Some Comments on the Liberal Democrats Leadership

I try to keep across political developments in a range of countries, but I’ve always taken a particular interest in the fortunes of the Liberal Democrats in the UK, as they are one of the overseas political parties most readily comparable to the Australian Democrats.

I’ve been following the unrest that has been building about their Leader, Charles Kennedy, which has now come to a head with his resignation over the weekend. Despite the obvious differences, there are some interesting parallels with some of the Democrats’ past experiences in Australia.

Like the Australian Democrats, the UK Liberal Democrats elect their parliamentary leader via a vote of all their party members. The British Conservatives do this too, although if there are more than two contestants, the members only vote for the two candidates most popular amongst the parliamentary wing.

I have had to listen for years to the Australian media expressing widespread derision at the Democrats process of party members determining the parliamentary leadership. Many commentators have basically suggested the whole concept is absurd and mocked the time it takes to undertake a ballot of every member. Of course, every process has its pluses and minuses, but the fact that two major political parties in the UK use a similar process would suggest the concept has some merit.

They also have to deal with having a vastly greater number of party members entitled to vote. According to this release from the Conservatives, there were over 250 000 members entitled to vote in their recent leadership ballot – nearly 200 000 of whom actually voted – to elect David Cameron as the new leader (might have been that nice purple tie he’s wearing that did it – I have one just like that). In a nice display of openness, the Liberal Democrat website links to a record of all their ballots for leader and party President back to 1988, with the last in 2004 showing around 73 000 voting members.

One of the problems that can arise with such a system is what happens when the leader has strong support amongst the membership, but not amongst a majority of MPs. This is what happened to the Australian Democrats with Natasha Stott Despoja in 2002 and appears to have also happened with Charles Kennedy.

It is worth reading the thoughts of some British political bloggers. This one by a bloke called Andrew Bartlett (who I should note is no relation to me at all, and who strikes me as a left wing (reluctant) supporter of Labour) was almost eerie in the way so much of it could have been written about our 2002 situation in Australia (right down to the cliché of calling our traditional members the ‘beard and sandals brigade’!)

The ‘whatchagonnado’ dilemma the membership is stuck in that he describes is the same. His assessment of the MPs opposed to the leader as economic ‘neo-liberals’ is also similar to the assessment made by many media commentators about those Democrats who opposed Natasha Stott Despoja. This assessment was about 95% wrong – as usual the media like simple/simplistic descriptions and there was very little policy or ideological division involved. I suspect it is also overstated in the case of the Liberal Democrats, and is more about political perceptions and positioning than specific policy disputes being the dividing line.

I’ve met and corresponded with a reasonable number of people involved with the Lib Dems over the years, as have a number of other Australian Democrats. We have had a very informal sort of sister party arrangement, with occasional assistance provided at elections and campaigning events. I don’t profess to be an ‘insider’, but I do have some knowledge.

A post from another blogger, Consider Phlebas, points to another parallel – the problem that for both the British Lib Dems and the Australian Democrats, there is not “the critical mass where they could cock something up utterly and yet avoid obliteration as a national political force, so they constantly have to exist on their wits, terrified that the next mistake will not only scupper them temporarily, but let them slip quietly into obscurity.” Of course the Lib Dems are much, much bigger and broader than the Australian equivalent ever has been, but the comparison is still valid.

The Independent newspaper in the UK has some good details of recent events affecting the Liberal Democrats. Some British papers tend to be reasonably overt in party partisanship, and this paper has been the main booster for the Lib Dems in recent years. This piece tells how the Charles Kennedy resignation unfolded. This piece about Kennedy’s alcoholism makes it pretty clear that this is the excuse, not the reason, he had to resign. Although a few people had approached him to do something about it from time to time, many people helped cover it up for a very long time because they believed Kennedy was delivering results for the party. Once a number of MPs stopped supporting him, they stopped being willing to cover it up. The election of David Cameron as a new, young and (at least for the moment) popular leader for the Conservatives added to the discontent and unrest, but basically I believe Kennedy had been on borrowed time since the last election. (As an aside, as I mentioned at the time of the Conservative leadership ballot, I’m still not convinced Cameron won’t crash and burn over the next couple of years once the British media gets tired of the novelty factor).

