Will the next LibDem Leader have national ballot appeal?

Who are the Liberal Democrats? How far does their leader embody their party? In what way would their leader be a desirable UK Prime Minister?

As Liberal Democrats go to the polls to elect a leader these should be the questions members of the party have at the front and centre of their minds. These are the questions voters will ask. We need a leader who has manifold capacities to govern the country, providing sound leadership on a global stage into the next decade.

Many will not believe such a thing possible. Many unbelievers will be Liberal Democrats. But just think for a moment ‘What if…?’

Our country has lots of difficult crossroads to navigate simultaneously over the next five years and more. Brexit, climate change – flooding, drought, rising sea-levels will have to be managed. There is post-COVID-19 disaster recovery, mass unemployment, law and order, global recession, balance of payments deficit. Crime rises in the wake of rising unemployment. Desperation forces the hand of the destitute. Think 1980s. Fending off the break-up of the UK will be key. …A fact our Scottish party members are all too familiar with this past decade.

In the post-credit crunch era of the 2010 election, the nation did turn Liberal Democrat in some measure. We entered government with the Conservatives as a result. Crisis is opportunity, then – as now. We should be doing everything we can to answer the series of crises we face as a nation. Our first concern is which of our leadership candidates has the gift of statecraft.

We need a leader who will be an attractive prospect when up against Labour, Conservative and nationalist parties. It’s not hard. Vigorous profile, what we might call national ballot appeal, is first. Competence has to be there. Though the current PM arguably has significant ballot appeal over perceived competence. At least, that’s what the papers say. Decency is always a winner with the UK electorate. Local, regional and national ballot-appeal is what our next leader must have.

The price of Brexit has unfortunately been fissive secession. English nationalism has found its voice. The Brexit agenda spoke clearly in the 2019 election. Scotland’s nationalists have been doing the same and are arguably making headway. Nationalists in Wales are making the same noises. The logic of a united Ireland is an increasingly practical possibility as Mr Johnson’s Conservative government no longer needs Ulster Unionists, having breached the Red Wall in the 2019 election.

With Brexit, Liberal Democrats, and the country, have seen the collapse of the middle ground. Centralising tendencies at the poles of politics have been with us for some time. We need a Liberal Democrat leader who is a bridge-maker. – One who will draw our national political life back to the centre. We need to re-create the sweet-spot of open, decent, liberal democratic society. No nationalist, Labour or Conservative party will do that. It’s down to us. As we felt painfully in the 2019 election, if we choose unwisely we are lost.

* L M Sue-Too is a Liberal Democrat member in Lancaster & Morecambe.

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37 Comments

  • mike sheehan 28th Jul '20 - 4:15pm

    No, with respect, lets not play ‘what if’? Doing that has led to 3 consecutive disasters at the polls. The next leader should recognise that we are back where we were in 1979, and rebuild the party for the long haul. Grow at local level and build areas of strength at national level. Fantasies about forming the next government will just produce another massacre at the next election.

  • Paul Barker 28th Jul '20 - 7:17pm

    There are 4 Years to the Next Westminster Election but we have to walk before we can jog. Most of those who might vote for us dont see us leading a Westminster Government, first of all we have to get noticed & part of that is having a Leader who isnt easy to confuse with Johnson or Starmer. It would help if that Leader wasnt another middle-aged White Man, we need to stand out.

  • Speaking as a working-class mixed race woman who grew up in Moss Side, Manchester – next door neighbour of Lloyd-George’s birthplace I am never going to overlook talent just because it comes in the shape of an Oxford educated white man.
    You are right, we are not likely to govern. What you didn’t spot is that if this whole Brexit adventure is a pig’s ear we will be back at the ballot box before you can say Jo Swinson. We are the only Pro-Europe, Pro-UK, Pro-sense party. If we sit back, watch it all unravel in front of us we get the disaster we deserve. It’s looking like no-deal Brexit.
    I don’t want that. I want Liberal Democrats to be ready to respond to whatever challenge comes our way. We have in Ed Davey a campaigner, an innovator, a challenger. In just eleven MPs we have ethnic, cultural and socio-economic diversity. And most of them are women.
    Edward Davey is the only candidate with a plan and proven experience of recruitment in diverse ethnic and social strands of the membership. He can and has broadened Liberal Democrat appeal.
    I say give him a crack at the whip. We failed to do that last time. It cost us.

