For members of the Liberal Democrats, the upcoming leadership election is, perhaps, the most important since 2007. In 2015, the party was punished by the electorate for “jumping into bed with the Tories”, ironically resulting in a small but workable majority for the Conservatives. No amount of protesting “it was the right thing to do at the time”, “it was in the national interest” or similar could placate our former core supporters for enabling austerity and the trebling of tuition fees, regardless of what the Liberal Democrats managed to achieve in government. Tim Farron, a popular former president of the party, was the man chosen to lead the Liberal Democrats through one of its most difficult periods: staging a post-coalition fightback and navigating both the EU referendum in 2016 and the snap general election in 2017. It was always going to be a struggle for whoever became leader in 2015, but it was in the midst of that 2017 campaign that I, like many others, joined the party.
Following that snap general election, Sir Vince Cable took over the reins without competition. However, what the leadership election lacked in democratic flair was more than justified by just how safe a pair of hands he turned out to be: continuing the Lib Dem fightback to the point of coming ahead of both Labour and the Conservatives in a national election for the first time since Sir Henry Campbell-Bannerman’s Liberal Party won the 1906 general election. The 2019 leadership election immediately following last year’s European poll gave us as members a choice between two excellent candidates, but who would both have inevitably been questioned repeatedly by the media about their involvement in the coalition. Both had their flaws, sure, but both were formidable campaigners with experience of parliament and of government.
It was a close call, but I, along with almost 48,000 others, voted for Jo Swinson, and I do not regret that decision. The 2019 general election was not our finest hour, but could Sir Ed Davey have done any better? Perhaps, but as the subsequent review made clear, many of the issues leading to our overall result were present long before Jo’s election as leader.
We have a lot of work to do as a party to rebuild and move forward; electing a new leader is just the start. Inwardly we need to find ways of ensuring all of the cogs of the party machine are working together flawlessly. Outwardly we need to shake the image of being a single-issue anti-Brexit party. This election, therefore, is about choosing not only who we want to write the next chapter of our party’s history, but also what brand of liberalism, and what priorities, we want to be defined by. Of course I have my own preference, and I will be unashamed in endorsing my choice of candidate on other platforms over the coming weeks. But this article is not an attempt to persuade you who to vote for, rather to call all party members reading this to arms.
This leadership election will define not only the short-to-medium-term direction of our party, but also of the wider liberal movement in the UK, and it kicks-off with the opening of nominations on Wednesday, 24 June.
So, get involved with the election: read about the candidates, attend a virtual hustings, join the debate and, most importantly, vote. Our party’s future is in your hands!
Alan is a columnist for Liberal Base and Liberal Democrat activist from Medway. He Tweets @alancollinspdb.