Scottish Secretary and former Lib Dem chief whip Alistair Carmichael. Photograph: Getty Images.
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Why Alistair Carmichael could be the next Lib Dem leader

Having successfully transcended his party's left-right divide, the Scottish Secretary could be the man to hold the Lib Dems together after the next election.

Who will be the insurgent candidate when the Liberal Democrats finally decide to topple Nick Clegg? In recent times, it has appeared that the only way to win a party leadership election is to avoid having the baggage of a public profile while simultaneously working furiously behind the scenes. Ed Miliband seemingly came out of nowhere despite claiming the support of the biggest trade union in the UK the year before. The same goes for David Cameron. His rise, while first appearing shocking, was the result of a long slog by modernisers to prepare him for taking the leadership. When looking at the political landscape ahead, it seems clear who the Liberal Democrat equivalent candidate is:  little known MP Alistair Carmichael.

Securing victory for the Liberal Democrat corner over Scottish independence will be what raises him to prominence, in both Westminster village circles, and with the wider public. Don’t underestimate the emotional significance of that, even if the Lib Dems are more detached over questions of nationality. 

What will secure his place in the post-Clegg sweepstakes will be the overwhelming desire for the party to have a man to hold them together after the coalition falls apart. What he can do for the UK, he can for the inevitable infighting over the future direction of the party. Tim Farron is most often touted as the leader-in-waiting, but he only draws support from a certain left-leaning section of the party. Speaking to a campaign staffer in the party makes these concerns concrete: "There are a lot of Lib Dems out there who don’t want Tim Farron to be leader. When people say he is popular with the grassroots, they mean popular with the sandal wearers, but he’s not credible as a national political leader. He’s not a statesman." Vince Cable has more of the statesman about him, and still retains his status as the most popular Lib Dem with the public. Perhaps unfairly, though, many in the party fear another Ming Campbell, who was plagued by concerns over his age. 

With Farron, Cable and Chris Huhne ruled out (via HMP Wandsworth) the other standout candidates find themselves at the wrong end of the political spectrum. The Lib Dems have travelled a long way  from the years when they were an unambiguously centre-left party. Clegg has made their transformation into a party of the centre his defining mission in government. There are too many who suspect, for right or wrong, that someone from his wing of the party is comfortable with the Tories. This means the likes of Danny Alexander (who has a higher approval rating among ConservativeHome readers than their party chairman), Ed Davey and Norman Lamb are too chummy with their Conservative colleagues to provide the clean break the party will need.

Carmichael has managed to avoid falling prey to the left/right divide emerging more clearly in the party as it gets used to power. "He could be a compromise candidate… post-coalition we need someone to hold the party together. Alistair might be the guy," one Lib Dem told me. As chief whip for the Lib Dems before becoming Scottish Secretary, he will know where the bodies are buried. Not only did this position make building a relationship with all the MPs in the party compulsory, it also meant he commanded their respect. Don’t mess with Carmichael.

The fact his role was less visible also meant he managed to stay clear of scandals, whether over unpopular government policy, or the Rennard allegations. There has been no constant surveillance to make sure he toes the grassroots line on each and every issue (take one glance at Farron’s Twitter feed to see his constant posturing to members on there), but each and every time he appears on a media platform, he at least manages to secure the respect of the commentariat.

Oh, and not to mention he also holds the one of the safest Lib Dem seats in the country (Orkney & Shetland has been Liberal since Jo Grimond took the constituency in 1950). Without predicting how well the party's vote share will hold up at the next election, we assume that his position is secure. Many in the Lib Dems are hoping he can secure their future too.

Thomas Byrne is a reporter for Education Investor and Health Investor

Thomas Byrne is a reporter for Education Investor and Health Investor

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Inside the progressive alliance that beat Zac Goldsmith in Richmond

Frantic phone calls, hundreds of volunteers, and Labour MPs constrained by their party. 

