What do you want from a new leader?

With the leadership election coming up over the summer, I was glad to open my inbox to see an email from Mike Dixon, CEO, asking the membership what issues the candidates should talk about.

This email has given members a chance to select six key policy areas that they want to be discussed with the leadership candidates. The six most popular issues will be used to frame the hustings.

I would urge everyone to use their votes. I felt that in the last leadership election, the pitches ended up feeling very similar, irrespective of differences. I suspect that will not be the case this time around.

There are three policy areas that I would urge you to vote for. These are (i) Economy and Jobs, (ii) Health and Social Care and (iii) Education and Skills.

Despite our 2019 Manifesto being the closest to costed and the most progressive by a clear margin, it clearly didn’t have much impact with the public, as the focus was shifted too Brexit.

I want to see us as a party talking about the key issues that matter most to people. My gut instinct, and looking at historic policy area polling, is that health and social care will be a particular issue for people over the next 12 to 18 months. The economy and education will also be up there, as the country leaves lockdown, children go back to school and employers begin to re-open.

We have an opportunity over the next four years to draft policy positions on the things that matter most to people, and that starts with the leadership election. We can test messages at a local level in the meantime, so we can see how well it is going down, as well as making use of good, quality polling.

It’s time for us to listen to people that may not be natural Lib Dem voters. It’s time to come up with policies that matter most to people, and that starts with testing the leadership candidates on these key issues.

* Tom Purvis is a member of the Sheffield Liberal Democrats and is standing in the next local elections

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23 Comments

  • I don’t want the leadership candidates, whoever they are, to be assessed on how they talk about policy (which, if you’re not careful turns into a ‘do I agree with X on this?’ debate. In any case, within the Liberal Democrats, the main thrusts of policy are determined by the membership and the leader will have to line up, broadly, with what they are given. Any competent politician can work to a policy brief.

    I want the leader to show me how they will lead the party, stop all the internal recriminations, learn the lessons of the last ten years (which doesn’t mean spend all the time looking backwards), galvanise us into four years of effective campaigning and punch seriously above their weight in parliament so that we claw back public and media attention. I want the new leader to make me proud of being a Liberal Democrat (not teeth-grittingly enduring). I’d like someone for whom – under the right circumstances (after all, I am a Liberal Democrat) – I will go not just to the polling station but to the barricades.

  • Sue Sutherland 3rd Jun '20 - 3:42pm

    Margaret, I agree with you. We need a reforming leader who will implement the Thornhill report with vigour, sharpen our campaigning ability by making sure best practice is extended to all constituencies and then, ensure that the party as a whole creates a vision of a Lib Dem society and the policies to create it.
    We have the opportunity to do this now campaigning is limited by lockdown. I’d like all candidates to be asked how they would implement this.

  • The political journalist and author, Steve Richards, published an article in 2014 on the qualities needed for political leadership in our times https://www.independent.co.uk/voices/comment/here-are-the-qualities-you-need-to-be-a-top-political-leader-9633829.html He writes “communication is vital, marking out the difference between politics as a vocation compared with most others. Leaders have to find a way to convey what they stand for. He or she must be, or become, a decent speaker and an engaging interviewee.”
    “If I were forced to list the absolute number one qualification I would suggest previous ministerial experience, or at least some background in major political battles, epic conflicts that help to shape the real political giants.”
    “There is no point in having a programme that a party adores if it is guaranteed to lose an election. But if a leader leaves their party too far behind in a bid for wider electoral appeal, they will soon cease to be party leader. ”
    “…another essential skill is to recognise when rare political space opens up for a leader”
    “Leaders must also possess boundless energy and the ability to respond to unexpected crises. It is not enough to simply give the appearance of boldness in an emergency, or proclaim boldness while merely following media fashion. They must be genuinely courageous, and able to resist orthodoxy. Finally, especially in a crisis, a leader must be indifferent to criticism and attacks from the media. I know of no leader who meets this final qualification.”

  • Paul Barker 3rd Jun '20 - 7:18pm

    I have not had the email, how do I get it ?