  • As a not irrelevant comment, has anyone noticed how hard Ed Davey has been working in Parliament recently? In spite of running a leadership challenge, he has been keeping us in the public eye on plenty of fronts in his role as acting leader. Surely he has earned his right to continue as leader.

  • Matt (Bristol) 29th Jul '20 - 12:05pm

    Alison C — Ed, Layla and Wera all upped their parliamentary game when they announced they were running.

    Giving Ed a free pass would be as bonkers as giving Jo a free past last time round whebecause she’d been deputy leader.

    Ed and Layla clearly have different visions for your party — why do you, as a democrat, not want democratic scrutiny of that?

  • Alison: but what on earth had he been doing as acting joint leader up to a couple of weeks ago, what was he noticeable for before that?. Think I saw Layla Moran a few times in that period. Let’s not have any Trump like efforts to push one candidate against another. Was he one of those trying to put the election back to mid 2021? Not convinced at all and will almost certainly, on current form, be abstaining. It’s a disappointing choice.

  • @L M Sue-Too: “… I say give him a crack at the whip. We failed to do that last time. It cost us.”

    That’s all very well – and I can see major pros and cons for both candidates – but Ed’s been acting co-leader for the last 7 months (since December 2019) and, during that time, seems to have made only a minimal impact on public consciousness whilst our party has been in a state of apparent drift, with our popular support in steady decline from an already low base. How much longer does he need to start proving his leadership potential – or, as you put it, his “national ballot appeal”?

    Also, how can we be assured that, had he been elected as leader in 2019, he wouldn’t have made the same (or equally disastrous) strategic and messaging errors as Jo Swinson? He would almost certainly have also faced even more severe questioning from sceptical interviewers, and attacks from political opponents, on the evident contradiction between his personal voting record as a coalition cabinet minister and the “progressive centre-left” liberal values that he now claims to represent.

  • Thinking back to the election there were a number of occasions when I thought “we’d be doing better if Ed Davey was leader”

    Anyone else think that and want to avoid deja vu?

  • Also it seems unfair to say “we are only at 6% in the polls” as a criticism of Ed.

    Firstly he is interim leader so cannot make the reforms he could make if elected actual leader.

    Secondly these are not normal circumstances, the news is completely dominated by one issue so little chance to draw attention to our policies.

    Thirdly the local and London elections which would have reminded everyone of our existence didn’t take place.

    Would we be doing any better with more left wing, Corbyn-lite policies? I doubt it. At this moment in time we just have our core vote which is about 6%.

  • richard underhill 30th Jul '20 - 10:37am

    Marco 30th Jul ’20 – 10:03am
    Do we remember Paddy Ashdown looking back on his starting point, an asterisk,
    interpreted as the lower end of a range of 0% – 3% ?
    When the SDP were founded as a new party they claimed their blank page as 50%+ and rising.

  • @ Marco, Here’s the dilemma. Whether to back a worthy unexciting safe pair of hands (with an historic orangist tinge), or a lively but potentially accident prone competitor.

    Not particularly encouraging whatever you decide.

  • Matt (Bristol) 30th Jul '20 - 11:39am

    Marco, before and during the last election, I remember thinking … ‘these positions Jo is getting nailed for … they were Ed Davey’s proposals at the leadership election, weren’t they?’

    These include the idea of the government of national unity and the positioning of Jo as next Prime Minister. These were two of our biggest mistakes, in that they were attempts to oust Corbyn as leader of the left, but hit the brickwall of Labour tribalism, and we received minimal covering fire from the Tory left (probably because what radical liberal policies we did articulate were alienating to some of their voters).

    I don’t think either Ed or Jo were able to build the coalition or interest Vince had been dreaming of. I don’t think either Ed or Layla can do that now, as Lib Dem politics is becoming factionalism under a veneer of moderation.

  • There was a difference between Swinson and Davey on their stances on Europe as Ed Davey said he would not seek a third referendum and that any “people’s vote” would have been the final say ln the matter. Therefore I don’t think that revoke would have happened under him.

    The main difference though is I feel that Ed is an accomplished media performer. When challenged about coalition era or any other controversial policy he calmly and effectively responds (and these questions aren’t just going to go away whoever becomes leader).

  • Alex Macfie 30th Jul '20 - 2:59pm

    Marco: No-one is suggesting “Corbyn-lite” policies, and the idea is absurd. Slightly tolerant of antisemitism? Slightly knee-jerk anti-western? Slightly indulgent of left-wing dictatorships? There is no such thing as Corbyn-lite; by definition, Corbynism is an extremist reactionary ideology, and neither Lib Dem leadership candidate has any truck with it.
    Alison C, L M Sue-Too: we should not be re-fighting the last leadership election, to choose who would have been better at fighting the last GE. The next election (which will be in 2024, barring any extremely unlikely turn of events) will be fought under very different circumstances from the last, and present very different challenges.