For those interested in who might be the next leader, this piece outlines the contenders. Menzies Campbell is the likely winner, but one of the positives (in my view anyway) of all 72 000 members having a vote is that you can’t be as certain of the result, and it is harder to win just through personal patronage and factional favouritism. He did a good job as one of the main political voices against the Iraq war (as was Charles Kennedy). I briefly met the other main contender, Simon Hughes, in 2002 when I travelled to a number of countries in Europe to look at refugee and immigration policies. He was the party shadow Minister on these issues, and I was quite impressed with the stances he had taken – especially as Britain has a genuine problem with large numbers of asylum seekers, which Australia has never had.

My understanding is that Simon Hughes is very popular with the general membership of the party, as he is very personable, charismatic and good at coming up with media grabs. However, I’ve also heard that a number of his parliamentary colleagues aren’t too fond of him and think he’s a bit of a populist.

More than once I’ve heard the name of a guy called Nick Clegg mentioned as a future party leader. He is fairly inexperienced in the British Parliament (mind you so is David Cameron) and some would see Menzies Campbell as a solid interim leader (who would also keep Simon Hughes out) until Nick Clegg is ready.

Because of the divisiveness involved in the lead up to Kennedy’s resignation, there’s a bit of a move within the party for Campbell to take on the leadership without a contest – (heal the wounds, move forward straight away, etc). I think this is unlikely (and for what it’s worth, undesirable), as there are genuine questions to resolve about the direction of the party, and a leadership contest involving the whole membership is a good way to flesh these out and consider them. However, the party will need to be careful to make sure the leadership campaign and ballot does not get nasty over the couple of months that the ballot will take to run. Some aspects of what happened to Kennedy were less than pleasant, and as with any leadership contest, tensions can get quite high and differences between candidates (and their supporters) can be exacerbated. Public party infighting is never good, but when it stretches out over a number of weeks and also draws the wider membership in, it can inflict major, long-term political damage. Whoever ends up winning, I suspect that might be the immediate test for the party.

Given my own experience, I suppose I should make some extra comment on the alcoholism issue. My feelings on it are probably best summed up in this succinct post from a blogger called Europhobia. Drinking large amounts of alcohol is always bad for a person’s long-term health, but how it impacts on a person’s ability to do a particular job is less black and white. The example of Winston Churchill is an obvious one, but from an Australian perspective, John Curtin – often called our greatest ever Prime Minister and without doubt one of the best two or three – is probably an even better example. Jeff Wall on the Ambit Gambit blog expands on this.

As I said following the media controversy generated in 2003 about an incident that occurred in the middle of an end of year function where I had been drinking, alcohol had caused a problem, and the best way to address that was to stop drinking it. Unlike Charles Kennedy, I hadn’t had any parliamentary colleagues (or opponents for that matter) raise any concerns about drinking impacting on my work. Like plenty of people around Parliament, I drank a lot from time to time and didn’t see any reason to hide that.

I don’t consider myself an alcoholic and have never described myself as one. This hasn’t stopped some journalists from describing me that way of course – there was a a piece in the media on Sunday about Charles Kennedy which tried to equate him with my incident. It also wrongly states I “fell on my sword” when I didn’t. Because I acknowledged causing offence and behaving inappropriately at the time but didn’t engage with the myriad of other allegations made, I am now described as a matter of course as having assaulted someone, a description I have never agreed with. The article is also wrong about when I first sought ‘professional help’ (not that the writer asked me). For the record I have publicly said more than once that I first sought medical help for depression many years ago – long before I was even in Parliament. That remains the nature of my illness, and like plenty of people, I can still do my job as well as ever (or as badly as ever, depending on your view) despite it.

PS Much as this sort of thing can be irritating, this isn’t meant to be a whinge. Politics and public life has particular aspects to it, and if one doesn’t like them you get out (or don’t go into it). Once you acknowledge having drunk alcohol heavily at any time, you won’t get anywhere disputing allegations of alcoholism. You just end up bogged in semantics, as ‘alcoholism’ is a very imprecise term. If you use a medical definition that includes alcohol abuse and alcohol dependence, then technically millions of Australians would fall into the category, including of course many politicians and journalists (who I wouldn’t be so churlish as to name). Once you are publicly labelled as a drinker, it is easiest just not to drink at functions, events, bars, etc and try not to get too irritated at regularly seeing people who were happy to attack you get smashed and/or act in offensive ways.

