We need a leader!

At the risk of upsetting the readership, the Liberal Democrat party is at a crossroads. Since the merging of the SDP and the Liberal party in the 1988, never has our party been under so much threat and at so much risk of being irrelevant. Having attended the party conference for the first time last September in Bournemouth, I was actually amazed. The positivity surrounding the conference was palpable, and yet, as an organisation we looked tired and jaded. We talked about a new beginning, but, outside of stating that we were going to reverse Article 50, we didn’t have any policies of any power. We seem to have little funding, and struggled to rent rooms large enough to host the events around the conference, and our structure could be considered fragmented at best. We participated (I can’t say competed) in the general election with a woeful set of results, and we have not been elected to government in over one hundred years on our own.

The conference was an interesting experience, a room full of booths, all purporting to be Liberal Democrats this or Liberal Democrats that, all sporting different promotional material, all charging £12 per year membership, and all with a contact address and email at someone’s house or an @btinternet email address. As a first time attendee, very used to major sporting conferences or business conferences, I found it absolutely incredulous. Holding a number of discussions, it became clear that this conference had many more delegates than previous ones and I asked where my conference bag was, where my policies were, where my car sticker was – anything to encourage me to wave the Liberal Democrat flag. The answer I got back – we can’t afford it. Can’t afford to print some cheat sheets on party policy to give to your army marching toward a general election, can’t brief the membership on what we want and need them to do beyond knocking on doors. If this was a corporate set up and structure, we would not have been patting ourselves on the back, we would have been fired. On discussing the room with the booths and memberships, the response I got was that ‘this is how the Liberal Democrats do it’, we apparently generate policy from the bottom up and decide it at conference, ‘look how well it is working for us’ I was told – clearly I was flummoxed, it is clearly so much better for us than for Conservatives and Labour, to the extent that we have not won an election in over a century.

We find ourselves in a position where we are leaderless, rudderless, and we seem to have lost our voice all but entirely. We need youth, we need direction, we need policies and we need charisma, and we need it all NOW. Boris Johnson, whether you love him or hate him, has charisma, Keir Starmer has it in spades. With Labour poised to take a more central position then the ground which was vacated and handed to the Liberal Democrats on a plate between the last election and the current one as the Conservatives swung right with their approach on Brexit, and Labour floundered under the long outdated approach of Jeremy Corbyn, we find ourselves in a predicament. There is more competition in the centre ground and we are less prepared to take it. We need to have a leadership election, we need to re-gain our relevance, and we need to do it now, or we risk yet another decade of two party politics in the UK. We can continue to dilly dally around, or vote in a leader and let them lead from the front, help build our leadership team afresh, bring in new ideas, new energy, new faces and actually lead from the front.

* Steve Castree is a member of the Liberal Democrats Overseas Executive Committee.

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33 Comments

  • @ Steve, “I asked where my conference bag was, where my policies were, where my car sticker was – anything to encourage me to wave the Liberal Democrat flag. The answer I got back – we can’t afford it.”

    Not so, Steve. I understand after the Sainsbury donation they made a few million profit on the election…and they’ve now furloughed nearly half the HQ staff at a cost to the taxpayer.

    ” Can’t afford to print some cheat sheets on party policy to give to your army marching toward a general election, can’t brief the membership on what we want and need them to do beyond knocking on doors. If this was a corporate set up and structure, we would not have been patting ourselves on the back, we would have been fired”.

    And what policy would that be ? Community politics to support the NHS and social care ? Maybe as well Ms Swinson and her ‘Cabinet’ aren’t managing the present crisis…. not that the present lot are making much of a fist of it.

  • Phil Beesley 20th Apr '20 - 1:32pm

    Steve Castree: “We need youth, we need direction, we need policies and we need charisma, and we need it all NOW.”

    We also need to reflect on the wisdom of age, that we should not respond to every impulse, that some things are obvious necessities, that one person’s perception of charisma might be viewed as smarm, and we needed it last month.

    All year, government has made mistakes. Every day the Conservative Party slips up. And how many Lib Dem press releases have made a story on BBC news or the broadsheets? Not blaming the Lib Dem press team for not having good stories, BTW.

    When a party comprises eleven MPs, it is correct to have an elected leader. But can’t eleven MPs just, you know, talk stuff over the phone and make some statements about how Lib Dems would address our situation. Support actions which Lib Dems support, criticise technical failures fairly, and have a go at illiberal actions.

    There is no point in having a new leader if s/he isn’t doing anything. And we will identify a possible leader when s/he brings the group together to say something interesting.

  • Not often (indeed never) that you see someone write that Starmer has charisma in spades.

