Monday, July 06, 2020


Lib Dem Leaders – My ‘Values’ Questions and my ‘Mean’ Questions To Ed and Layla

What do the Liberal Democrats stand for, and why vote for us?

That’s my lead question of a set I’ve just now sent to Liberal Democrat Leadership candidates Layla Moran and Ed Davey. I’ve asked each the same three questions about values (each framed by a contentious scene-setter) and a different two individually targeted mean questions, because I want to be inspired – but also I don’t want another Leader self-destructing.

I ask about values because those are what motivate me – and because for people to vote for us, we need to get their attention, we need to have something to say, and we need them to feel positive about their vote, that we embody their values too.

We work hard, we deliver leaflets, we’re local champions. That will always be crucial. But it has never been enough to break through – and we have just had three General Elections where it was within the margin of error of not being enough to avoid extinction. ‘Shut up about anything and just deliver leaflets’ has been tested to destruction. Where we work, we… mostly still don’t win now. This is not the 1990s any more, where local work had the wind in our sails of a popular leader who was on telly a lot, where most voters felt we were a sort of nice party, and where almost everywhere in England if they didn’t want to vote Labour or Tory we were the only ‘other’ option, so we could win through politics-free politics. None of those are true any more, and closing our eyes, wishing, and acting as if they still were will keep us irrelevant. While the SNP are the third party at Westminster – even though they’ve always won fewer votes than we do – even getting a one-liner on the news is a challenge, and using it to say nothing distinctive is a failure.

I like both candidates. Both have already said things that I fiercely agree with and both have made me go, ‘Oh, for f—’s sake!!’ so they’re both as qualified as any previous Leader on that basis. I’m not yet committed to either (though I’m leaning more towards one of them). I don’t know if either can break through, but I have to hope. Yes, both are talking up their local campaigning successes – but they are rare winners for the Liberal Democrats, and that’s something else we somehow need to get across to win again: people are put off voting for losers, and that vicious circle has been reinforced by the absolutely necessary cancellation of this year’s local elections, usually the one day of the year when Liberal Democrats have a chance to make good news about ourselves.

I am less certain about where the Liberal Democrats should go from here than I have ever been. For years, I have written about what the Lib Dems stand for. Last year, I demanded better of the party with the latest of my own arguments for our values. I summed those up in three words: “Freedom, Fairness, Future”.

Post-Brexit, post Covid-19, I don’t feel I know the answers. Though I still think “Freedom, Fairness, Future” are as good a handle on what we stand for as I’ve seen, even then I knew that they didn’t instinctively get across the internationalism at our heart, and I added “Bollocks To Brexit” – our one message that has chimed with large numbers of voters for ten years. Today, as two terrible disasters unroll with no end in sight, I can’t see where we go next. I can’t find an optimistic message. I started writing these questions a full month ago (and an extra candidate ago), but it’s been a rougher month than usual and I’ve been hoping for something upbeat to say. I don’t have it, but I still look for it.

Will Ed or Layla be able to inspire me? I hope so. For me, the single thing I most want to hear from a Liberal Democrat Leader is a clear heart to what we stand for that will not just have me nodding, but will have voters feel, yes, that’s better, I agree with that, that appeals to me, those are my values, that’s someone I can vote for.

My ‘Values’ Questions to Both Candidates

Question One to both of you:

People say all politicians are the same. Lib Dems have often seen moderation, working with others and compromise as virtues, to the point of the caricature that a Liberal is someone so fair they don’t take their own side in an argument. So what really motivates you? When someone asks you on the doorstep, the hustings or on TV to sum up in a sentence or two what the Lib Dems, uniquely, stand for – and why anyone should vote for us – what do you answer?

Question Two to both of you:

Two of the most heartfelt Liberal Democrat instincts are ‘Why can’t we all just get along?’ and ‘Stand up to bullies.’ Whether you call those ‘moderate and Liberal’, ‘caring and courage’, ‘love and liberty’, the party feels both, needs both, but they’re often competing as well as complimentary, so our balance between them changes with the times.

Which do we need most to lead on right now?

Question Three to both of you:

Ask what the core of Liberalism is and the answer’s obvious: “It’s About Freedom”. So obvious, that was the title of the Liberal Democrats’ 2002 philosophy paper. Look at our other positioning papers and manifestos under Charles Kennedy – “Freedom In A Liberal Society”, “Freedom, Justice, Honesty” – Freedom led*. Our constitution leads with “Liberty, equality and community”. But Leaders and campaigns since have made Freedom or Liberty invisible. Afraid it’s not popular, not relevant, or just ceded it to the illiberal Right?

