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The Liberal Democrats’ leadership election is a product of their worst impulses

Britain's third party has a tendency to believe that leadership changes will solve its problems. 

By Stephen Bush

What’s the biggest difference between the Liberal Democrats’ 2019 post-mortem after a disappointing election and the ones they commissioned after the elections of 2015 and 2017?

The answer is that “they published this one”. I don’t mean to belittle them by that: the Liberal Democrats’ decision to depart from political parties’ usual practice of commissioning a serious report into why they lost and then sharing it with the leader and no one else is incredibly sensible.

The more views you are able to canvass on an issue, the more likely you are to find solutions and to be able to command consent for those solutions. It’s not the only reason why the leaders of political parties find themselves in conflict with their grass-roots, but one major cause of pain is that leaders make decisions based on in-depth reports into how the party functions and why it lost, and members are left in the dark about that reasoning.

Given that the average voter is not going to be surprised to learn that they disliked the Liberal Democrats’ revoke policy, that they weren’t sure what the party stood for beyond Brexit and that they thought the “Jo Swinson for PM” message was a bad idea, there is really no downside to publishing reports such as these. There is only upside. It reflects well on the party’s interim leadership and on their new CEO, Mike Dixon, that they have done so.

But they will only get the benefit of publication if its recommendations – particularly the institutional ones, which will require the support of members to be enacted – form a central part of a leadership election and if that election is conducted in a way that confers a strong mandate on the leader.

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That makes holding a leadership election during the lockdown, when the party cannot meet as usual, a high-risk affair. The party’s Federal Board opted to delay the contest until 2021 and its president, Mark Pack, set out a series of reasons for delaying the contest on the Liberal Democrat website.

What’s changed since the original decision? Very little, other than that the party’s polling has got worse, and the membership – including members of the Federal Board – have panicked. But the logistical challenges to holding a full and proper leadership election remain.

In addition, it feels unlikely that getting a full-time leader will change the party’s political position. The Liberal Democrats are polling badly for two reasons. The first is that the Labour leader, Keir Starmer, is currently polling well among all demographics and is particularly popular among Liberal Democrat voters. In the long term, this probably benefits the Liberal Democrats overall in terms of gaining seats under first past the post – they lose votes to Labour in seats where they do not compete, but still benefit from tactical voting in Conservative-Liberal Democrat targets, and will likely find it easier to pick up votes from the Conservatives directly.

Most Liberal Democrats recognise this trade-off and is one reason why they were all very keen that Starmer become leader. In the present day, it doesn’t change the bad polling and that the party is panicked. However, that trend around Starmer is unlikely to change in the short term and it would probably be bad news for the Liberal Democrats if it did.

The other reason why they are polling badly is that, bluntly, no one gives a flying one about the third party at the moment. It’s true that Ed Davey would be able to act as a more dynamic leader if he were in the role permanently, but the main reason no one is writing about him is not that he is interim leader, but that he is leading the third party during a global pandemic.

Neither of those problems will be fixed by changing the leader in an imperfect contest – nor by changing the leader in a perfect contest for that matter – but the good news is that those problems will take care of themselves. The party’s two most successful elections in its history – the 2019 local and European elections – both took place under Vince Cable, who had pre-announced his retirement, and went well not because retiring leaders are particularly attractive but because the political environment at the time was favourable to the Liberal Democrats.

The political environment now is not favourable to the Liberal Democrats: the leader of the main opposition is popular, while across the world voters are flocking to the incumbent government, though there is some evidence that trend may be unwinding a bit here in the United Kingdom.

One of the things that makes leading the Liberal Democrats tricky is that the party leader is largely not the master of their own destiny. Their ability to make policy is tightly constrained by the party’s rulebook. In practice, most voters regard the Labour leader as their prime minister-designate and the party does best not when it has a popular leader but when Labour has one who doesn’t actively repel Conservative voters. And the Lib Dems struggle to get a hearing on most issues because they are the third party.

Added to that, the party has a strong tendency to lapse into believing that those problems can be fixed by a change of leader or a sharper communications strategy, rather than being challenges that its members might need to solve, or ones that are beyond the party’s grasp. And the biggest problem facing the next leader is that they will emerge from a contest born from that impulse – making it still harder to change it.