In the midst of the coronavirus crisis, the finer details of the contest to choose who will be the next leader of the Liberal Democrats might have understandably passed you by. It was supposed to be taking place, well, right about now, with all Lib Dem members getting to vote for who ultimately is to replace Jo Swinson. Ed Davey and party president Mark Pack are currently interim co-leaders of the party, a strange situation that was meant to be only temporary and that you’d think they would want to change as quickly as possible. Instead, in the wake of the pandemic, the Lib Dems have pushed the leadership election back: to May 2021. Or at least, that’s what has been pencilled in. This being the Lib Dems, a subcommittee of a subcommittee will have to ratify that, although even some people who work in Lib Dem HQ still have no idea which subcommittee of a subcommittee gets the final decision here.
To say that leaving it for a whole year from now for the Lib Dems to choose a new, elected leader is a good idea appears at first glance to be madness. The party is completely rudderless, thrashing around desperately for any shred of relevance. One of the Lib Dem MPs put out a meme over the weekend stating that the advantage of the party having only 11 MPs is that they can make a nice little EU star picture using all of their faces. The Lib Dems require a new leader the membership have chosen as soon as possible. Having said all that, one has to wonder if even a new leader would really change much given how far gone things are for the party. Who would run for a start? That’s where things get really ridiculous for the external viewer.
One of the myths held dear by a significant portion of the current Lib Dem membership is that Jo Swinson was far too right-wing and that this is what cost the party all those seats in the 2019 general election they previously thought were in the bag. I realise this is an absurd idea to many, but there we are. The most vocal parts of the still existing membership declaim a desire to see the chains of the coalition years cast off and a return to the glory years of Charlie Kennedy and the Iraq war. They want to be a ‘progressive force’ again. But what would that actually mean in practice?
We have the frontrunner Layla Moran’s pitch to the membership to go by as a starter for ten. It’s all about ‘deep inequalities’, ‘according to need’, ‘end the postcode lottery’; a game of soft left bingo, essentially. And that’s just it: the Lib Dem membership wants to be Labour’s little cousin again, when you strip away the noise. But if that’s the aim, what is the point of the party? Why not just fold and give Labour a clear run if all the new Lib Dem leader, whomever they end up being, sees the party’s central mission as stopping the Tories from retaining power and little else?
There are other candidates apart from Layla, of course. There’s Ed Davey for a start, but given the members labour under the misapprehension that Jo Swinson is only slightly to the left of Margaret Thatcher, they are unlikely to warm to him. Wera Hobhouse, MP for Bath, appears to be preparing to run on an even more socialist agenda than Layla. Everyone else is someone you rightfully haven’t heard of, running on a very Layla-esque platform themselves.
What I’m really saying here is that perhaps as ridiculous as putting the contest back to May next year might be, holding it sooner could be equally so. It looks like it would quickly turn into a race to see who has the ability to out-woke the rest of the pack. The only saving grace for the party, I suppose, is that almost no one would be paying any attention to it all.
Yet perhaps I’m being too cynical, worn down by the incompetence of recent Lib Dem endeavours. Maybe this will be the moment the Lib Dems become Britain’s true liberal party. Stranger things have probably happened in British politics, although it’s hard to think of anything off the top of my head. Either way, good luck, comrades.
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Nick Tyrone is a writer whose new book, 'Politics is Murder' is out now. He was previously executive director of CentreForum, the think tank known for the Orange Book