  • Alex Macfie 30th Jul '20 - 3:08pm

    Matt (Bristol): It wasn’t any of OUR policies that alienated soft Tories, it was fear of Corbyn. And incidentally, I don’t regard him as radical. He is a reactionary hard-left socialist, who has never moved on from 1970s student revolutionary BS. Radical liberalism and reactionary illiberal socialism don’t mix well.

  • Peter Hirst 30th Jul '20 - 3:32pm

    Does our constitution allow for shared leadership and other changes from the norm?Another might be to have an elected deputy leader with more clearly defined powers. We need to experiment with different types of leadership.

  • @ Alex Macfie by Corbyn-lite policies I meant the approach that some believe LM will take of trying to appeal to voters who are irritated by Keir Starmers sensible stance on statue toppling, police defunding, trans politics and the sacking of Rebecca Long-Bailey (Wrong-Daily.)

    In addition to keeping policies that Starmer might jettison such as free broadband for everyone. Would rather see something more redistributive such as funding for social landlords to provide free broadband to their tenants.

    Whereas I think Ed would be less rash and stop and think what would voters in Hitchin and Harpenden make of all this?

    I dont see him as an “orangeist” either I think he is more in the centre of gravity.

  • Alex Macfie 30th Jul '20 - 5:50pm

    @Marco: Regarding the sacking of RLB, you would never catch Layla sharing an antisemitic trope. This in a nutshell sums up what makes her fundamentally different from Corbyn. The obsession with Israel~Palestine, the knee-jerk anti-westernism, the indulgence of terrorists and of left-wing dictatorships and the rigid class-based approach to politics are all fundamental to Corbynism. Layla does not share any of that thinking, therefore she cannot be a Corbynite.
    Layla has said nothing about trying to be to the “left” of Labour by adopting positions associated with the ideological left. She has talked of attracting the sort of young voters who supported us before 2010 but were then attracted to Labour under Corbyn. But that is not the same thing at all. The young people who voted Labour in 2017 and 2019 were not a new cadre of revolutionary socialists. They were ordinary people, who were just attracted by Corbyn’s carefully crafted image in which he was pretending to be something he actually isn’t. They’re mostly not interested in Corbyn’s foreign-policy and class-war obsessions, but in progressive politics. So we can attract those voters more honestly than Corbyn ever could, by being radical liberals, whereas Corbyn is in reality the opposite: an illiberal reactionary.

  • So grateful for a full discussion here. Whatever happens, out of the two contenders we have, we need to think how they appeal to the nation, how they handle pressure, how far and how faithfully our next leader will be in representing the Liberal Democrats in national life.
    Which of them will be dedicated and effective in liberating the nation from poverty, ignorance and conformity? Which of them will unite us and lead us to a decent showing at the ballot box? Which out of them will be convincing up against PM Mr Johnson and Leader of the Opposition Mr Starmer?
    When both contenders were asked to comment on the stasis we have in the diversity of LibDem representation only one candidate has so far replied.
    That candidate has grasped we need to be more diverse, more representative to be electable. We are still waiting for comment from the other.
    https://www.libdemvoice.org/liberal-democrats-in-support-of-black-lives-and-black-livelihoods-65231.html

  • Matt (Bristol) 30th Jul '20 - 8:43pm

    Alex, I don’t think you can necessarily say that. I think the assumption that Pro-European ex-Tory voters are necessarily socially liberal and happy with many areas of Lib Dem policy has been a huge assumption throughout the last 3 years.

    I do agree that fear of Corbyn was a huge fact in many such people in continuing to vote Tory. But I would direct you to the line the papers of the traditional right took on Lib Dem social policy, and it was generally suspicious. I do think this was a factor, and I don’t think this was necessarily manufactured or cynical. Vince’s ‘Movement of Moderates’ was not as deliverable as the party felt, as it was not possible to unite all pro-Europeans due to the woke-reactionary culture war breaking that group into smaller groups.

  • Alex Macfie – I agree Layla is far more sensible and moderate than the RLB’s of the world.

    However I am not sure that the group of voters you are talking about are going to vote Lib Dem any time soon whoever is leader and in any case are only beneficial to us as tactical voters.