  • @Steve Castree “As a first time attendee, very used to major sporting conferences or business conferences, I found it absolutely incredulous. ”

    Indeed. This lack of professional rigour has been a problem for many years and is a result of several interlocking problems. Namely: an unwieldy structure, a lack of funds, a lack of utilisation of existing expertise, and an over-supply of activists with no private sector experience.

  • We do need a leader,and NOW so we can compete when the virus declines

  • David Warren 20th Apr '20 - 2:55pm

    We certainly need some radical policies.

    In so many areas Health, Education or the Environment we are far to timid. It is almost as of we are going out of our way to be moderate for the sake of it.

    There is no intellectual impetus from the top of the party either and we badly need a restatement of our liberal values to be shared widely. If we think fervent activism backed up by numerous FOCUS leaflets is the answer then we are going to be disappointed.

    A new leader would be good but even better some strategists who don’t repeat the disastrous mistakes of the last three General Elections are urgently required.

  • David Warren

    Last FOUR General Elections!

  • Sue Sutherland 20th Apr '20 - 4:52pm

    I think the problem is we don’t make our policies from the bottom up or from the top down. They seem to arrive quite haphazardly from somewhere in the middle of the hierarchy, get worked on, and accepted or denied for conference and appear in the conference papers as a fairly disparate list that have been looked at in great detail but with no overarching design.
    I don’t want an authoritarian charismatic leader and I don’t think the party does either. We’ve had a least two, David Owen and Nick Clegg and both were a disaster. I’d like a leader who consulted with members over the party’s general approach to policy, both attitudes and priorities, the FPC to work up relevant policies and then conference to vote on them. Members should still have the right to put motions to conference.
    The basis for the leader’s consultation with members would be how to achieve the optimum for national and local communities, not dogma about the role of the state. We need creative thinking about the economy, especially in the light of the pandemic, which might be best served by getting Liberal Reform and Social Liberal Democrats together with the Green Liberal Democrats rather than thinking in isolationist groups mistrusting each other.

  • Brian Edmonds 20th Apr '20 - 5:19pm

    I’m not sure in what lofty capacity you attended those important conferences, Steve, but I’m not persuaded by pontifications from anyone who is unaware that people are incredulous, whereas things are incredible. Nor by yet another appeal for a new leader to descend upon us from who knows where, brimming with charisma and charm. There’s only one vaguely engaging and charismatic member of the PP, and it would seem that Alastair is far too canny, and happy with his life, to put himself in the firing line.

  • Katharine Pindar 20th Apr '20 - 7:59pm

    Steve, it’s good to have your newcomer’s outspoken view of the Bournemouth Conference, but I disagree with your headline and some of your conclusions. You were, frankly, unlucky to have this as your first Lib Dem conference, as others I have attended since becoming active again in 2015 have been inspiring. But at Bournemouth for the first time I felt detached from the leadership, unsure of who was running the show, and feeling a bit like cannon-fodder as we were guided towards the disastrous Election stance. In the fraught and embittered national politics of last year, I felt our leadership had stopped being responsive to the members and were charging on like the proverbial bulls in a china shop. There were very well known figures with wiser counsels who were just not being listened to. This was not usual. The Conference does generally work effectively. The process of producing policies has become more collaborative, and we have many good ones in place. There was a short booklet giving highlights of them produced in the past, Steve, but the rapid succession of elections disrupted such productions. You could still have flourished the Election Manifesto later on in the autumn with some pride.

    We do need new people in leadership roles, and we have to question those who are still continuing at the centre, and ask them to take a good look at their contribution to the collective disasters of the autumn and carry on with more humility and less prominence. I don’t see reason to blame our present MPs, but would like them to work together under Ed Davey’s leadership now and also consult some excellent candidates who joined us from the main parties. Then we need to come together in the autumn, virtually or otherwise, to make a fresh start, which our many good councillors, peers and hundreds of dedicated activist members, along with the hard-working remaining HQ staff, can ensure that we do.

  • Yes, yes, yes. What I have been crying out for over the past month. I have told Mark Pack what I think about our appalling inertia. Keep piling on the pressure folks. The argument for a leadership election now is irrefutable.

  • Geoffrey Payne 21st Apr '20 - 8:00am

    If you would like to make a very large donation the party can then be more professional.

  • @ Geoffrey Payne “If you would like to make a very large donation the party can then be more professional”.

    Why should he, Geoffrey, when after the Sainsbury donation the party allegedly made a profit on the election….. and now, is using taxpayers’ money to furlough half it’s HQ staff ? It’s clear that amateurism is much a state of mind as a question of finance.

  • Wonderful, Ben! I’ve only glanced at the responses above, but get the impression they agree. Hoping to return to them asap.

  • Who’s ‘Ben”? Crossed line here. Sorry. Delete, and insert Wonderful, Steve Castree!