Neither of you chose Freedom as a buzzword or even talk about it in your values. Why not?

I want to be inspired – but I want to avoid another Leadership self-destructing by hoping that nasty questions they don’t want asked will somehow just go away. Because getting people to feel warm and positive about voting for us also needs people who share our values not to feel, ‘Ick. The Lib Dem Leader doesn’t have my values’. I really hope both Ed and Layla have thought of the painful, embarrassing or exasperating question they least want to hear and are ready with their one-line, truthful reply to it first time. Those probably aren’t the mean questions I’ve come up with, but I’ve done my best to test them anyway. Liberal Democrat Leadership elections are nice and wish the best for everyone. Actual election campaigns are not.

My ‘Mean’ Questions to Ed Davey

Question Four to Ed:

The Leader needs to win attention and support. You’ve been Acting Leader for over six months, during which our poll rating has halved since the General Election. You’ve had your shot and flunked it. Why should we give you even longer to keep failing?

Question Five to Ed: People need to feel good about their vote to vote for us again. Nasty choices in the Coalition destroyed our feel-good factor as the Nice Party. As they did every day with Jo, Labour will derail us by throwing that history at us. Your history. How do we move on when a Minister from the past as Leader will always be on the defensive?

My ‘Mean’ Questions to Layla Moran

Question Four to Layla:

Last year Lib Dems surged on a pro-EU campaign. It wasn’t enough – but it was the one thing people knew about us and drew votes to us. I’ve read your “Vision”. There is no mention of Europe or working with other countries (a two-word afterthought: “and abroad”). Why have you completely dropped our one selling-point?

Question Five to Layla:

People need to feel good about their vote to vote for us again. How can the party stand unequivocally against bullying and domestic violence when the question keeps coming back to you and you’ll always be on the defensive with ‘Yes, but…’?

Two Terrible Answers (they must be able to do better, surely?)

I’ve asked some version of my ‘Why vote Lib Dem?’ Question One to Liberal Democrat Leaders, MPs and candidates local and national for over two decades. I’ve heard long and short answers, wonky and passionate, brilliant and unexpected. As I don’t have the latest ones yet, I thought I’d share the two absolutely worst experiences I’ve had with the question (if not the names).

At the height of Lib Dem blogging, my beloved Richard Flowers and Millennium Dome, Elephant organised many bloggers’ interviews with Lib Dem MPs and candidates for senior posts. I took part in several, though even when I was prolific in my blogging I still didn’t manage to write as much as I should. Only one MP was so gobsmackingly bad on this question that I made a deliberate choice not to write up the interview. This was his response to my ‘Why vote Lib Dem?’ question:
“…I would refer them to our excellent policies.”

While my question has been pretty much the same across the years, I’ve changed the ‘frame’ depending on the context for the candidate – local, national, leadership. At one hustings in a local party that had become the epitome of politics-free politics and where competitors had matched and surpassed Lib Dem campaigning, I prefaced the question by pointing out that while we like to say that we’re local and hardworking, Tory and Labour candidates say the same, so what sets us apart from a local, hardworking Labour or Tory? The Returning Officer read this out in a tone of utter derision and said that it must have been written by a Labour or Tory plant, at which the audience laughed and a candidate agreed that there were no such things as local and hardworking Labour or Tories. That was their entire answer. Coincidentally, this was in a Parliamentary seat where Lib Dems had previously held six of the seven wards and had been reduced to just two in that Spring’s local elections, including Labour gaining their first elected councillor there for fifty years, so the reeking complacency was a more telling answer than any other I’ve had to this question.

I’m hoping for something more inspiring from Ed and Layla.


Layla Moran Answers on Lib Dem Values and my ‘Mean’ Questions

Ed Davey Answers on Lib Dem Values and my ‘Mean’ Questions

And bonus Liberal Democrat Values: Mark Pack’s Three Answers

*Just after I posted, two more sprang to mind: “Freedom, Fairness, Trust” under Charles, for which I was Vice-Chair of the Federal Policy Committee and spoke in favour of at Conference, and the more mangled “Trust In People: Making Britain Free, Fair and Green” under Ming, for which I wasn’t and spoke against. But Freedom was always a big Lib Dem thing, until it wasn’t.

With thanks to my husband Richard for proof-reading and ‘Are you sure that’s wise’-ing this, and to Will Barter, who last month shared with me a piece he’d written on the direction of the party in general. One insight crystallised something for me with an ‘Ah! I wish I’d thought of it from that angle years ago!’, so I’ve nicked it. All my choices about where I’ve taken it and everything else above are my own responsibility.

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