Elections are sometimes lost but good ideas can shape the future – some thoughts on political leadership

I’ve been interested in the subject of effective political leadership for a while. We don’t have nearly enough of it, in my view.

Effective political leadership is different from other types of leadership and despite being around for centuries it seems to me it is still not very well-understood or particularly valued.

Although it often features as part of the curriculum of academic politics courses, students  are rarely taught how to be political leaders, and our politics are poorer as a result. I often reflect on the fact that my politics degree did not equip me very well for a career in politics! 

I have since learned that the principles of political leadership although not for everyone can in fact be taught and I’ve become all the more convinced that it should be. Or, we should expect the quality of political decision-making to continue to be poor, which benefits no-one.

I was lucky enough to be taught about  political leadership by Cllr Richard Kemp and other senior leaders in local government when I was a young councillor via the Next Generation Programme run by the Leadership Centre (part of the Local Government Association).

Richard is one of the closest things we have to a guru in the Lib Dems – a community campaigner to his core.  Not convinced? you might have heard of Tim Farron – one of his other former students. Richard and Tim both believe strongly that as an elected person you should never forget who put you there in the first place, and I agree.

They also believe you should spend more time in your community representing your constituents than in the council chamber/parliament – something I remember telling a journalist within hours of my election. ‘Daisy set to skip committee meetings to talk to residents’ was how that was eventually written up!

I introduced Richard to some of our new members I hung out with at our Federal Conference last week and reading this post  which he wrote afterwards I was delighted to see the experience had a positive impact on him as it did on them.

Cllr Richard Kemp with new Lib Dem member Emily Barrass

Cllr Richard Kemp with new Lib Dem member Emily Barrass

Very often, when you’re active in a political party and lucky enough to be elected you learn how to campaign and win elections. On the NGP we were lectured not about how you win  but crucially how to exercise power and keep it.  The course was all about exercising influence – council officers effectively run councils but elected councillors must lead them.

In my experience, effective political leaders have more in common with each other than individual politicians have with individual political parties.

This is something I learned as a local councillor after observing who was running councils and who managed to stay running councils. In general I found it wasn’t actually about party, it was all about personality.

For me, it wasn’t enough just hearing from people who had exercised real power it was important to see a Lib Dem-run administration in action too.

I remember organising a council group visit to Eastleigh Borough Council in 2009 when I was still an opposition councillor and listening to Lib Dem council leader Keith House saying ‘if you want to do things you have to be in power’. It may sound obvious but it had a big impact on me and other colleagues at the time as members of a group who had only ever known opposition and opposing things.

With Cllr Keith House and members of the Lib Dem Group on Reading Borough Council

With Cllr Keith House and Cllr Louise Bloom and members of the Lib Dem Group on Reading Borough Council

Listening to Keith  and other senior councillors such as Louise Bloom taught me the importance of  goals in politics, and having something to aim for. 

For me that visit showed up the difference between campaigning for better recycling collections (as we were doing in Reading at that time) and being a genuinely green council influencing the climate change agenda as Eastleigh BC was  (and still is).

Again, devolving decision-making to ward level via area committees had only happened because Lib Dems were running the council, not just because they talked about it in their leaflets or in a couple of council meetings.

It’s not enough to campaign against things to win elections,  you also need to know what you would do in power if you had it. This is one of the reasons I found coalition a relatively easy concept to get my head around, unlike a few other people!


In 2011 in my role as Lead Member for Housing with Andrew Stunell, then Lib Dem Housing Minister. On the site of the first new council houses built in Reading for over 20 years.

A couple of years after graduating from the Next Generation Programme and visiting Eastleigh I found myself in a cabinet running my local council with lead responsibility for  housing, social care and health and managing a multi-million pound budget.

In that role I precided over the first council-house building programme in over twenty years just a few years after tabling questions about over-crowding in my ward. It was a dream come true.The year after that I became leader of my political group on my council, a post I held for two years.

Being a member of the Programme also resulted in my nomination to become a member of an international leadership network, the British-American Project where I continue to learn from recognised leaders in their fields, many of them outside politics

Seeing the things that Nick Clegg has been saying and doing since he left office got me thinking about this subject and specifically the exercise of political leadership beyond political parties and offices of state.

