Members are sovereign in the Liberal Democrat party. Members will be consulted on the
overall party strategy at the next Federal Conference, prior to a motion being passed. Yet
the party leader is expected, both by the membership and by the country, somehow to
embody the image of the party. He or she is identified with its perceived success or failure by
the media, regardless of how much control they may actually have had.
So what do we members think the first duty of the Liberal Democrat leader should be?
Surely he must show in outlining his political priorities that he is true to the party’s principles
and values. This Tim Farron did, when elected in 2015. He said, for example,
We see people as individuals. The Liberal mission is to help us to be the best we can be. Standing
up for the individual is not what we do – it’s what we are.
However, we surely also expect each new leader to offer a strong new focus which will both
inspire the party activists and gain the attention of the public. Tim, coming in as leader after
the devastation the party suffered in the May 2015 general election, declared,
I am fed up to the back teeth of being right and losing elections.
He demanded that. step by step, we should build change from the bottom up.
Pick a ward – any ward… we want councillors first. It’s time for the Liberal Democrats to win again.
He spoke stirring words in effective speeches to the membership.
Vince Cable starts in 2017 in a better situation, since under Tim’s leadership the party
membership doubled and many council seats were won back. But at only 7% in the national
polls and just 12 MPs, the party is still far from becoming the main opposition party that Tim
Vince appears to take the party’s principles and values for granted – wanting to make the
country ‘more liberal and more democratic’. With Tim as leader the party’s aim was
summarised as to make ‘a Britain that is open, tolerant and united’. For Vince the key impact
words are apparently to be ‘fair, free and open’. That suggests a continuation of values,
though perhaps acknowledging that the country may not be as tolerant or as united as Lib
Dems would wish.
What is Vince’s strong new focus? He declares himself ambitious for the country and for the
We need to give people powers over the decisions that affect their lives, including
I want the Liberal Democrats to be at the centre of political life – a credible
effective party of national and local government.
Recognising the size of the struggle ahead for every vote and every seat, he asserts ‘It can be done.’ There is ‘enormous energy’ in the thousands of new members, and:
I have the ability to give that energy a lead – to hit the headlines and put our party in the centre of political debate.
It’s a strong beginning, and with Vince’s gift for the memorable phrase and his caustic wit,
bound to catch the media’s attention.
The next vital question for us is: What do we expect of our leader during his time in office?
There is tension between the dynamism of our democratic party and its tacit acceptance that
a leader – even the leader of this collection of individuals – has to lead. The drive which we
all share to attain effective power means we need to win the country’s liking and trust
enough for us to win contests. The media-focused concentration on the party leader
suggests he must be given some leeway.
It is the sudden demand, the unexpected event, which forces an immediate response from
the leader on behalf of the party, Tim Farron rose successfully to the challenge of the
Referendum result, asserting our commitment to Europe and carrying the party with him.
His predecessor Nick Clegg accepted the challenge for the party to share power. The party’s
control over the leader then lessened, and the divisions in the broad church that we
inevitably are became apparent. As Vince Cable prepares us to take power in the future, our expectation sof him will have to be worked out.
* Katharine Pindar is a long-standing member of the Lib Dems and an activist in the West Cumbrian constituency of Copeland and Workington.