On 8 May the leaders of the Liberal Democrats and the Labour party resigned following a shock Conservative victory at the general election. Nick Clegg said that it had been “a huge privilege and unlimited honour” to serve as leader for the Liberal Democrats but that the party had suffered “catastrophic losses” and that they must “reflect on these in the time ahead”; meanwhile, Ed Miliband stepped down claiming that the Labour party “needs to have an open and honest debate about the right way forward”.
Both parties had done worse than expected at the polls and both now desperately needed to reorganise in order to move forward and start rebuilding so that they may once again be seen as electable come 2020.
However, this is where the similarities between the parties’ post-election woes end. The leadership elections that followed the resignations of the leaders have taken two very separate routes. While the Liberal Democrats have elected Tim Farron as their leader in a very private, respectful leadership contest that took just 10 weeks, Labour’s leadership election has been an incredibly public vicious battle that is set to drag on for a total of 18 weeks until a leader is finally elected in September.
Given the extent of Labour’s loss the acting leader of the party, Harriet Harman, claimed that the party’s leadership contest must take place in the public eye. She said: “We have to go back and ask local people from those areas [in which we lost] to be brutally honest about what they think of us and what they want from us”. As a result hustings were to be televised and take place in marginal seats so that all candidates could be properly scrutinised by the electorate.
In contrast to the Labour election, the Liberal Democrat leadership contest was much more low key. Instead of appealing to the wider public the party who were in government with the Conservatives before the election opted for a contest that was much more focused on their party members. Sal Brinton, the Liberal Democrat president, argued that the party had chosen for a swift election so that they can begin campaigning immediately. She stated: “We know we have some major elections to fight next year, the Scottish parliament, the Welsh assembly, the London assembly as well as a very large number of council seats.”
When it was announced last Thursday that Tim Farron was to be the new leader of the Liberal Democrats the mood from his party was one of excitement and eagerness. The party was ready to move forward under their new leader and do everything they could to re-engage with the electorate.
There was no divide in the party with supporters of the only other leadership candidate, Norman Lamb, equally anticipating with enthusiasm the challenge ahead. Lamb himself congratulated his rival on twitter claiming that Farron would be a “passionate leader of our party, championing social justice and leading from the front in our campaign to rebuild the liberal voice”.
The future of the Labour Party couldn’t look more different. Through their “open and honest debate” the factions within the party have become visible: The party is divided between Old Labour, New Labour, Blairites, Brownites and everything in between. The stark differences between the policies offered by leadership candidates Liz Kendal and veteran MP Jeremy Corbyn highlight the differences in beliefs of party members. In reality, Labour seems less like one untied political party and more like a coalition of MPs of opposing beliefs.
Ed Miliband was criticised by many for not being a strong leader but one thing he did do was hold a divided party together and make them work as a unit. In his absence, the invitation for MPs to express their opinions openly has caused the party to fall apart as Labour MPs begin to fight amongst themselves.
Chuka Umunna has accused some members of his party of “behaving like a petulant child who has been told you can’t have the sweeties in the sweet shop” during the leadership election and Harriet Harman has seen MPs revolt against her decision for the party to abstain on a vote to changes to welfare benefits.
It is impossible to imagine how that party will be able to work together and MPs put their differences behind them post the election of a new leader, especially now that the range of opinions have been so widely circulated by the media.
With a new leader now elected and the whole party fully behind him, the Liberal Democrats looks like a party who are ready to fight the government over the next five years and make their voice heard so that they may once again become a relevant party within the political system. Labour however look nowhere near ready to fight for the hearts and votes of the British electorate.
We are only half way through their election battle and they are already starting to fall apart at the seams. For Labour the next five years represent not only a struggle for the support of the nation but a struggle for unity from their own MPs.