UPDATES, Wed 11th Jan:
A second candidate for the Lib Dems leadership has been confirmed, with Mark Oaten announcing he is running. As I mentioned above, the suggestion that Menzies Campbell is an intermin or stop-gap leader is being floated. Oaten is 41 and seen as one of the economic liberals (or ‘to the right’ if you prefer such terms). I still expect Simon Hughes will put his hand up in the next day or so as well, although Campbell would still be seen as a clear favourite. With over 70 000 party members eligible to vote, and a campaign stretching over nearly two months, onc can’t be certain however.

People who are interested in following the contest should probably just keep an eye on the homepage of The Independent. From some of the articles, the difficulty of stopping the campaign turning nasty is still being tested, not just with references to people’s age, but also with insinuations about who was or wasn’t part of the knifing of Kennedy (although as I said above, I think he’d been on borrowed time for a while). The reference to the age of candidates is yet another echo of Australian Democrat troubles from the past. In our leadership contest in 2001 Natasha Stott Despoja was being portrayed as too young and inexperienced by some of her opponents and Meg Less raised the suggestion that people were attacking her for being too old (mind you, she was the only person I heard say it, but I guess somebody else could have). This sort of thing starts to look pretty unedifying to the average voter if it goes on too long.

And to provide a British media that isn’t from The Independent, I found this piece in The Guardian of interest. It not only argues for a genuine contest for leadership, but suggests that the process itself would be valuable “because the party has large issues to address and a debate between different approaches would clarify and help to resolve them with an authority that nothing else would.” I can only imagine how Australian political commentators would assess such a contest (once they’d finished mocking the concept of letting members vote for the leader) – probably just with cheap shots about how it showed the party doesn’t know what it stands for.

One other feature of members being able to vote for the leader is how that might combine with the fact that people (including said members) are these days also able to blog or post comments online. For anyone keen to get a sense of the issues at the member level, I’ve given a sample of some posts from a few different Lib Dem members websites: a member in Devon, another from a former candidate in West Lothian, a current member of the Welsh Assembly (it’s worth following this guy’s site if you’re interested in Welsh politics and how devolution is progressing), plus this one and this one and this one from some other members.

Finally, as another example of something you won’t see in Australian politics, I recommend you check out the blog of Lynne Featherstone, who is the Liberal Democrat Member of Parliament for Hornsey and Wood Green (gotta love the names of their electorates). She gives a daily report of her perspective as the leadership events came to a head, from the Friday when she stated openly that she couldn’t support the leader anymore, to the Saturday when she detailed the process where she came to sign a statement of MPs saying they would not work under Charles Kennedy anymore, the Sunday where she commented on his resignation and Monday where she writes of being lobbied by the camps of the (likely) three contestants, and lists her key questions for them. Imagine an Australian MP doing that around leadership or any other contentious issue within their party!

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  1. Tony Blair’s Labour Party also elects its leader by a vote of all party members, but they use an electoral college system: 1/3 of the vote is weighted to the membership of the party itself, 1/3 is weighted to the membership of affiliated trade unions and other affiliated organisations, and the other 1/3 is weighted to MPs and Labour Members of the European Parliament.

  2. Excellent post, Andrew. I’m interested in the British Lib Dems (I’d probably have voted for them in the last election if I were a UK citizen) and this is a very good summary and commentary on the issues.

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  4. slightly off topic….

    the cultures surrounding alcohol consumption in Australia are a problem. instead of “no violence against women” or “anti-terror” or “IR reform for the boss” adverts perhaps the government can address the ingrained drinking culture problems. i am certain more people are dead or injured in the world because of anti-social practices associated with drinking than those killed by terrorism. plus i know some of my mates who are young doctors working at big hospitals would appreciate it on the weekend the next time they have to deal with drunks who hurt themselves.

  5. Great post Andrew.

    I thought this was an interesting story that wasn’t getting enough attention.