  • Nigel Jones 3rd Jun '20 - 9:54pm

    It is not so much policy detail that matters in electing a leader, as the way they can join up policies to form a coherent message, show vision for the future of our country and assure people they can make good judgements on all the big issues that face the majority of people. The three big issues focus around the economy and jobs, inequality and education plus localism and internationalism. I felt in the last leadership election there was nowhere near enough on any of these, especially the economy and localism. I want to see what overall grasp they have of these three joined up issues, with just enough detail to satisfy me they know what they are talking about and their ideas are not just pie in the sky. If they can do this, then they are likely to inspire enough others in the party who can then work to build us from the bottom up.
    Just one other point, I want to see if they can communicate with those outside the party

  • I couldn’t agree more with Margaret, Sue, Joe and Nigel. We need to ask the candidates less about policy and more about strategy, leadership skills, communication and campaigning ideas, vision and personal character. The party conference will set policy, whoever is leader, so please lets not have all the hustings dominated by policy questions. They’ll probably just agree with each other on policy anyway – as Ed and Jo did. In retrospect wouldn’t it have been better to spend a bit more time quizzing them on how they would lead a General Election campaign, what kind of leader’s team they would build, how they would work with the other organs of the party, and whether they would seek to over-turn agreed strategy and messaging?
    It’s great that party HQ is giving us the chance to help shape the context but very disappointing if they are only letting us choose from a list of policy areas! I will be emailing them the above message instead.

  • Christopher Curtis 4th Jun '20 - 8:00am

    I agree with these comments too. It’s vital that we choose a leader to do the job of leading the party, and performance in detailed, choreographed debates with other candidates about what our policies are or should be is not what a leader does.
    Surely the first and most important topic for a hustings has to be each candidate’s experience and perception of the party now (warts and all) and what they would do, and how, and when, specifically to change it. I’d want to know, within that, exactly how far they agree or not with the Thornhill report and exactly how they would implement its recommendations? Only by doing that, painful as it might be, will the party be around long enough, or make enough impact, for a leader to help us emphasise particular values and ideas.
    I can understand candidates seeing the need to tell us who they are and what they stand for but I want to elect someone who understands the role and is able to do it well.

  • Matt (Bristol) 4th Jun '20 - 8:51am

    As much as I want eye-catching and coherent policies from a leader, I mainly want the nous to shape a party with a coherent ideology (or family of ideologies) and narrative.

    The party operates at present on a basis of ‘look blandly centrist when it suits us, start to pick and choose which centrists we like this week, naievely ignore the dissonance, encourage activists with multiple contradictory lobbying agendas, check what voters think late in the process, then try squeeze messaging’.

    This is creating an incoherence that is painful. But the first part of the process is to either admit we can’t be all things to all people, and decide which people we want to lose, or force through a narrative that says we accept radical differences in underlying agendas, but policy must in consequence be bland compromise that avoids the level of detail and radicalism some activists want in many many areas. (This will also lose people).

    I say this as someone the party may decide it wants to lose.

  • David Franks 4th Jun '20 - 10:42am

    Jo Grimmond

  • David Franks 4th Jun '20 - 11:04am

    it was Jo Grimmond and his life long fight for a realignment of the left in British politics which made me join the party all those years ago. we have lost much of the radical zeal that made us campaign for employee share ownership, which made Liberal Isle of Wight MP use his private member’s bill opportunity to successfully deliver the responsibility on local authorities to house the homeless. I ticked most of the boxes on the survey except the one about party strategy. I have had as much navel gazing debate as I can digest. Will vote for a leader who can convince me I am still in a serious party of the non-socialist left.

  • An articulate sharp elbowed presentable political heavyweight with Keynsian/Beveridgean tendencies.

    Unfortunately at the moment, in the words of Lord Nelson, “I see no ships”.

  • Laurence Cox 4th Jun '20 - 11:32am

    I didn’t get the email either, but I found the link on the Lib Dems Internal Elections facebook group.

  • Nonconformistradical 4th Jun '20 - 12:01pm

    I do wish people would do Jo Grimond (I’m among his fans as well) the courtesy of spelling his surname correctly – with one m.
    https://liberalhistory.org.uk/history/grimond-jo-lord-grimond/

  • Paul Murray 4th Jun '20 - 12:11pm

    Nope, no email to me either although the party did successfully manage to take a direct debit for my membership last week.

  • David Franks – I think Jo Grimond attracted me with his serious irreverence as he challenged the Labour/Tory establishment with his posh voice. Some of us were worried by some of his pronouncements after he reached the Lords but in his heyday (quite a long one) he was brilliant in persuading the “natural liberals” that they had to take him and what he represented seriously.

