.comment-link {margin-left:.6em;}

Friday, June 23, 2017

Why we must not have a coronation for Lib Dem leader

I am beginning to feel a bit unloved by the Liberal Democrat MPs. Every time I come to a decision as to my preferred choice for leader, that person rules themselves out of the contest.

Like many members my initial preference was for Jo Swinson. I reasoned that she was young, a mother with experiences of the outside world but also somebody who had held ministerial office and had real accomplishments to show for that time in government.

The fact that Jo would have been the party's first female leader would have been a bonus of course, but her appeal lay in her freshness and her ability to relate to non-political people.

It is true that her voting record as part of the coalition could become an issue but that is also the case for every other leadership contender and for the party itself. What matters (and this is the first test) is how the new leader moves us on from that, building on the work Tim Farron has already done.

Alas, and for perfectly understandable reasons, Jo Swinson decided that she was not ready to stand for leader, preferring to serve an apprenticeship as Deputy Leader of the Parliamentary Group instead.

My second choice was Norman Lamb. Norman has impressed me since he entered Parliament. His directness, his thoughtful approach to issues and the air of quiet competence he projects would be a welcome contrast to the blundering of Theresa May and the bluster of Jeremy Corbyn.

Norman has also made a name for himself as a minister and for his campaigning on mental health issues. He is a politician who commands respect across political divides.

I did not vote for Norman the first time around because I judged that we needed a more high profile campaigner who was not tainted by a government record. The needs of the party are different this time around.

Norman's problem of course was that he defied the party whip and abstained on article 50. Given so many of the party's membership joined over that issue his candidacy might have been a tough-sell, Norman certainly appears to have thought so. He writes in the Guardian:

I abstained on article 50 because I felt it was wrong in principle to vote against, given that we had all voted to hold the referendum in the first place. For many in the party that abstention was an act of betrayal. I have been accused of supporting a hard Brexit – the last thing I want – while a Lib Dem source told the London Evening Standard this week that the abstention “looks like he can’t make a tough call”. It is actually quite tough to go against your party, and I did it on a matter of principle.

I happen to disagree with Norman on article 50, but he has confirmed that he supports the party's call for a referendum on the final deal and that is good enough for me, though actually it might not be a bad thing for the new leader to take a more nuanced approach to the Brexit issue.

It was clear that our message on Brexit failed to resonate with voters and that in many places it was misunderstood. Putting Norman at the head of the party would have sent a signal to both leavers and remainers that we want to listen to both sides, whilst doing our best to secure a deal that will keep us in the single market and keeps freedom of movement.

What struck me most about Norman's article was the way it articulated many of the reasons why he should have run for leader:

We need to understand why so many people get frustrated with remote power – something that Liberals should understand. The Europrean Union is too often dysfunctional and sclerotic, yet progressive internationalists have been reluctant to admit this. While we have always recognised the need for reform of the EU, the Liberal Democrats have been perceived as being too tolerant of its failings.

My great frustration is that instead of the name-calling, what we need is for progressives to engage in fresh thinking on how we achieve a new settlement with the EU – one that secures free trade, jobs, security partnerships and our place in the customs union.

I want the Liberal Democrats to use our potentially pivotal position in parliament to force cross-party working on the profound challenges we face: not just the Brexit negotiations, but how we secure the future of the NHS and our care system.

If I had decided to run for leader, I would have used my position to champion a different style of politics – rejecting the abuse and aggression that turns so many people off, and instead seeking to build consensus where possible in the national interest. I favour telling it straight, not dissembling – bringing people together rather than dividing them. The public will not forgive the political class if we fail to understand the changed circumstances of a parliament with no majority. We don’t need an early election. We need a new style of politics.

None of this should be taken as meaning that I favour a mushy, value-free equidistance from the other two main parties. You can be a pluralist and hold passionate views. I am a Liberal to my core. I know that we are supposed to mellow with age, but I have done the opposite. I have become more angry and impatient with injustice and gross inequality.

In those few paragraphs Norman has set out what the leadership election should be about, how we redefine ourselves as a party. in the face of the challenges posed by mass migration, Brexit, extremism, terrorism and social change. As Norman says, so many of those challenges were ignored during the General Election. He continues:

Whether it is tenants in tower blocks; people with learning disabilities; workers with no stake in an enterprise watching as the owners of capital take an ever growing percentage of our national income, and their own wages fall; the citizen who feels powerless against remote power, whether at the town hall, Westminster or Brussels – these are the things that drive me on, keep me fighting for justice.

He concludes:

How do we address gross intergenerational inequality, or the impact of automation on jobs we assumed would always be there? How do we fund and improve our public services as the ratio of taxpaying workers to pensioners changes so radically? How do we respond effectively to a new wave of violent extremism, in a way that doesn’t harm our way of life? And then there’s the potentially apocalyptic challenge of climate change, and how to protect those most severely affected by it.

If the progressive side of politics is to prevail, we can’t just hanker after a better yesterday. We have to win the battle of ideas about how we confront these profound challenges.

The party needs a full and proper debate on issues such as these. We need a leader who understands the challenges and who is able to ask the right questions of government and the electorate as well as pose some answers.

It is for these reasons that we cannot have a coronation. There must be a contest in which members and politicians alike can join in this crucial debate on the future of our party, our country, our way of life.

If our group of 12 MPs fail to facilitate such a contest then they will have failed the membership, but more importantly they would have failed the future of liberalism itself.
Comments: Post a Comment

<< Home

This page is powered by Blogger. Isn't yours?