After a general election campaign that focussed on the leadership qualities of David Cameron and Ed Miliband we find ourselves with only a handful of MPs and even fewer leadership contenders from which to choose.
With Nick Clegg out of the picture the media focus switches to Tim Farron and Norman Lamb.
However, Clegg’s influence persists with many new members citing Clegg’s dignified defence of the Liberal Democrats role in the Coalition as the catalyst to their entry.
Much of the commentary both inside and outside the party has focussed on questions of political positioning and responses to the recent election results e.g. along the lines of where should the Lib Dems place themselves post-coalition?
Debate revolves around the arguments put forward by those such as Stephen Tall who advocate a place for the Lib Dems in the centre and those such as David Howarth who argue for a return to Liberal Democrat core values.
Howarth describes these as:
internationalism, protecting individuality and non-conformity, hating bullying and the abuse of power, promoting environmentalism, protecting civil liberties and a love of democracy’
These debates are familiar and they are important.
Whoever leads the Liberal Democrats will need to clarify our values before they can come up with a convincing narrative in response to the perennial question: ‘what are the Liberal Democrats for?’
Already we have an inkling as to the sorts of things Tim Farron plans to campaign on this Parliament.Writing in The Independent earlier this week he said:-
I believe our party needs a leader ready to make the positive case for civil liberties, a more equal society, a green economy, an open and internationalist approach and the political reform that this country needs to avoid it splitting apart – someone to stand up for a freer, fairer, greener Britain.
Norman Lamb has set out his stall citing improving social mobility, reducing inequality, modernising public services. making the case for remaining in the EU and electoral reform.
However, in my view both campaigns will fall short if they choose to focus on these narrow political questions.
I think we need to take a long hard look at how our party appears to the outside world. We are not representative. Let’s fix that.
And we need to take a closer look at the way we do things and are processes. Can we make it easier for people to get involved?
We need, I think to take this opportunity to refound our party so that it reflects modern British society as it is today.
We need to live and breathe the values we espouse in the preamble to our constitution:
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. We champion the freedom, dignity and well-being of individuals, we acknowledge and respect their right to freedom of conscience and their right to develop their talents to the full. We aim to disperse power, to foster diversity and to nurture creativity. We believe that the role of the state is to enable all citizens to attain these ideals, to contribute fully to their communities and to take part in the decisions which affect their lives.
If we say we are about promoting equality there can be no more all-male, all-white shortlists.
If we stand for democracy – every member’s vote must count.
This is not just about living our values. It makes political sense too.
Only by being genuinely inclusive and representative of British society will we have the numbers of activists we need to reach out and represent people effectively across the country.
It’s an awful cliché but there must be no no-go areas for Liberal Democrats in the years ahead.
Everyone always said there were ‘no safe Lib Dem seats’ at the last election.
Now that sounds like a cruel joke – we can’t fight future elections on old boundaries either real or imagined.
I want to hear our leadership candidates set out how they will build a Liberal Britain – street by street, town by town.
This means winning council seats and parliamentary seats in urban as well as rural areas.
It means integrated campaigns using modern technology.
As someone once said doing what we’ve always done means you’ll get the result you’ve always got. What will we do differently in the years ahead?
An end to the ‘Chumocracy’
David Steel’s article Six Ways Nick Clegg Steer steered the Liberal Democrats to disaster unwittingly drew attention to an ongoing issue within the party – the overconcentration of power in the hands of too few party members, particularly those senior in years and those who have been involved in the party for a long time versus newer members.
This paragraph in particular stuck out:-
As party leader, Clegg puzzled us all by ignoring the more senior members of his Commons team including Campbell, Alan Beith, Malcolm Bruce, Simon Hughes and Kennedy. Instead he created a negotiating team entirely of newer and younger colleagues whom he could dominate. He himself had become leader after only two years in parliament and had been leader for less than three. He compounded this omission by not appointing any of the senior members subsequently to his ministerial team.
For a party that believes in equality, we need to much more to ensure that the voices of people of all ages, including younger members are not only effectively represented but respected and listened too as well.
Although we have an active youth wing, as a rule I don’t think we have a good balance between older and younger members in our party. Older members dominate selections of parliamentary candidates for example. Our councillors also tend to be older too.
There is also a pressing need to be more responsive to young members with 51% of the 12,000 who joined the party in the past week under the age of 35.
I am keen to hear from our two leadership contenders how we might further open up positions and roles in our party.
Introducing one member one vote in elections to party committees is an essential part of this.
