As the Lib Dem leadership campaign comes to a close, has it become easier to choose between Ed and Layla? – In short not particularly; online hustings have been repetitive, both in style and content, failing to provide probing cross examination that is needed to put putative leaders sufficiently on the spot. Too often we had the same 2 minute sound bites without any follow up. For Layla, as the less seasoned politician this has been particularly detrimental and for whoever becomes leader potentially problematic. For better leaders we need to improve the selection process.
In terms of political direction, by closely shadowed each other’s policies, both have eliminated significant differences; this too has had the unfortunate effect of taking the wind out of hustings. Instead, Ed has been stressing competence and experience, whereas Layla has presented herself as a new broom. Accordingly, Layla has been keener to stress ideas, but compared to Ed has appeared to be shorter on depth, nevertheless I think she has improved over the course of the campaign.
Neither Ed not Layla have impressed on the consequences of Brexit. Ostensibly both want to maintain our enhanced membership, yet by studiously down playing Brexit and the prospect of impending damage to the UK, they have offered little for many who are considering to renew their subscriptions, seemingly unconcerned at the risk of an etiolating membership. Wera Hobhouse who would surely have argued strongly for keeping the UK in the Single Market was sorely missed in these debates. Given the Corbyn legacy of complicity with Brexit, it is understandable why Labour under Starmer should be muted, but I cannot see why Liberal Democrats should follow suit; why cannot we proclaim, as Brexiters once did that it is madness to leave the Single Market?
In campaigns of this sort there is a danger of choosing a leader for the previous election in which Labour under Corbyn often put more effort in attacking us than they did the Conservatives. It is already clear that Starmer is preparing the ground to present Labour as a party for government. The strategy is to present himself as the adult in the room in contrast to a rag bag of adolescent or even infantile Tory mediocrities. We have to complement this strategy, we too need to be seen as dependable grown-ups. Ed’s experience gives him the advantage, but the question mark is whether he would be able to cut through. I have seen some claim that Layla has charisma, but this is not something I recognise, I do not see her effortlessly exuding authority, perhaps I see too much of the deputy school head that she would have become.
Some see Ed’s Coalition experience as a disadvantage, however in this campaign he has done well to present it as his advantage, stressing significant successes he scored in government. At the last election Labour led an attack on Jo Swinson’s participation in the Coalition. I think she handled it badly, at worst her response to questions of the form ‘- won’t you agree the Lib Dems were rubbish’ could be summarised as ‘ – yes, but now we are sorry’. Although I do not think that Labour, under Starmer, will labour the coalition to the same extent, I do fear that Layla would be more inclined to make a similar mistake.
Both spoke of the need to project a more distinctive account of modern Liberalism and Liberal values, but struggled to articulate the basis of Liberalism: from Ed, as a former student of Politics, Philosophy and Economics, I had expected a more informed account, though Layla was less convincing; her story of weighing up policies as a then non-political student and deciding she was a Liberal Democrat hardly inspired conviction.
By tradition, on taking office a copy of JS Mill’s On Liberty is presented to the President of the Liberal democrats, it would be as well if this courtesy were extended to the leadership. Perhaps the leader might consider emulating Jo Grimond who annually reread the tract. Whoever does win the leadership will need to carve out a clear Liberal niche; he or she would do well to forge strong links with successful Liberal parties that are leading or involved in governments around the world such as Canada, Luxembourg, Belgium, the Netherlands, France and Estonia. The leader is in for a tough ride and is unlikely to benefit from much of a honeymoon period, the oft cited 6% in opinion polls could prove a hostage to fortune.
In last year’s contest, knowing the result was in the bag for Jo, I voted for Ed largely because I felt he did not deserve to lose too badly. I did however welcome a younger image and a female leader. This time the result is not such a forgone conclusion. I wish both, but particularly Layla, had been more probingly tested and, though I could be persuaded to vote for Layla if I were convinced that she would attract many younger voters, I may well stick with Ed as the better known and more dependable option.