In my view, once a political leader, always a political leader. The vehicle and platform may change but the impetus behind it – to change things – does not. Perhaps thought leadership is a better name for it.

Nick has broken his silence a few times since the election to talk about things other than what I would describe as Westminster water cooler stuff i.e his time in office and the election – to advocate and promote his ideas.

He fired a shot across the bows of  the probable future Tory leader George Osborne with an article in the Evening Standard where he sought to wrestle work from the Tories and reclaim it as a liberal value:

Work is not just an economic necessity. It brings identity and self-reliance. It is a spur to ingenuity and a catalyst for growth. Work demands the learning of new skills. It sustains communities and nourishes families. Without work, society crumbles.

So I take an old-fashioned liberal view that supporting work — rewarding and fairly-rewarded work — should be one of the first duties of government.’

I happen to agree with Nick on this point and I was pleased to see his passion on issues of fairness and social justice has clearly not wavered since he stepped down as leader of the Lib Dems.

Nick also attacked Tory cuts to tax credits ‘these changes remove the work incentives for precisely those low- income families who should be supported to work more.’

Fastforward 3 weeks and we find the points that Nick put forward in his article gaining traction in the mass media:

A cynic may say that Nick cares only for protecting his own political legacy. That may be partly true but misses the wider point:  these are ideas worth fighting for in this parliament  and Nick is right to fight on for them.

Elections are lost but ideas, if they are good, can survive. We cannot  let the Tories march their tanks on to the centre-ground of British politics or ‘the common ground’ as David Cameron may prefer to call it (as he did on Andrew Marr today) without pointing out at regular intervals the ways in which Tory policies in government are a long way from being socially just.

This week Nick went beyond than simply offering a stinging critique of this Conservative government by attacking in the strongest terms the collective failure of governments across the world to tackle the scourge of drugs and is leading a new campaign for worldwide drugs reform.

I would describe this intervention as exercising global leadership on Nick’s part. People like him who are prepared to use their influence, to stick their necks out and find solutions to complex problems in this way should be lauded and encouraged, not least because they are so few in number.

When I tweeted a link to Nick’s Indy article it was retweeted 25 times and liked 36 times in the Lib Dem Newbies UK Facebook Group I help to curate. Small numbers, yes, but an indicator I think that there is still a big market for Nick’s ideas and for Liberal Democrat ideas and policies in general.

It wasn’t surprising to me at all that Nick’s recent campaigns have been well-received particularly by our new members, after the way Nick conducted himself in government and the policies he espoused was the reason many of them joined.

I went on the hunt for a political quote that sums up influence and leadership and the best I could find was this by Martin Luther King:

“A genuine leader is not a searcher for consensus but a molder of consensus.”

Politicians should not cease to lead debates and shape our society when they stop being party leaders, and Nick is no different.

Political leadership is not confined, however, to leaders of political parties. I have been impressed by the work that Jo Swinson, Paul Burstow, Vince Cable, David Laws, Martin Horwood and Steve Webb among others have been leading to actively promote ideas and proposals they championed in government.  Between them, our former MPs and (councillors) have the experience and the insight to be really credible on this stuff and to push our thinking further forward.

I was taught long ago by Cllr Richard Kemp that it’s not the job title in politics that matters it’s what you do it that counts. On that basis why should our ex MPs and ministers’ political influence end just because they are out of power?

As I wrote in The Independent a few weeks ago, no-one is going to sell our story if we don’t but it won’t be enough to harp on about what we did in government or even what we stopped the Tories from doing. 

We must now look to the future and go on to say in more detail  what we would do if we were in government, promoting our ideas outside parliament as well as inside it.

As Richard Kemp would say, with just 8 MPs in Parliament we will have to become a ‘guerilla group’ picking on issues where we can make an impact – the days of shadowing every department are effectively over and the days of having no Lib Dem on Question Time are back.  Our Peers must do their bit too.

As part of #LibDemFightBack w must use all the resources we can muster outside the party to support our parliamentarians- including our former leaders – to get our liberal message across in this Parliament.

Anyway, here’s something I’ve been listening to this weekend:


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