great attractions of our party. But let’s face facts: as much as you and I may like it, it’s a turn off for most of our fellow human beings. If people were really voting for fully costed tax and spend policies and a deliverable net zero plan, we’d have won a lot more seats last time. Sadly for us, most people are voting based on broad messages, gut feelings and assumptions drawn about our brand.

So please let’s drop the rubbish about Ed being ‘too much of a coalition man’ and Layla being ‘too left wing’. Under all our counterproductive intraparty rivalries, we all know that neither of those things are true. Moreover, the statements give ammunition to groups of people who already have plenty to throw at us.

And next time you demand we come up with more new policies, think about the average switch voters who didn’t support us in Cheltenham, Sutton and North Cornwall last time. What was it that stopped them voting for us? As a candidate in a top target seat, I’m certain it was not because we didn’t have good enough policies. It was because we were fundamentally weakened brand delivering core messages that alienated our target demographics. I’d much rather we asked Layla and Ed about how they’d put that right, rather than indulge ourselves in the narcissism of small policy differences.

* Max Wilkinson is the Liberal Democrat parliamentary candidate for Cheltenham. He’s also a local councillor and cabinet member for economic development, tourism, culture and wellbeing.

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  • James Belchamber 3rd Jul '20 - 3:19pm

    Most importantly: the Leader does not decide policy, so voting for one based on that is pointless.

    A big problem we have in our leadership elections is that we’re not really able to test our candidates. We should be giving them a trial by fire as strong as anything they’ll face in the public eye, but instead we all have a nice cup of tea and talk about how good each other are. This is silly – our leaders are first and foremost a face of the party. We need to make sure they are good at that.

    As an example: if we tested Tim on his faith in 2015, would we have stumbled so flamboyantly on it in 2017?

    So, I suppose I agree with only the third element of this – stop banging on about policy.

  • mike sheehan 3rd Jul '20 - 3:41pm

    Spot on Max. And thanks again for helping in Brecon and Radnor. I wish we had targeted better so you could win Cheltenham!

  • Catherine Jane Crosland 3rd Jul '20 - 4:11pm

    Policy does matter.
    I know the leader theoretically does not decide policy – Conference decides. But in practice, the leader has a good deal of influence over policy.
    A number of times, when Conference has debated nuclear weapons, the leader has made it very clear that they are opposed to the party adopting a policy of nuclear disarmament. Conference tends not to vote against the expressed wishes of the leader.
    In Autumn 2019, Jo Swinson made it very clear that she supported the “revoke” policy, and more or less began to speak of it as party policy before Conference had voted. I doubt if Conference would have voted for revoke if Jo had been opposed to it.
    Things might have been very different for the party if Nick Clegg had genuinely believed in the “no tuition fees” policy that Conference had voted for

  • Catherine Jane Crosland 3rd Jul '20 - 4:20pm

    James is right, we do need to “test” our candidates. We do need to think of all the difficult questions the media will ask, and not be afraid to put these questions to the candidates ourselves.
    At least this contest seems likely to be a real contest, with the candidates behaving like rival candidates for a job, rather than presenting themselves as a sort of double act, as happened in the contest last year

  • Excellent article. Thank you.

    As James Belchamber rightly says the leader doesn’t decide policy but, as Catherine Jane Crossland points out, he or she does have a great deal of influence in practice.

    To avoid any confusion at the next general election we should perhaps point out to voters that any Lib Dems they might elect won’t formally decide policy as that’s above their pay grade in Lib Demery.

    We should make clear that policy is formally decided by well under 100 people, some of whom were elected by the <10% of party members who bothered to vote. Also, most of the policymakers are from London and surrounds so collectively they know little of the Celtic fringe or indeed the industrial north and midlands. Fortunately, that doesn’t matter as few voters from outside well-heeled SW London and a few equally comfortable outposts now vote Lb Dem. (/sarc)

    More seriously, we should look to the leader to articulate a coherent Liberal narrative that weaves together many threads into a tapestry with a compelling picture that members – and voters – will like and identify with. Starting with policies is equivalent to picking up random bits of thread and sewing them onto the backing with no master plan. In other words, it’s starting at the wrong end of the problem – an approach that was, I suspect, baked in as a reaction to and misreading of the chaos of the late SDP-Liberal Alliance.

    The problem back then was not primarily one of ‘making policies’ as such, but of the clash between Steel and Owen – which did indeed create a policy vacuum but only as a derivative of the unresolvable clash between the two of them.

    But, as far as I remember, it DID indeed look like a policy problem so, proceeding on that misdiagnosed basis, the new party finished up with the system it still has, and which has never worked as the BIG problem was and still is a lack of narrative.

    The difficulty is that (looking at how it works in other parties) new narrative is *always* a function of a new leader coming in with a new synthesis. That’s difficult for Lib Dems because a leadership candidate who tried that would be ultra vires from the off. So, they don’t, and we get a contest of smooth-talking, not of ideas.

    We need to change that.

