What's the Liberal Democrat leadership election about? Even the candidates don't know

Both candidates have a strong message for a party in trouble. It's less clear that they have an offer for a party on the up.

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One of the slightly surreal things about Liberal Democrat leadership elections is that most of the questions that party members ask are about policy, on which they tend to agree, and in any case, are set by the Liberal Democrat membership via conference and its federal policymaking structure, rather than about political strategy and organisation, issues on which the party leader has a much freer hand.

The opening hustings between Jo Swinson and Ed Davey was no different. There was very little to separate the two in terms of performance or policy position, and the issues were the fairly familiar Liberal Democrat themes: making the case for a pro-European position, tackling climate change and electoral reform.

The paradox of this contest is that the reason why it might be more important than usual – the party’s stunning success in the May elections and its rise in the polls, including a stunning first place in today’s YouGov poll – has also robbed the leadership election of a theme. Both candidates have thought for a long time about their leadership bids and for a lot of that time it looked as if they would inherit a party in a state of disrepair. Both sounded more fluent when talking as if they were inheriting a party in need of reconstruction and neither has quite adjusted to the new reality of making the case for why they should be made the leader of a party on the up-and-up.

Had this been a contest in which the questions of how to repair the political damage of their time in coalition (which seems to have receded from the public’s mind) or how to work with Change UK (who look to be a finished force) were top of mind then this might have been a more polarised debate. We had a hint of that thanks to the one-liner that provided one of the biggest laughs of the evening, after Ed Davey told the audience he had been dubious about an alliance with the new party “because I’ve met them”.

As it is, the leadership election they are having doesn’t yet have a clear question and the two candidates are both pretty strong performers who will, on this evidence, play out largely even draws. On this occasion, Swinson started better but Davey finished more strongly, but it is hard to imagine that either of them is going to land a knockout blow on the other in the remaining 15 hustings they will now do around the country: particularly if the questions continue to be this tightly focussed on policy.

What will decide it? It will probably fall to something outside of these hustings, whether it is Swinson’s excellent Gif game on Twitter, the personalised messages to new members that Ed Davey has been sending out to everyone who has tweeted about joining, a TV performance or print interview by one or the other that either vaults them ahead or leaves them behind.

There was really only one moment that might shift things one way or the other. Swinson, who once spoke against introducing all women shortlists in the party, told the audience that she had changed her minds after years of “banging her head against a brick wall” trying to get the party to increase its diversity and challenged the packed, almost exclusively white audience in the heart of London to “look around” and ask themselves if they really represented the city in all its diversity. She is undoubtedly right that the record of the Liberal Democrats in increasing diversity in their candidate pool, against the big two who have both used overt and covert forms of shortlisting to increase theirs, is pretty poor. But all-women-shortlists and other similar initiatives remain a fiercely contested area in the party and we don’t know if she will get points for candour or lose ground as a result.

But as yet, neither candidate has really seized the contest and defined the parameters of a race that so many thought would be about whether the Liberal Democrats have a future as a single party at all.

Stephen Bush is political editor of the New Statesman. His daily briefing, Morning Call, provides a quick and essential guide to domestic and global politics.