Delaying the leadership election: why it is a terrible idea

During my time as a member of the Lib Dems, I have experienced the full gamut of emotions. The exhilarated joy I felt the night we won the European Parliament election in London and beat both Labour and the Conservatives nationwide was a highlight, showing the power of liberalism, the strength of our party’s campaigning machine, and crucially, that we could win wherever we stood. But after all that positivity, I find myself full of worry about the future. This has not been helped by a perplexing decision made by the party’s governing body, the Federal Board.

A primer for those uninitiated in the story thus far: after Jo Swinson lost her seat at the 2019 general election, a leadership election was automatically triggered to replace her, initially timetabled to begin in May of this year and conclude in July. But last week, Federal Board made the decision to postpone this leadership election until May 2021. I think this is a terrible decision.

The reasons in favour of delay are dubious

As far as I can see, three arguments have been put forward in favour of a delay to the election, all based on the current pandemic.

  1. The pandemic will mean MPs are busy and shouldn’t be distracted by an election.
  2. The pandemic will prevent in-person hustings and campaign events.
  3. The pandemic is pre-occupying members, who won’t want to take part in an election. We should wait until things are back to normal.

With respect to reason (1), it is true that MPs are busy. But it is the nature of the Westminster Parliamentary system that MPs will be busy all the time helping their constituents, and that leadership elections and other internal party matters will always be a distraction from their primary job. It is an unavoidable fact. But a party system is what we have, and it is through the mechanism of our party that we can win elections and achieve power in the country. Furthermore, with the original election slated to begin in May – after the peak of the pandemic, in the opinion of the government’s epidemiologists – it is not unreasonable to suggest that the unusual workload will have begun to tail off. So, while MPs’ workloads are undoubtedly high at the moment, MPs are always going to be busy, and this is not an argument to interfere with the principle of democratically electing a leader as soon as possible.

With respect to reason (2), very few members out of the total selectorate of 120,000-ish attend hustings anyway. Furthermore, demand for online hustings is always exceptionally high, and live-streamed hustings in the 2019 leadership election were very successful. Almost nobody these days is bereft of internet access – 96% of people have it in their homes – and printed literature is still able to be distributed to those who are totally without any facilities. This would provide a different medium for the leadership election, but difference and fear of change is not a reason to prevent a democratic election.

And with respect to reason (3), anecdotally I would submit that this is wrong. Almost all the members I have spoken to – of all ages – agree that this decision was the wrong one, and were looking forward to engaging in an extremely important election as part of our determining our future as a party. The premise of reason (c) also arguably demonstrates a certain level of patrician out-of-touch-ness. For some people – the poor, the sick, disabled people, carers, and many more – major worries and problems are their day-to-day existence. The job of our party is to achieve power so we can alleviate problems like that – similarly with this pandemic, we want the strongest, most forthright leadership so we have the platform to challenge government decisions which we think are wrong. Politics is not an unwelcome distraction from the problems people face – politics is the means of solving those problems.

The arguments for an election are compelling

On the contrary, there are three reasons I think a leadership election as soon as possible is essential. The first concerns party strategy, the second concerns principle, and the third concerns practical reality.

On party strategy, members that I speak to have still not quite managed to process what happened in 2019. Going from a position of such strength – leading national polls, beating back the duopoly parties, winning defectors – to losing seats at a general election and becoming an irrelevance once more in the national conversation was an experience so bruising that it feels almost like it was a dream. But it happened. And we have not yet had a serious conversation about why it happened and where we go from there. Nor have we ever had an opportunity to properly discuss the Coalition legacy and choose a leader elected to Parliament without having participated in it.

These are serious strategic and philosophical discussions we need to have and resolve. And the only way to resolve them is in a leadership election. There is no other time – not even Conference – when the entire make-up of the party feels so mouldable or is so mouldable. There is no other time when our MPs feel free to discuss the direction they think we should take, rather than avoiding such questions and toeing the party line as they do around Conference. And considering the arguable democratic deficit of Conference (so few members, and such unrepresentative ones at that, making decisions), a leadership election is the only time where fundamental changes to the party’s direction or strategy can be sanctioned en masse by the membership, in a democratically legitimate way. It is a matter of principle, then, that we should hold our leadership election as quickly as possible, in order to grapple legitimately with the strategic decisions and reflections we need to make as a party.

Because the truth is that the strategic decisions we have to make and the principled reasons we have to make them democratically have practical effects. Without a proper mandate – and remember that Ed Davey was elected only unopposed by fellow MPs, without any membership involvement, to the position of Deputy Leader – it is doubtful that Davey would make any major changes to the party’s vision or strategy. This is particularly true with Spring Conference having been cancelled and Autumn Conference looking likely to be cancelled. He would have no democratic mandate to do anything, or make any new policy.

This would completely freeze us up in the run-up to some of the most important national and local elections in recent times in 2021. We would limp into the 2021 elections as a filler party – a temporary proposition. We might as well put ourselves on the ballot paper as “TBC”. Overshadowed by a new Labour leader making their mark and a surging Boris Johnson, popular off the back of a national crisis, deciding on our own that we don’t matter and maintaining a position as a mere political question mark would be a sure sign that are unserious about winning and taking political power and leading across the country. What a terrible indictment that is of the instincts of the country’s only liberal party, at a time when liberalism is needed in the aftermath of a national lockdown and interferences with our freedom.

The truth is that, although things are uncertain and we live in unprecedented times, we have to begin to take action and rouse the sleeping beast that our party had managed to become again, so ferocious in 2019 but temporarily tranquilised by the December election. While a brief delay may have been necessary – until the late summer or autumn, perhaps – a knee-jerk, reactionary year-long delay is simply to sink another stupefying dart into our neck. The Federal Board must reconsider its decision. If it does not, the members must force its hand.