Setting the election timetable

by Stephen Tall on October 15, 2007

Tonight, I think most of us are catching our breaths following the resignation of Ming Campbell as Lib Dem leader.

Though there had been a growing inevitability about it all in the last few days, the speed with which his resignation was brought about was surprising. It’s entirely to Ming’s credit that he foreclosed on the growing speculation before it started seriously to destabilise the party.

The speculation will swiftly turn to what happens next. At this stage, I have only one plea: no swift leadership election.

Whatever follows next needs to be both a contest of ideas, as well as of personality. And that takes time. It is unreasonable to expect whichever candidates emerge to be able both to get a leadership campaign up-and-running, and to be able to think through the ideas they would wish to bring to the job.

The last contest succeeded in being both too short and too long: too much time spent skirting round individual issues, not enough time for any of the candidates to spell out the party’s ‘narrative’.

Vince Cable spoke tonight about having a new leader in place by the new year. That strikes me as far too abbreviated a timetable. As both the Tory and Labour leadership races proved, there is merit in taking the time for the public to become familiar with the candidates, and – let’s be honest – in the media attention which accompanies a contest, and which will disappear as soon as it’s concluded.

Ming’s decision swiftly to end the leadership uncertainty shows the party has learned some lessons from the slow, agonising downfall of his predecessor. Let’s remember the other lesson, too: that, as Vince said earlier today in a different context, “it is absolutely foolish to rush into decisions with major long-term implications.”

UPDATE: the Federal Executive has ruled the new leader will be announced on 17th December. This is, in my view, a very poor decision, which will mean news of the Lib Dem leadership result will be submerged in the pre-Christmas rush, and that the leader will disappear from view for a couple of weeks after his/her election, instead of hitting the ground running.