Politics for a progressive has been gloomy for a long time. On Thursday, in Richmond Park of all places, there was a ray of light. Progressive parties (at least some of them) and ordinary voters combined to beat Ukip, the Tories and their "hard Brexit, soft racist" candidate.

It didn’t happen by accident. Let's be clear, the Liberal Democrats do by-elections really well. Their activists flood in, and good luck to them. But Richmond Park was too big a mountain for even their focused efforts. No, the narrow win was also down to the fast growing idea of a progressive alliance. 

The progressive alliance is both a defensive and offensive move. It recognises the tactical weakness of progressives under first past the post – a system the Tories and their press know how to game. With progressive forces spilt between Labour, Liberal Democrats, Greens, the SNP, Plaid Cymru, the Women’s Equality Party and more – there is no choice but to co-operate, bring in proportional representation and then a whole new political world begins.

This move opens up the wider strategy – to end the domination of the City, and right-wing newspapers like the Mail, so Britain can have a real debate and make real choices about what sort of economy and society it wants. A pipedream? Well, maybe. But last night the fuse was lit in Richmond Park. The progressive alliance can work.

Months before the by-election, the pressure group for a progressive alliance that I chair, Compass, the Greens, and some Labour, Liberal Democrat and SNP MPs and activists, began considering this. The alternative after Brexit was staring into the void.

Then the Tory MP Zac Goldsmith stepped down over Heathrow. To be fair, he had pledged to do this, and we should have been better prepared. In the event, urgent behind-the-scenes calls were made between the Greens and the Liberal Democrats. Compass acted as the safe house. The Greens, wonderfully, clung onto democracy – the local party had to decide. And they decided to stand up for a new politics. Andree Frieze would have been the Green candidate, and enjoyed her moment in the autumn sun. She and her party turned it down for a greater good. So did the Women’s Equality Party.

Meanwhile, what about Labour? Last time, they came a distant third. Again the phones were hit and meetings held. There was growing support not to stand. But what would they get back from the Liberal Democrats, and what did the rules say about not standing? It was getting close to the wire. I spent an hour after midnight, in the freezing cold of Aberdeen, on the phone to a sympathetic Labour MP trying to work out what the party rule book said before the selection meeting.

At the meeting, I am told, a move was made from the floor not to select. The London regional official ruled it out of order and said a candidate would be imposed if they didn’t select. Some members walked out at this point. Where was the new kinder, gentler politics? Where was membership democracy? Fast forward to last night, and the Labour candidate got less votes than the party has members.

The idea of a progressive alliance in Richmond was then cemented in a draughty church hall on the first Tuesday of the campaign – the Unitarian Church of course. Within 48 hours notice, 200 local activist of all parties and none had come together to hear the case for a progressive alliance. Both the Greens and Compass produced literature to make the case for voting for the best-placed progressive candidate. The Liberal Democrats wove their by-election magic. And together we won.

It’s a small victory – but it shows what is possible. Labour is going to have to think very hard whether it wants to stay outside of this, when so many MPs and members see it as common sense. The lurch to the right has to be stopped – a progressive alliance, in which Labour is the biggest tent in the campsite, is the only hope.

In the New Year, the Progressive Alliance will be officially launched with a steering committee, website and activists tool-kit. There will also be a trained by-election hit squad, manifestos of ideas and alliances build locally and across civil society.

There are lots of problems that lie ahead - Labour tribalism, the 52 per cent versus the 48 per cent, Scottish independence and the rest. But there were lots of problems in Richmond Park, and we overcame them. And you know, working together felt good – it felt like the future. The Tories, Ukip and Arron Banks want a different future – a regressive alliance. We have to do better than them. On Thursday, we showed we could.

Could the progressive alliance be the start of the new politics we have all hoped for?

Neal Lawson is the Chair of Compass, the pressure group for the progressive alliance.

Neal Lawson is chair of the pressure group Compass, which brings together progressives from all parties and none. His views on internal Labour matters are personal ones.