I left it very late before casting my vote in the ballot to elect the new President of the Liberal Democrats. I also haven’t until today blogged about the contest, which is surprising given that I have strong and very particular views about the role of party president and have often blogged about it before.
The reason for this is that I have had great difficulty making up my mind about the choice we have had this time and who to vote for. I like and respect both candidates and both would bring different qualities to the role. Susan Kramer is someone who I admire and have great affection for. She is a proper hard-working campaigner and activist as well as being a clever and authoritative politician. Tim Farron is a hugely impressive and charismatic politician whose talents are not being properly used by the party. A couple of months ago he was my choice for the Deputy Leader of the Parliamentary Party.
However, neither of them are offering me what I am looking for in the next party president.
The candidate I want to vote for is Ros Scott.
Like many in the party I was surprised, and disappointed, when Ros Scott announced her intention not to stand again for a second term as President of the Liberal Democrats. Given that it is almost traditional the the Party President serves both of the two years terms that they are allowed by the constitution of the party and that Ros is well liked by members she was almost guaranteed reelection. So I, like I imagine most activists, assumed she would re-stand and was shocked when she chose not to.
I like Ros and supported her in the election when she stood last time. While I don’t think that she has fully lived up to the promise and expectations of her election campaign, and I have some criticisms of her time in office, she has been an extremely good president. She has been one of the best holders of the office we have had and has achieved some real successes. So her decision is a real loss to the party.
If she was on the ballot paper this time I would have voted for her.
In her statement to members announcing her decision not stand again Ros said this;
“In reflecting upon what is needed in a Party President for the next two year term, I have concluded that the focus on internal matters needs to change. The President needs to articulate the liberal values which make us unique, and ensure that we retain our own identity……in my view, what we need now is a President who is a strong media performer and tough campaigner.”
This view of what is needed in the next party President seems to have become a common one, but I deeply disagree. It was Ros’ focus on internal matters that made her such a strong President. A shift away from that would be a mistake because there is still so much to be done.
Let’s be clear the party is not in good shape. Coalition aside, we went backwards at the last election. We have numerous difficulties and problems to overcome. Those would have been there whatever the political situation, but now on top of those we have the stresses and strains that will arise from being in government. There is a huge challenge of party organisation and management that we face.
I wrote in a previous post about the coalition government that;
“at the moment and aside from particular policy concerns, I am not losing any sleep over the Liberal Democrats role as part of the coalition. What is keeping me awake at night is the performance of the Liberal Democrats as a political party”
I still believe that. For me the great danger for the party over the next few years is not our participation in government, but a failure to organise, recruit and campaign. This worries me more because, and despite the progress made in recent years, not least by Ros Scott herself, the party has weak organisational leadership. Something which I have written about at length on my previous blog. My conclusion then, as it is now, is that within the Liberal Democrats it is the Party President who has the critical responsibility for providing that organisational leadership. A role that becomes even more critical when you consider that the leader and other key parliamentary figures are busy with the work of government.
Whatever our success in government. Whatever we deliver for the country. It is how the party organisation responds to the challenges we are presented with over the next five years that will determine whether we gain any electoral success as a result of it.
Given that I can’t vote for Ros again, how do the two candidates measure up on organisational leadership? Going through their campaign literature and the answers they have given to questions in recent weeks I came to the following conclusion. In this area Susan Kramer focuses mainly on improving internal party communication, but with very welcome specific commitment to spend some of her time on fundraising. Tim Farron also talks about communication, but his main focus seems to be on the “air war” in the media.
I think Susan has demonstrated a better understanding of how the party works but I didn’t think there was all that much between them. Neither of them have properly addressed this area. Like many a president and potential president before them they are not taking as seriously as they should the party management aspects of the role.
The thing that has really disappointed me though is that both candidates have explicitly ruled out further party reform. This is a very significant mistake.
With the coalition government the need for reform of the party’s structures and ways of work is even more necessary than it was before. The party needs a president with a reforming agenda. Neither Tim or Susan are offering this.
In an ideal world Ros Scott would be President, Tim Farron would be Deputy Leader, and Susan Kramer would still be an MP and probably a government minister. But then in my ideal world we would be in government without having to do deals with Tories. So given that I can’t vote for a reformer who did I choose?
The party needs a reforming president, but if we can’t have one of those, then Ros’ advice that we need “a strong media performer and tough campaigner” is reasonable basis on which to make a choice. While a part of me does want to support Susan Kramer, of the two I think Tim Farron would be the best at providing a clear and distinctive Liberal Democrat voice. This is something that is needed in the context of the coalition and Tim’s talents should really be made use of in a front-line role.
So in the end I have voted for Tim Farron.