  • Alex Macfie 21st Apr '20 - 1:32pm

    The election of Keir Starmer as Labour leader does not seem to have had any effect on Labour’s poll ratings: the Tories are still ahead by over 20 percentiles. Not that I think this has anything to do with Johnson’s “charisma”, rather it’s because people are rallying to the flag in a time of crisis, and because only government ministers are getting any sort of media attention. And it rather contradicts the idea that electing a new leader would somehow give us any more of a media profile, when it hasn’t happened even for Labour.

  • David Garlick 21st Apr '20 - 3:20pm

    We do indeed.

  • I didn’t accept that the Federal Board had power to defer the leadership election until May 2021. I’m glad to say the Federal Appeals Panel Chair agreed. My legalese reason was that there was nothing in the text of our constitution to justify it. My reason of principle was that it was wrong to assume the power to deprive the grassroots members of their vote to choose the next Leader. The practical reality is that an Acting Leader doesn’t have the same authority to make the decisions we need, that are bound not to please everyone, as an elected Leader. It’s about strategy. We mustn’t drift without an elected Leader for 17 months or more.

  • marcstevens 21st Apr '20 - 5:29pm

    Yes but the current acting Leader Ed Davey, is against a leadership election at the present time so it aint going to happen. Labour have had theirs despite the current CV situation and no one accused them of being insensitive so it does not make any sense whatsoever to prolong voting in a new leader.

  • Richard Underhill 21st Apr '20 - 5:30pm

    Jo Hayes 21st Apr ’20 – 4:40pm
    Hear, hear.
    The Commons is back today. Rees-Mogg has laid out plans and been supported by the Labour shadow, she has survived a reshuffle. Electronic voting must be secure.
    The Lords is also back. They are conscious of the Parliament Act and their powers over money (not) while debating Windrush compensation.
    LDV should include the speech made by the Lib Dem leader in the Lords.
    Estimates of cost are wide apart as several peers said.
    The Greens have a peer who fears that another Windrush scandal is in the making.

  • Alex Macfie 21st Apr '20 - 5:53pm

    The Labour leadership election had started before the Coronavirus crisis started, and had almost finished by the time lockdown started. So the sensible thing to do was to finish what had been started. It’s thus irrelevant to our schedule, in which the contest would not even have started now. Now is not the time to start a leadership election (although it should be started as soon as practically possible), and it’s unlikely to make any difference to our media profile or poll ratings just at the moment — as I commented upthread, it hasn’t done anything for Labour.

  • Richard Underhill 21st Apr '20 - 5:59pm

    21st Apr ’20 – 5:30pm
    PMQ tomorrow will be taken by the Foreign Secretary, who is likely to be asked about the illegal imprisonment of a British-Iranian dual national and the effectiveness of the department under previous leadership. When John McCarthy was kidnapped in the Lebanon federal conference was unanimous in calling for the government to redouble its non-existent efforts to free him. BBC Radio 4 asked me what did I have to say to Mrs Thatcher. I said she should read Lord Carrington’s memoirs. (She can pick up his references to her from the index).
    The FCO was then run by former diplomat Douglas Hurd (now a peer). They decided to talk to Iranian diplomats at the United Nations.
    When John McCarthy arrived back in the UK he was welcomed by The Sun who asked him “Are you a couple?” He said Yes.

  • marcstevens 21st Apr '20 - 6:22pm

    Really members should be voting on whether they wanted a leadership election or not, not party apparatchiks trying to control the outcome. The Labour leadership was underway as the CV situation intensified and they didn’t halt it and no one told them to either. Labour’s poll ratings are up in the last few I’ve seen, the Lib Dem ratings are heading in the wrong direction. Labour has a new leader, a new profile and more media coverage much of it favourable. This party is getting neither and that is not acceptable.

  • Alex Macfie 21st Apr '20 - 7:28pm

    marcstevens: The likely reason Labour didn’t halt its leadership election was it was already so far underway that there was no sense in halting it. Reportedly most votes had already cast, and there were only self-serving calls for postponement from Corbynites.

    There has not been any statistically significant shift in opinion polls since the Coronavirus crisis began. The only constant is the massive Tory lead, while Lib Dem ratings vary according to the pollster (BMG gives us the highest ratings, while Opinium gives us lowest; when the spread is so wide, outweighing any shift over time, it’s really hard to read anything meaningful into them). And it’s all moot anyway as there aren’t going to be any elections at all for a year — something for which we should be grateful, as it means the Tories will not be able to exploit their crisis bounce. Under normal circumstances one would expect to see a significant uptick in Labour support (like 10 points or more) following the election of a new leader, especially when the previous one was so unelectable. But there has been no such dent. So it’s absurd to suppose that we would benefit from holding a leadership election now. And surely it’s more important for our MPs to be attacking the government than attacking each other in a leadership election. If anything is going to shift opinion poll ratings away from the Tories, it’ll be the revelations in last Sunday’s Sunday Times, and we need to be prepared for this, not navel-gazing.