    The Business Insider interview did not fill me with confidence as in it she gave a very clear impression, whether you accept it or not of positioning to the left of Labour. Nor did the rather socialistic policy paper which didn’t consult widely enough fill me with confidence and nor does the opportunistic message about low poll ratings.

    There is clearly some concern as figures who you might expect to support her have not done so.

  • @Marco : If you mean the “Keir Starmer should be worried” article (
    https://www.businessinsider.com/moran-starmer-labour-should-fear-me-lib-dem-leader-2020-6), that is largely the author’s spin on the interview, right down to the clickbaity headline. Another article in the New European (https://www.theneweuropean.co.uk/top-stories/exclusive-layla-moran-liberal-democrat-leadership-interview-1-6736508), says she “does not” want us to be to the left of Labour. I think you are reducing everything to the left-right scale, and assuming that “more radical” has to mean more left-wing, and thus more like Corbyn, even though the Left that Corbyn represents is actually reactionary rather than radical, as it is stuck in the past.

    What “policy paper”? If you mean Build Back Better, then that is not a policy paper, but a collection of essays suggesting ideas for policy. It is not meant as a manifesto, and policy is in any case determined by party Conference, not by leader’s diktat.

    Why do you assume young progressive voters would not vote Lib Dem? The main reason they don’t seems to be residual distrust over the Coalition, but if we elect Layla as leader it would be extremely difficult for Labour to attack us over that. You are still assuming that voters who gravitated to Corbyn’s Labour were motivated by ideology, but in reality they mostly weren’t. Most voters are not ideological, they are driven more by values.

  • Alex Macfie 31st Jul '20 - 9:06am

    @Marco: Further on Build Back Better, I don’t see anything particularly “socialist” there. The ideas put forward there seem to be philosophically in keeping with the David Steel edited book Partners in One Nation, from the mid 1980s. It’s very much from the liberal tradition, rather than socialist. Corbynism in particular is all about mass nationalisations and economic centralism, which is opposite to the liberal approach.

  • “Why do you assume young progressive voters would not vote Lib Dem?”

    I don’t think they necessary vote as a bloc. I agree that some voters who vote Labour are really more liberals than socialists. However is there any reason why they would be unhappy with Starmer as leader?

    My point is that those voters who liked Corbyn but less enthusiastic about Starmer are not in my view natural Lib Dem voters and trying to appeal to them could alienate other voters.

    I also think it is overly optimistic to think that the coalition would be just forgotten about if we have a leader who was not involved in it. Trying “ to make it cool to vote Lib Dem again” is going to be difficult.

    It also appears that in relative terms we do well among under 35’s and have a higher than average vote share with them. We are weakest among over 60’s so why not try to appeal more to them?

  • Also would it really help us win many more MPs if we won large numbers of voters from Labour. That could just split the left vote and hand another term to Boris.

  • Alex Macfie 31st Jul '20 - 9:45am

    @Marco: First of all, Don’t Call Him Boris! In any case no-one is suggesting we campaign strongly for the Labour vote in Con~Lab battleground seats. The drive to win over Labour voters would be principally in seats where we are 2nd place to Labour, such as Sheffield Hallam, Cambridge and Hornsey & Wood Green. Also it is a medium-to-long-term strategy, rather than one for the next election. It is for a scenario where Labour has won power, and we are aiming for previous Labour voters now dissatisfied with a Labour government. This was a successful strategy in 2005, when we won many seats that in 1997 were safe Labour (including some that had previously been Tory).

    And once again, no-one is suggesting trying to appeal to the *ideological* left. But actually there are not all that many such people among ordinary voters (as opposed to Labour activists). People who supported Corbyn because of an ideological attachment to left-wing socialism would not consider voting tactically for us where we are the clear challengers to the Tories. But we were successful in squeezing the Labour vote in our target seats at the last election, suggesting that most of the Labour vote was soft and not ideologically driven. Much of it is people who were attracted to Corbyn’s idealism but who hadn’t looked closely at what he actually stands for, and would be repelled by its implications if they had. It is this group, not the ideological leftists, that we will need to woo in Lib~Lab battleground seats, which are few at present but are likely to increase in number if Labour wins power at the next election

  • The Liberal Democrats won votes in 2005 because of revulsion against the Iraq War and Blair sucking up to Bush. That’s why Mr Corbyn was often in the same lobby as the then Mr Cable. Sadly, one could also suggest Charlie’s problems hadn’t reached peak publicity.