  • Sadly, I’m with James on this. I want to hear how each of them copes under the kind of relentless, hostile questioning that Jo faced last time round. Our leadership contest won’t provide that.

    For both candidates, the hostile questions write themselves, and they need to be prepared in a way that Jo somehow wasn’t.

  • Good post, thank you. As someone who voted in every leadership contest the party has ever had I am very undecided this time! In the 6 previous contests (with Ashdown / Beith being the first) whoever got my 1st preference won. Each leadership election seems to get more difficult to decide! (the first 2, Ashdown & then Kennedy were obvious choices).

  • Catherine Jane Crosland 4th Jul '20 - 5:59am

    It might be a good idea if the leadership hustings could include sessions in which each candidate was interviewed individually by Andrew Neil, Cathy Newman and Andrew Marr, who would all be requested to ask the most difficult questions they could think of!

  • Doug Chisholm 4th Jul '20 - 7:36am

    Really great article, comforting to read something so reasoned and realistic. I really hope you get elected next time. We need you.

  • Julian Tisi 4th Jul '20 - 2:48pm

    Excellent article. I agree too with the comments by Catherine Jane Crosland “… but in practice, the leader has a good deal of influence over policy” – as a current undecided who actually admires and would be broadly happy with either I must admit a key thing holding me back from supporting Layla is UBI, which I think would be a very very difficult sell once challenged (I can see it being 2024’s revoke pledge).

  • Sue Sutherland 4th Jul '20 - 2:58pm

    Thank you for this Max and I so agree with you about policies. We always have lots of well thought out, good policies but we never answer the question why do we have those policies, what are we trying to achieve. Then we get caught up in left or right discussions when we don’t even see society as a power struggle between the rich and the poor, we see society as a community and a series of interlocking communities.
    Just take Brexit. More people than ever before knew what our policy on that was and we did try to explain why but failed. We wanted to belong to the community of Europe, where people of different national communities came together to decide what was best for that larger community as a whole. We didn’t see it as a power struggle between nations trying to achieve dominance which was the Brexiters view. Unless we explain why we support a particular policy we’ll never gain the popular vote.
    We want a nurturing society because we recognise that each group is interdependent with the others and that all are needed to work together, with a bit of give and take, for the benefit of all. Sadly, austerity has forced our country into seeing life as a competition for scarce resources not as an exercise in mutual respect and support.
    The Corona pandemic has revealed how compassionate many people can be and how they can make sacrifices for the good of the whole community, whether it’s at national or local level. Let’s take community politics into the nation as a whole and explain our unique vision.

  • Max Wilkinson 5th Jul '20 - 3:11pm

    Thank you to everybody who has replied. I appreciate you all taking the time.

    Some, including Nick and James, have spoken about the need to put our candidates under pressure. I absolutely agree that we must have a robust debate. I certainly want to see tough questions being asked and I’d hope that in the hustings Ed and Layla will be put under significant pressure. However, there’s a difference between asking questions as part of a robust debate and what I’ve seen from some quarters. I think Catherine sums it up best by saying that we should try to put to our candidates the sort of questions the media might ask. Of course we should. But I’ve seen people say things that are both rude and offensive, and I’ve also seen people on both sides deliberately twisting the words of the candidate they oppose. I should say, however, that it’s good to see both candidates themselves remaining positive.

    Some have raised the point I made in the article about policy. Again, I can only state that we all like policy and that’s fine. A fair number of us are hung up on the internal processes and committees too, which may or may not be a good thing for the way our party operates. But most of the voters won’t engage on the level of policy detail. So when respondents say “but conference makes policy”, I think this kind of helps make my point. The leader might have a greater or a lesser influence on policy than we may or may not think, but people won’t care. Nearly all voters will be making a choice based on a whole range of other things. In my ideal world, we’d have a leader who can define, communicate and lead our broad liberal agenda, backed by a few easy-to-understand key aims that people will remember. That’s far more important than the specific version of UBI they are in favour of (as much as I’m interested in that debate).

    Finally, thank you to those who have made kind comments, including Sue, Martin, Mike, Mike, Julian, Doug and Gordon. They really do brighten my day.


  • Peter Watson 7th Jul '20 - 10:37am

    @Catherine Jane Crosland “We do need to think of all the difficult questions the media will ask, and not be afraid to put these questions to the candidates ourselves.”
    For the Andrew Neil interview (or whatever the 2024 equivalent is), some of that is already apparent even if no new lines of attack appear between now and then.

    Both will be asked about their opinions on possible coalitions and what they would do with any “balance of power”.

    For Ed Davey, questions about his record in Coalition, the things he voted for and against, are obviously something for which he needs to prepare good answers.

    Layla Moran would probably also be asked her opinion on 2010-15 so should have a nice short response. More importantly and personally, I think she will need good answers to questions about domestic violence arising from that incident at conference in 2013 as this topic could easily get heated and so would appeal to a TV interviewer.

    The worst thing for either of them would be to find themselves unable to give straight answers to predictable questions in the same way that Tim Farron did in his car crash interview with Andrew Neil in 2017.

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