  • David Allen 4th Jun '20 - 3:23pm

    We have seen several disastrous leadership elections which totally failed to test the candidates and reveal their real strengths, weaknesses and agendas.

    Clegg, who planned to shift his party’s position across the political spectrum further than Blair shifted Labour’s, nevertheless managed to win the leadership on a completely bogus platform, based on nice-bright-young-guy-with-a-disarmingly-unpolished-performance together with a bunch of conventional Lib Dem platitudes. Farron didn’t talk much about the importance of the Christian religion in his politics. Swinson presented herself as young and fresh-faced, without needing to show that she could plan and organise, or work with others, or set out a distinctive vision which would gain approval, or not display an ego to rival Muhammad Ali’s.

    Part of the problem is that standard Lib Dem assumption that we are all nice guys, we don’t aggressively disagree or get shouty, and anyone who does that sort of thing is not a proper Lib Dem. The public, on the whole, think that we are far too milk-and-water, but that’s by-the-by. Of course it doesn’t hurt to avoid rudeness, but, it also doesn’t help to shy away from real issues and divisions.

    Tory leadership candidates, for example, are usually very happy to disagree robustly with each other. The public respect that. Boris Johnson has a multitude of faults, but he is at least governing the way he said that he would. Clegg, Farron and Swinson all campaigned for the leadership one way and then led the party quite a different way. And we let that happen. That is not something to be proud of.

  • In the late 1950’s, early 1960’s, I never expected to see a Liberal government but, like supporting a minor football team, I was proud to support its policies and values..
    Again, like the football team, it often ‘punched well above it’s weight and, in short. acted as the ‘concience of the country’..
    Sadly, when we got to ‘government’, that position itself became more important than the traditional values and, inevitably, we are now back where we started but, this time, without those values…
    When the UN report by Philip Alston ( on how the UK’s social safety net had been “deliberately removed and replaced with a harsh and uncaring ethos” on ideological, rather than financial, grounds) wasn’t even read by the leadership there is something wrong with this party.
    As for a leader, I’ll settle (first) for Atlee’s policies by a non-charismatic leader rather than a wannabee Churchill..

  • The new leader should first and foremost tackle critical weaknesses in the way the party runs itself which, unless fixed, will make it fail in anything it tries and prevent it taking advantage of the ’events’ which are coming so thick and fast at present.

    New leaders in all spheres – business, politics etc. – like to make an impact with bold new plans to conquer the world. Those who succeed are the minority who ‘get’ that they must first make the organisation they lead fit for purpose and then go beyond that and somehow give it an edge over the commonplace of the competition. Leaders who don’t understand this and pitch straight into the fray with a ramshackle organisation invariably fail.

    Sadly, the Thornhill Review and the coalition disaster show just how far the Lib Dems are off the pace. But what to do?

    One issue is that, a Margaret puts it: “…within the Liberal Democrats, the main thrusts of policy are determined by the membership and the leader will have to line up, broadly, with what they are given.” Quite so – except I’m not sure ‘broadly’ is right; policies are pretty specific plus having leaders who must do as they are told is a contradiction in terms.

    That aside, how is this working? There are several answers depending on the viewing angle, for instance:
    Member involvement: A design objective of the system but ‘subcontracted’ to working groups whose output is such a big investment it must be more or less rubber stamped by conference. FAIL.
    Political economy: Covers the full spectrum from hard neoliberal to full socialist with no discernibly Liberal view. FAIL.
    Coherence: Policy is developed in ‘silos’ separately from other policies and absent any political smarts (see Coalition) so the ‘Big Picture’ is missing in action. FAIL.
    Representative: Dominated by London-based folk so very woke and culturally distant from most voters. FAIL.
    Nimbleness: This should be a strength for a small party. FAIL.
    Control of leader: See David Allen comment above. FAIL.

    Even if I’ve been a little brutal, it must be clear just how far off the pace Lib Dems are. If the next leader meekly accepts things as they are then (a) they’re not the right person, and (b) the Lib Dems will fail again – and quite unnecessarily because it wouldn’t take much to fix all these failings.

  • Just thinking aloud….. If members decide the policy and the leadership have to make decisions, is this a recipe for what happened when the party was in coalition?

    The members can choose policies without any care for responsibility, accountability or even reality. In the real world, when policies affect the nation and real people are affected, then maybe the weight of responsibility is a sobering influence.

    When is the deadline for candidates to register? I do hope a lot more decide to stand – I have lost enthusiasm already.

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