Does It Really Matter Who Leads the Lib Dems?

16/06/2015 17:13 BST | Updated 16/06/2016 10:59 BST

While Labour's leadership election meanders on until mid-September, the Liberal Democrats are wrapping theirs up in double quick time. We will know who the new leader is on 16 July. It will be either Tim Farron (45), MP for Westmorland and Lonsdale since 2005, or Norman Lamb (57), MP for North Norfolk since 2001. Hustings are taking place across the country, with large turnouts of party membership (the electorate) boosted by many of the nearly 20,000 new members who have joined the party since the general election on 7 May.

The mood at these meetings is reported to be serious but determined. The Lib Dems seem quite a tough lot. While it is impossible to ignore the gravity of the electoral crisis which has clobbered the party at all levels since Nick Clegg led it into coalition with the Tories in 2010, Britain without a Liberal party would be an alien place. Older members are happy to recall to anyone interested in listening that 'we have been here before'. Lamb says that the meetings display lively good-humour 'because this is an election which at last a Liberal Democrat is going to win'.

Stabilisation first

So what is going on: and will it make any difference who wins? Either man will have first to stabilise the party after its counter-intuitive act of coalition with the Tories. Unlike most of their fellow Liberal parties across the EU, the British Lib Dems were for decades a reformist party of the centre-left. The sudden lurch to the right implicit in joining the coalition disorientated party members and lost supporters. Whatever the successes chalked up by Lib Dem ministers in government (and they were significant), the pact between Britain's most progressive and most conservative forces was never going to be more than a temporary expedient. Had Nick Clegg been in a position on 8 May to seek to renew the coalition with David Cameron I have no doubt that most of the remaining Lib Dem membership would have revolted against his leadership. Indeed, had the numbers stacked up in the Commons, the Lib Dem leadership would have been encouraged by many party members to seek to do a deal with Labour.

Labour's collapse at the general election, of course, makes such imaginings look fairly ridiculous today, but they are sure to come back as both opposition parties begin to recuperate. An eventual return to the discourse of Lib-Labbery will happen, based on an agenda of constitutional reform, social justice and support for European integration. There is ample precedent for such a thing: David Steel forming the Alliance with the breakaway Labour MPs in the SDP in the 1980s; Paddy Ashdown driving his 'Project' with Tony Blair in the 1990s; Charles Kennedy with his somehow beguiling mixture of laissez-faire and social democracy in the 2000s; and even Ming Campbell with his friendship for the doomed Gordon Brown. In this historical galère of left-leaning Liberal leaders, my friend Nick Clegg was the exception. He was - and is (he remains an MP) - one of Europe's natural centrists.

The problem is that what works in a European pluralist political system, where seats in parliament match the proportion of votes cast in the ballot box, does not work in Britain's more tribal electoral system where the winner takes all. As Clegg's coalition experiment showed, a UK centre party has no plain sailing when buffeted from the left by Labour and from the right by the Tories. For the voyage of the Lib Dems in coalition, it was all hands to the pump. At the general election the party was reduced to campaigning on two equally underwhelming propositions: 'We will cut less than the Conservatives and borrow less than Labour. We have kept the Government in the centre ground and shown that we are the only party that can build a stronger economy and a fairer society'. (Most Lib Dems I know wanted a fairer economy and a stronger society.)

Goodbye to Centrism

So the first mission of the new leader will be to ditch centrism and return to the party's natural home on the liberal centre-left. Both men will do this; both are good campaigners and popular in the ranks of the party. Neither intends to waste much time at Westminster where the parliamentary party of only eight MPs will have little influence.

The favourite, Tim Farron is an energetic zealot. He was never a member of the coalition government, and carefully calibrated his tactical opposition to the government even while serving as president of the party from 2011-14. But the very fact of his party presidency does not absolve him from a major share of responsibility for the catastrophe. That is why Norman Lamb, his rival, emphasises the need to reform the party and to adopt smarter campaigning techniques. Lamb also talks of the need for the Lib Dems to reclaim the intellectual leadership of British politics. And he puts store in his own record as an impressive minister responsible for social policy, in particular mental health. The Norfolk MP adopts a more philosophical approach at the hustings than his younger opponent, but the Cumbrian rams home the point, like a true preacher, that 'people aren't listening' to the Lib Dems and he's the guy to grab their attention. Perhaps it is a blend of philosophical opportunism which best suits the needs of the party at the moment (certainly better than the opposite).

Hello (again) to Europe

It won't be long before the new leader is put to the test of the referendum on UK membership of the European Union. This is a great chance for the Liberal Democrats to reclaim their historic role as Britain's European party. The centrist tendency, if it yet survives in the Lib Dem hierarchy, will argue that the party should join a cross-party 'pro-European' platform, stuffed with businessmen, to talk about three million jobs being lost should Brexit occur.

The Lib Dem new leader, on the contrary, should command the high moral ground in the Yes campaign, like Jeremy Thorpe and Roy Jenkins before him. A bold and distinctly Liberal message about the future of Europe will re-motivate the party like nothing else - as well as attracting more new recruits. On no account must the Liberal Democrats become complicit in campaigning for the prime minister's fake 'renegotiation' that risks making the UK an even more marginal player in Europe. Aux urnes! Again.