    I’ve been wondering for a while why British politics is under-reported in this country compared to US politics.

    I guess the meeja are attracted to the pomp and glamour of elephants and donkeys, although I remember one commentator a few years ago suggesting it was a Sydney/Melbourne thing, with Sydney pollies fascinated with the US while Melbourne was a bit “old school”.

    Off topic a bit, there was apparently a story on crikey yesterday mocking the Democrats and gay people(?) called “A ‘Dear John’ letter from Democratland”. Is that true, and can anyone tell me what it said?

  6. To the Other AB:

    I wasn’t being critical of the cliche, just found it spooky that you used it. For it to be a perfect cliche for the Aust Dems, they would have to be Abe Lincoln beards.

    Sorry I assumed your vote wrongly, although hopefully I wasn’t wrong in assuming your natural leanings are with Labour. The terrible voting system in the UK, with the need to consider tactical voting, can make it be less unclear about who best to vote for.

    Glen – I agree the drinking culture in Australia is something that needs to be more openly examined. There are very serious health impacts from over-consumption which do not get properly acknowledged, and often negative consequences for others too. However, that doesn’t have to have anything to do with how well people are doing their job. Indeed,it makes it all the more incongruous when people jump on Charles Kennedy (or Jeff Shaw to use an Australian example with a slightly different context), while the promotion and celebration of the drinking culture continues without a pause.

    dodgyville – go to this link for the media release and real letter to the Prime Minister.

  7. I must say I think that too much criticism of drinking culture is tied up with moral cenoriousness and moral panics to be effective – witness the ludicrous shock horror campaign the Brisbane Sunday Mail has been running over recent months about young women drinking in City clubs.

  8. To comment on the drinking problem link to Australian politics, I recall an America’s Cup victory where an obviusly inebriated Robert Hawke made us all very proud, with his “….he’s a bloody mug…” comments. In regards to the Democrat similarities between Australia and the U.K., I assume the Democrat voters in Australia are (or were) evenly split between, Green conservatives, left leaning socialists, disaffected with labours “new age” political direction and “keeping the barstards honest” purists. One wonders if the same make up exists in the U.K. Liberal Democrats.

  9. Great post. Why do you think the Lib Dems can get nearly a quarter of the vote in a UK election, why the local equivalent at best get around 10 per cent?

  10. Curiously Kennedy started out in the Social Democrats (the rightwing early 80s breakway from Labor, Blairities before Blair) rather than the old Liberals. They had the reputation of very pragmatic and pro-NATO and this caused some tension with the more pacificist Liberals. Kennedy has spent nealry all of his adult life as MP and it must be a strane palce to spend your 20s and 30s.

  11. Yes, I too am a keen follower of the Lib Dems and Commonwealth politics generally. My feeling is that one reason the Lib Dems are so much more successful electorally compared to the Oz Dems is that they have a strong local support base in local government and activism – cf the Dems who tend to be ‘top heavy’ and short on ground troops. I don’t feel the Dems have used members to the full extent they could, though the Lib Dems also have 70,000 of them!

    I note there are actually ‘safe seats’ for the LibDems, and this is something that helps any party. As the old Whig party (the Liberals) the LibDems also boast having been in government before, even if nearly a hundred years ago. This is another thing progressive ‘liberal’ politics in Oz has failed to do – draw upon a historical narrative/heritage to give it strength and legitimacy. The LibDems list Lloyd George and Glandstone among ‘their’ prime ministers – what about Alfred Deakin in Oz?

    Finally, I have often thought it a pity that after the last election the Dems and other liberal parties couldn’t get together, put aside their differences and form a Liberal Democrats party in Australia – eg. combining Dems, LDP, progressive alliance, liberals for forests and the Malcolm Fraser/Petro Georgiou style liberals – economic conservatives and social liberals. It’s a gaping hole in Australian politics.

  12. Very thorough and balanced blog entry Andrew and people are following your links through to us Liberal Democrats here in the UK.

    A previous poster mentioned local activism as being key to our breakthrough here in the UK, I can assure you that last year I wore through 4 pairs of shoes between the general election and the Livingston by election and I’m sure I’m not alone.

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