  • Richard Underhill 23rd Apr '20 - 12:19pm

    21st Apr ’20 – 5:59pm
    In moving the motion I used the phrase “Free John McCarthy” repeatedly, following the style that Lord Whitelaw (“everyone needs a Willie”) had used when speaking to the NLC about the House of Lords, presumably trying to split our party by detaching some supporters of his views.
    It was shocking that Mrs Thatcher could misuse her authority to neglect the safety of British citizens abroad. In Boris Johnson’s case it was merely negligent. We should feel sorry for the British diplomats who need to try to clear up the mess. These days they cannot threaten to send in a gunboat.
    In the case of the Falkland Islands Mrs. Thatcher did precisely that, ignoring the advice of her defence secretary about lack of air cover and getting the reprimand from him in advance and in arrears, that she “liked men in uniform”.
    A subsequent PM (Tony Blair, New Labour) decided to be nice to her by inviting her to visit 10 Downing Street. She told him that if he wanted to be a great prime Minister he needed to fight a war. He did, supporting George Bush Junior in Iraq. With hindsight we know that it is possible to win a war and lose the peace. Charles Kennedy had better judgement.

  • Richard Underhill 23rd Apr '20 - 12:51pm

    After federal conference had passed the motion unanimously David Steel went on television to argue the opposite. This was the only occasion on which I actively considered resigning my membership. I deduced that he was doing a job for Paddy Ashdown, who may have been pressurised by Mrs Thatcher, or on her behalf.
    Jill Morell knew that David Steel had refused to help her, reasoning that she was a ‘girlfriend’. In fact their book “Some Other Rainbow” states that they were engaged to be married and carries several references to the Labour party.
    ISBN 0-593-027299.
    At a Conservative party conference Mrs Thatcher had said “You turn if you want to, the Lady is not for turning.” She was cheered by her party faithful. She later said that she wanted to “abolish economists”.
    We also did what we could to encourage the abolition of what she had called “the community charge”, an abuse of the English language for what was also dubbed “the poll tax”, an assault on the UK’s democracy, abolished by John Major and Michael Heseltine after we won the Ribble Valley by-election in a beautiful part of Lancashire, near Pendle. Some of our campaigners profited from betting coups, according to the then editor of the Liberal Democrat News, who presumably approved additional material in my article, published as an overlong letter.

  • Phil Beesley 25th Apr '20 - 9:21pm

    On current form there is nobody worthy to become Lib Dem leader.

    Government is clueless, promising medical equipment which does not arrive, inventing non-existent technical solutions, hoping that things will get better. But Lib Dems have no idea about how to challenge Conservative Party uselessness.

    The Lib Dem party is packed with people who know about Conservative Party politics, people who can interpret an official statement. Where are they now?

    Conservatives, owing to inaction, are sitting ducks.

    The thing about a real leader is that s/he doesn’t wait to be called up. S/he gathers people around to do something. Leaders lead without a title.

  • marcstevens 26th Apr '20 - 8:42pm

    As I reiterated in an inclusive party and one which supposedly believes in democracy decision whether to postpone or hold a leadership election should be taken by its members and supporters, not a narrow clique on here. You cannot accuse the Labour party of navel gazing as their leadership election was always going to be secondary to news on the corona virus. I am not sure which polls you are reading but all the latest ones I’ve seen have shown an upturn in support for labour and downturn for the Lib Dems. This is in part due to the suspension of local elections and the publicity therein generated but there are real policy issues to be decided and the future direction of the party. Will it be another orange booker disaster or a social liberal vote winner? Deciding direction and policy under a new leader is the way forward, not scoring points against the government on the pandemic.

  • Richard Underhill 21st May '20 - 2:40pm

    Sue Sutherland 20th Apr ’20 – 4:52pm
    I think the problem is we don’t make our policies from the bottom up or from the top down. They seem to arrive quite haphazardly from somewhere in the middle of the hierarchy, get worked on, and accepted or denied for conference and appear in the conference papers as a fairly disparate list that have been looked at in great detail but with no overarching design.
    The process for the motion to Free John McCarthy was
    1) local party sub-committee, chaired by the then chairman (ex-Labour, ex-SDP)
    2) party conference

    Further comments above
    Report in Liberal Democrat News.
    Reports in several newspapers, not mentioning our party, not mentioning the NUJ, not mentioning the Observer, not mentioning small discounted advertisements in cinemas. One further mention in Liberal Democrat News from a councillor who was pleased that John McCarthy had been freed, which Tory councillors present were not.
    They could have thanked Douglas Hurd FCO whose staff had done the difficult work.

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