I thought this would be a no-brainer and I was amazed it was not something we introduced years ago.
I sat in a debate at Liberal Democrat Conference last year where one party member of many years standing complained that further democratisation of our internal party structures would lead to ‘the wrong sort of people attending and voting at our conferences’
With thousands of new members keen to participate I really can’t see how the party will be able to resist moves to increase and enhance internal party democracy or risk looking very silly indeed.
I’m keen to hear what the two leadership contenders views are.
The Lib Dems’ Women Problem
Age is not the only area where the party needs to live up to its own values. The pitiful number of female Liberal Democrat MPs in the last Parliament was a serious embarrassment and as I’ve written previously Nick Clegg’s failure to promote women to the Cabinet was a big strategic error.
Last year when I asked a Lib Dem parliamentarian what the party’s strategy was for addressing the absence of women in our parliamentary party ahead of the last election I was told Nick Clegg was urging what was ‘voluntary euthanasia’. What this meant was male MPs retiring and where possible female candidates being selected in their place. In so far as it led to more women getting selected in ‘winnable’ seats this strategy was reasonably although not wholly successful.
But that strategy was predicated on holding our Lib Dem seats at the general election.
I spent the entire election campaign pretty much campaigning for our brilliant female candidates and not one got elected.
Now we are faced with the unthinkable: not a single Liberal Democrat MP is female.
Add to that we also have no ethnic minority MPs.
And no disabled MPs.
Our abject failure as a party to get women and minorities into Parliament in reasonable numbers over the last twenty years is now plain for all to see, and will be for the next five unless radical action is taken.
The Leadership Programme introduced by Nick Clegg has had some successes in developing women and minorities it was far too limited in size and scope.
Women need more than mentoring and training to get selected. The onus is placed on candidates to local parties not for local parties to modernise themselves and start selecting more women and other under-represented groups.
But it’s not just our structures and processes that are holding women and other groups back in our party.
It is also our culture that needs to change.
The exodus of a large number of senior female party activists following accusations of harassment last year did long-lasting damage to our reputation particularly with women.
I and many others were privately and in some cases publicly fuming about the whole handling of this episode.
The party rightly faced a barrage of criticism online and in the media. The situation impacted how I felt about the party and I no longer wanted to go on doorsteps to defend it.
I also knew that this sorry saga coupled with the paltry number of female MPs added up to a massive turn off for our potential female voters.
I tweeted about one particular encounter with a former supporter and my comments were seized on by a senior male peer:-
The peer’s final response to me that
‘the lesson is bringing the matter that has been fully investigated up again just before election’
made it painfully clear to me that many party members – mostly but not exclusively older – had not got the message about how damaging this episode was to our party.
Countless times I and other female activists encountered a condescending attitude that dismissed and belittled our concerns as trivial and unimportant.
This whole encounter exasperated me and many others – men as well as women. Debates on Facebook in groups such as Rock The Boat rumbled on seemingly ignored by senior party figures.
It’s impossible to measure what the impact was on the election but my bet is it contributed to general impression many women voters had of us that the Lib Dems were not pro-women.
The failure to develop a female-friendly narrative was a huge error by the party. For the first time in my lifetime feminism was fashionable again.
Meanwhile Labour politicians such as Stella Creasy and even Ed Miliband were speaking up against #Everydaysexism and #NoMorePageThree.
Where was the Liberal Democrat voice on this? Jo Swinson and Lynne Featherstone worked hard on this agenda but their efforts were undermined by Nick Clegg’s failure to promote them to the top table and for the party’s ongoing failure to properly address the issues.
Tim Farron and Norman Lamb must harness our former female MPs and other women in the party and make fighting for issues women care about central to our cause.
More generally if Tim Farron and Norman Lamb are serious about rebuilding the Liberal Democrats into a party modern, inclusive and representative party it needs to break out of small party syndrome where who you know is more important than what you know.
The signs are positive. In March, Norman Lamb said:
“We have failed ultimately to get a good balance into Parliament and we have to think of other things to pump- prime the change,” said Mr Lamb. “The current imbalance, the likely continued imbalance and the potential for the situation to be less good make me believe that something more is required and that’s why I argue for some form of positive action.”
As things stand our party looks to the outside world to be both very pale and very male. This must change.
Lamb’s proposal that the Deputy Leader of party should be elected by all party members and female is a good first step.
When I asked Tim Farron this week what his view were he indicated that the lack of diversity in our party means we need to take measures that liberals might not like.