Sunday, 30 November 2014

Congratulations to Sal Brinton...and many thanks to Tim Farron

As far as party presidential elections go, this was not one to set the pulses racing.

That said, it has been one that should have a profound effect on how we "do" democracy in future - and it has been one that has asked questions about the kind of figurehead the party needs at a key time.

Before entering into any kind of analysis, it is right to congratulate Sal Brinton on her victory in the election. She will serve as the next Liberal Democrat president when Tim Farron's term expires at the end of the year.

The result, announced yesterday, is as follows:

1st round:
Sal BRINTON: 7865
Daisy COOPER: 4530
Liz LYNNE: 4389
Spoilt Ballots: 25

2nd Round:
Sal BRINTON: 10,188
Daisy COOPER: 6,138
Ballots not transferred or spoilt: 458

Turnout: 39%

This came as something ofa surprise to me - and, no doubt, many others. A poll of members conducted by Liberal Democrat Voice gave Daisy Cooper on 52% of first preference votes just days ago. The Liberal Democrat twitterati have been keen to express support for their chosen candidates and pro-Daisy avatars were far more numerous than those promoting her opponents. Most activists I know seemed to be, at the very least, very welcoming of Daisy Cooper's candidacy and she appeared to be - of the three - the one who had most to offer to the party's grassroots.

Daisy was in many respects the "alternative" - the non-parliamentarian candidate with reasonably well-developed ideas for progressive cultural and organisational change. As such, she inevitably faced intense scrutiny but emerged with tremendous credibility. Her campaigning team clearly understood how to use social media; they also knew how to reach out to specific groups within the party. Reading the respective candidates' messages to internal groups such as LGBT+ Lib Dems and the Secularist &Humanist Lib Dems, it was obvious that one candidate had done their homework and was able to speak with both knowledge and sensitivity on the issues that affected members - in a way that the others simply didn't know how to. One candidate was clearly better at communicating and reaching out. That person was Daisy Cooper. Never before has a non-parliamentarian put together such a cohesive and effective campaign.

If Daisy was the "alternative" then Liz Lynne was an "alternative alternative", who wasn't remotely shy in furthering her reputation as nobody's yes-woman - Liz retains something of a reputation for standing up to Paddy Ashdown's proposed pacts with Labour. Selling herself as the working-class woman made good, she also has credibility from her time as an MEP. Unfortunately for her, Rochdale isn't far from anyone's minds at the moment and there remain many unanswered questions about what she knew. All the same, I considered she might have an outside chance and touring the country while nursing a fractured wrist won't have done her any harm.

The "establishment" candidate was Sal Brinton. Sal was endorsed by the likes of Paddy Ashdown,Ming Campbell, Jim Hume and Navnit Dholakia (and many others). Perhaps known chiefly for her advancement of equality issues, she's also utterly decent and respectable - and the party knows it. She's intelligent and loyal, and also the proverbial "safe pair of hands". She's someone for whom I have huge respect, but who doesn't really inspire me. And what we need, as a party, is a president who really can inspire people - both inside and outwith the Lib Dems.

In fact, the election campaign itself was less than inspiring. But it has raised some questions: most obviously, when Linda Jack failed to gain the required 200 nominations from conference delegates. Linda would have offered something different and while I would not have envisaged her winning, her presence would have made for a far more engaging debate and she would perhaps have been more focused on the nature of our party. The number of conference reps effectively this limited the contest to three candidates, which is hardly in the interests of democracy. Given the criticisms we have historically levelled towards the Labour Party for its refusal to endorse OMOV, this situation highlighted our own need for overdue reform of internal democratic practices.

Furthermore, it raised the question of whether a "non-establishment" candidate ever really has a chance. I would like to see a non-parliamentarian president, but after this election it would appear that this isn't likely to happen. The problem with my own - and Lib Dem Voice's - gauging of members' views is that they're not representative, simply because we're talking to activists who are motivated, who are informed and who are engaged. They know the candidates, they've attended hustings, they've debated the issues at conference and aren't shy in promoting who they feel is best-prepared to take the party forward. But these represent inevitably only a minority of the electorate, and more significant in elections of this type were the many relatively disengaged voters who make their mind up purely on the basis of a personal manifesto and endorsements from former leaders. This is why the LDV poll was so wildly wrong - and why any non-parliamentarian is always going to find it a near-impossible task to reach out to people who may never even have heard of them. Clever internet campaigns and insightful messages delivered to key groups are all good and well, but clearly lack the same impact with armchair voters as recommendations from the great and the good.

That is not to suggest that Sal Brinton is anything other than an excellent choice to succeed Tim Farron, but the outcome has left me wondering whether our presidential elections can ever be anything other than a popularity contest. Certainly in the next couple of years we will need Sal to use all her expertise and experience to inspire the party membership and reach out to the public in much the way that Tim Farron has.

A final word for Tim Farron. Or two words really: thank you! In 2010 I spoke to both Tim and Susan Kramer at Scottish conference, and both commented on the fact that the party president role is what the incumbent makes it. That admission made quite an impression on me. I cannot deny that, in the four years since then, Tim Farron has shaped the presidency in his own image to the degree that any future president will inevitably (consciously or otherwise) be following his example. Tim has been incredibly outward-looking in his approach, has come across to members and non-members alike as the amiable and appraochable face of the party, has excelled in communicating positive messages, as used his position to advance key campaigns and has - at specific times - become a figure behind whom the party can rally. He's shown the rest of us how to use the media. His immense charisma, energy and sense of humour have all helped to make his as popular as he has been impressive.

Even his occasional forays into religious controversy are relatively easily forgiven against the backdrop of the sterling work he has put in to advance the cause of liberalism.

So Tim, thanks for your efforts over the previous four years...Sal, it's over to you.

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