Ed or Jo? While Tories elect a leader, LibDems must choose a PM

Jo at Sutton LibDems garden party on PrideinLondon day, Ed at Gatwick hustings #LibDemLeadership

Jo at Sutton LibDems garden party on PrideinLondon day, Ed at Gatwick hustings

I’m writing this post to explain why I’ve decided to vote for Ed instead of Jo in the LibDem leadership election — and why it’s been such a difficult choice. A few months ago, when Vince Cable first let it be known he would step down in the summer, it would have been a simpler decision, and I would have chosen Jo. But a lot has changed in the past few weeks, and I’ve decided that now, we need Ed.

Over the past couple of months there has been an enormous shift in the political dynamics of the country. The mainstream media talk as though it’s a foregone conclusion that the winner of the Conservative leadership contest will automatically become Prime Minister. I’m not sure that’s a given, or that even if he does, he can last more than a few days or weeks. So while Conservative members believe they’re choosing the next PM, he may end up merely as leader of a rump of Tory MPs nursing their wounds after an imminent General Election.

The reverse is true for Liberal Democrat members. They believe they’re simply choosing a leader, someone to be a beacon for the party who will command attention and inspire a new generation of followers to join the LibDem cause. Events, however, are quickly overtaking us. For the first time in almost a century, the electoral and parliamentary maths suddenly and unexpectedly makes it conceivable that our leader could become Prime Minister within the next few months.

A general election may be only a few weeks or months away, and current polling shows four parties effectively neck-and-neck. In such circumstances, literally anything can happen, and serious commentators are now acknowledging that one credible outcome would see the Liberal Democrats end up as the largest party in Parliament. This eventuality has not come round as quickly as I had outlined back in June 2017 — but one leadership contest later, it really is true that Britain could have a LibDem PM by Christmas.

Tenacious for LibDem values

So why does this tilt the balance, in my view, in favour of Ed? There are two reasons. The first is informed by what happened the last time LibDems were in power — albeit as the minor partner on that occasion — and the memories, still raw, of what went wrong that time. I believe that a major factor was a lack of ambition for LibDem values — specifically, as I’ve written in my long-running and not-yet-completed look back at that time, Nick Clegg was too pragmatic for his (and our) own good. Note that I’m not questioning his LibDem instincts — or Jo’s for that matter — it’s just that LibDems are often their own worst enemies in their desire to achieve consensus. From what I’ve seen, Ed is more tenacious in achieving his goals.

Any scenario in which we have a LibDem Prime Minister is almost certainly going to be a minority government, where progress will depend on striking deals and understandings with people from other parties. In such circumstances, it’s going to be very difficult to resist the temptation to yield a little on values in order to seal a deal. Of course you can also make the counter-argument that Jo’s greater readiness to reach across party boundaries will make it easier to win support in such circumstances. But at the end of the day, I want a LibDem PM to deliver LibDem achievements.

That’s why, at the Gatwick hustings, I posed this question:

Looking ahead to your first term as Prime Minister – bearing in mind the likely circumstances of a LibDem premiership – what uniquely Liberal measure would you most like to leave on the statute book as your legacy?

I was lucky to have the question picked, but it was asked at the end of the session and each candidate was required to answer in just one sentence. That left no opportunity to really explore the issue of trade-offs between expediency and principle, and so neither of their answers satisfied me. Jo came closer, citing PR as her choice, while Ed chose green measures. Either would be a significant achievement, but neither is uniquely Liberal, which bothers me. Especially as I’ve voted for Ed, whose goals seem more green than Liberal — if you see that as a valid distinction.

A PM to fight for our interests

So I fall back on my second reason for backing Ed. One of the often overlooked aspects of how people vote in general elections is that many voters decide not on party preference but on who they want as Prime Minister. This is such a powerful phenomenon that Mike Smithson, the LibDem supporting founder of the politicalbetting.com website, frequently reminds his readers that “leader ratings are a much better guide to electoral outcomes than standard voting intention polls.”

I’ve found Ed’s accounts of how he promoted climate change action within the EU and at the United Nations very persuasive in demonstrating his ability to represent and fight for our interests in the world. I worry that Jo’s appeal is to some extent based on putting across the idea that she can be your friend, and that’s not what people vote for when they’re choosing a Prime Minister. They want someone who won’t shirk from standing up for the country’s interests, even if that means upsetting a few apple carts along the way. I believe Ed’s track record fits that bill.

My only worry is that, in making that assessment, I’m pandering to an old-school view of politics that merely perpetuates the tired old stereotype of who is fit to be Prime Minister. Do we really want another balding, middle-aged, entitled man striding into Number 10? Jo doesn’t fit that stereotype and that’s a big part of her appeal to a younger generation that wants to see politics speak more directly to them.

It could go either way

From what I’ve written, I think it’s clear that my decision could have gone either way. You might even find after reading this that it confirms your decision to vote for Jo. Whoever wins will have the entire party’s backing, while the loser will also command respect and support. If Jo wins, as most people expect, I suspect we will see an immediate boost in new members and polling numbers. If Ed wins, I suspect there will be more of a slow-burn effect, but his mettle will really prove itself in a general election campaign.

It’s also been interesting to see the two candidates evolve their positioning during the contest. Jo has become much more comfortable talking about herself as a potential Prime Minister. If she wins, just the fact of winning in itself will add to her credibility as a contender for the premiership. So I’m going to be happy whoever wins — provided that, in government, that person stands firm on our values as a party.

 

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