Liberal Democrat president Tim Farron at the party's spring conference in Brighton last year. Photograph: Getty Images.
Show Hide image

The next Lib Dem leader must come from the party's left

Rather than Jeremy Browne, the party needs a centre-left figurehead, such as Tim Farron, to revive its fortunes.

You can tell a series of elections are on the way, as speculation abounds again about the leadership of Nick Clegg and the future direction of the Liberal Democrats. I once, famously, and I admit wrongly, speculated about it myself on this very blog site when I wrote a post in anger (never a good thing to do) about Clegg.

Although I’m undoubtedly from a different wing of the party to him, I respect the leadership he’s shown on issues including our membership of the European Union and equal marriage. I accept that Clegg will likely lead our party into the 2015 general election and, possibly, beyond. But it’s a plain fact that one day he will stand down and a new leader will be elected. So, it’s on that basis that I suggest that the next leader of the party should come from its centre-left.

There’s no doubt that many people who consider themselves on the centre-left of the party- social liberals and social democrats -have left to join other parties or to be a member of no party because they couldn’t stand some of the things Lib Dem ministers were signing up to as part of the coalition.

But I’d still argue that the majority of the party’s membership remains - broadly speaking - on the centre-left of the political spectrum. Given some of what we’ve had to swallow, we’ve remained very disciplined, far more so than the disgruntled elements of the Tory party have.

I hope that whenever Clegg decides to stand down (and that could be years away) it’s an MP from the party’s centre-left who takes over. My personal choice for our next leader would be Tim Farron. His profile has slowly risen during his exemplary presidency of the party where he’s taken on the task of being the representative of the party’s left on a number of issues, from opposing the bedroom tax to always speaking up for the poorest and most vulnerable in our society.

We also shouldn’t count out Vince Cable. The argument that he’s “too old” is spurious and offensive. A more reasonable argument for him not succeeding Clegg is that, as Business Secretary in this coalition government, he’s just as responsible as the current Lib Dem leader for the bad bits of this administration’s record. But he certainly shouldn’t be ruled out.

Then there's Steve Webb, not much known outside Westminster yet but making a big name for himself and forcing through a number of significant Lib Dem wins in a notoriously difficult department.

As for potential candidates from the right of the party, my view is that Jeremy Browne has shot himself in the foot with his statements on various media platforms whilst promoting his book over the past week.  If what he’s espousing is “authentic liberalism” then I’d gladly be called an inauthentic liberal. I will never agree to further privatisation of our National Health Service or to an expansion of Free Schools.

I believe in an enabling state, which gives people opportunities, whatever their background or present circumstances, which provides certain services not for profit but because they’re basic fundamental services and which people already pay for in general taxation. Yes, I’m a social democrat and a social liberal and proud of it; two fine traditions in our party and flames which burn brightly despite the knocks they’ve taken in recent years.

I believe we, as a party, need to remember our founding beliefs and begin to live up to them. The preamble to our constitution states: “The Liberal Democrats exist to build and safeguard a fair, free and open society, in which we seek to balance the fundamental values of liberty, equality and community and in which no one shall be enslaved by poverty, ignorance or conformity.”

A party living up to those values is not ‘pointless,’ Mr Browne. It is vitally needed in a country where both of the two major parties prove time and again that they are far from liberal.

Mathew Hulbert is a Liberal Democrat Borough and Parish Councillor in Leicestershire

Getty
Show Hide image

Why Angela Merkel's comments about the UK and US shouldn't be given too much weight

The Chancellor's comments are aimed at a domestic and European audience, and she won't be abandoning Anglo-German relationships just yet.

Angela Merkel’s latest remarks do not seem well-judged but should not be given undue significance. Speaking as part of a rally in Munich for her sister party, the CSU, the German Chancellor claimed “we Europeans must really take our own fate into our hands”.

The comments should be read in the context of September's German elections and Merkel’s determination to restrain the fortune of her main political rival, Martin Schulz – obviously a strong Europhile and a committed Trump critic. Sigmar Gabriel - previously seen as a candidate to lead the left-wing SPD - has for some time been pressing for Germany and Europe to have “enough self-confidence” to stand up to Trump. He called for a “self-confident position, not just on behalf of us Germans but all Europeans”. Merkel is in part responding to this pressure.

Her words were well received by her audience. The beer hall crowd erupted into sustained applause. But taking an implicit pop at Donald Trump is hardly likely to be a divisive tactic at such a gathering. Criticising the UK post-Brexit and the US under Trump is the sort of virtue signalling guaranteed to ensure a good clap.

It’s not clear that the comments represent that much of a new departure, as she herself has since claimed. She said something similar earlier this year. In January, after the publication of Donald Trump’s interview with The Times and Bild, she said that “we Europeans have our fate in our own hands”.

At one level what Merkel said is something of a truism: in two year’s time Britain will no longer be directly deciding the fate of the EU. In future no British Prime Minister will attend the European Council, and British MEPs will leave the Parliament at the next round of European elections in 2019. Yet Merkel’s words “we Europeans”, conflate Europe and the EU, something she has previously rejected. Back in July last year, at a joint press conference with Theresa May, she said: “the UK after all remains part of Europe, if not of the Union”.

At the same press conference, Merkel also confirmed that the EU and the UK would need to continue to work together. At that time she even used the first person plural to include Britain, saying “we have certain missions also to fulfil with the rest of the world” – there the ‘we’ meant Britain and the EU, now the 'we' excludes Britain.

Her comments surely also mark a frustration born of difficulties at the G7 summit over climate change, but Britain and Germany agreed at the meeting in Sicily on the Paris Accord. More broadly, the next few months will be crucial for determining the future relationship between Britain and the EU. There will be many difficult negotiations ahead.

Merkel is widely expected to remain the German Chancellor after this autumn’s election. As the single most powerful individual in the EU27, she is the most crucial person in determining future relations between the UK and the EU. Indeed, to some extent, it was her intransigence during Cameron’s ‘renegotiation’ which precipitated Brexit itself. She also needs to watch with care growing irritation across the EU at the (perceived) extent of German influence and control over the institutions and direction of the European project. Recent reports in the Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung which suggested a Merkel plan for Jens Weidmann of the Bundesbank to succeed Mario Draghi at the ECB have not gone down well across southern Europe. For those critics, the hands controlling the fate of Europe are Merkel’s.

Brexit remains a crucial challenge for the EU. How the issue is handled will shape the future of the Union. Many across Europe’s capitals are worried that Brussels risks driving Britain further away than Brexit will require; they are worried lest the Channel becomes metaphorically wider and Britain turns its back on the continent. On the UK side, Theresa May has accepted the EU, and particularly Merkel’s, insistence, that there can be no cherry picking, and therefore she has committed to leaving the single market as well as the EU. May has offered a “deep and special” partnership and a comprehensive free trading arrangement. Merkel should welcome Britain’s clarity. She must work with new French President Emmanuel Macron and others to lead the EU towards a new relationship with Britain – a close partnership which protects free trade, security and the other forms of cooperation which benefit all Europeans.

Henry Newman is the director of Open Europe. He tweets @henrynewman.

0800 7318496