  • I must admit to not having read build back better in any detail as it would be a bit of a trek to plough through hundreds of pages of mainly narrative about “market fundamentalism”.

    However I would say that universal free services ticks two socialist boxes as it a) sounds like an enormously complex and expensive undertaking by a centralised state and b) represents a huge subsidy for the professional middle classes.

  • On the idea that Layla would be some sort of “woke warrior”, Layla has explicitly said that she would focus as Leader on bread-and-butter issues, not the sort of things that are best left as a small-font bullet point on page 94 of the manifesto.

  • …but she would (IMO) be better than Ed at defending her stance on those more niche issues if they come up. One unintended consequence of Cleggmania in 2010 was that our opponents actually reading our manifesto and attacked Clegg over its contents. And he proved unable to defend our policies. Regardless of which policies we choose to emphasise we need to be able to defend our whole platform, and I think Layla would be better at this.
    But it would be wrong to portray her as a sort of caricature “intolerant liberal” unable to win over people who are not our natural supporters. She is actually the opposite; she has worked with the Daily Mail and Daily Express (both papers that are not generally friendly to us) on specific issues.

  • Another thing: The Lib Dem’s didn’t lose a single vote due to orange book policies. The 2010 manifesto was popular and right for the times. If implemented by a majority government such govt would probably have been re-elected.

    The issue with coalition was the unpopular Tory policies that were signed up to – deeper and faster austerity, harsh welfare cuts, tuition fees and various others like employment law reform that were never in the LD manifesto.

    The mistake therefore was a faction thinking that the natural corollary of the OB was aligning closer to the Tories. OB Policies were never the problem.

  • @Marco: We have been much better able to defend our role in coalition had our leadership team *from the outset* portrayed it as a pure business arrangement, rather than as a love-in. There should have been no joint press conference (certainly not in the Downing Street Rose Garden); the MPs of the two parties should have sat in separate blocks on the Government benches, and we should have differentiated ourselves from the Tories from the start.
    It would also have helped if we had not made a pledge that left us hostage to fortune. The biggest problem with Tuition Fees was not the policy itself, but that we broke our promise.
    As a result of these two strategic errors, we lost the public relations war over the Coalition at the first battle, and it’s really a waste of time to try to win it back.

    In 2010 the Lib Dems gained and lost a lot of votes for a lot of different reasons. You cannot possibly say we “didn’t lose a single vote” because of something.

  • “We *would* have…”

  • “Layla has explicitly said that she would focus as Leader on bread-and-butter issues, not the sort of things that are best left as a small-font bullet point on page 94 of the manifesto.

    Alex Macfie 31st Jul ’20 – 11:02am
    …but she would (IMO) be better than Ed at defending her stance on those more niche issues if they come up.”

    She might want to work on her media management a bit then.

    The Business Insider interview was followed up with a Guardian article “radical proposals suggest shift to the left”:

    https://www.google.com/amp/s/amp.theguardian.com/politics/2020/jun/18/radical-proposals-in-lib-dem-policy-review-suggest-shift-to-the-left

    Yet apparently that wasn’t what she meant to say at all. Doesn’t bode well if her positions are easily mischaracterised.

  • Alex Macfie 31st Jul '20 - 4:32pm

    @Marco: In that Guardian article, she is quoted “What it shows is we are a party of the centre left.” That is all that this supposed “shift to the left” means. And there is nothing about being to the left of Labour, much less adopting the postures of the ideological left. This stuff about Layla being supposedly “left-wing” is largely borne of journalistic ignorance on the part of political pundits who only seem to see politics in terms of a simplistic linear left-right scale, so they /assume/ that “more radical” or “shift[ing] to the left” means being more like the ideological Left of Corbyn & co. But that article is over a month old; in the more recent New European article, she is quite clear about not wanting to be to the “left of Labour”. Taking the party in a more radical direction is not going to make us like the ideological Left, whatever the political commentariat say. Layla would not, I suspect, want anything whatsoever to do with the bitter sectarian Left of Momentum and the rest of the 57 Varieties.
    And anyway we’ve been here before. Under Charles Kennedy, we were often said to be “to the Left of Labour” not least because our MPs often found themselves in the same voting lobby as left-wing Labour MPs against the then Labour government of Blair (notably on the Iraq War). But attempts by our opponents on the right to link us to the ideological Left never succeeded, as we continued to gain seats from the Tories even in 2005. The point is that just because the political commentariat say something about us, doesn’t mean it’s true.

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