by Stephen Tall on March 8, 2014
Party president Tim Farron’s second (and non-renewable) term of office finishes at the end of this year, after four years in the role. He doubtless expected most of the challenges that come from the Lib Dems being in coalition with the Conservatives. He wouldn’t have expected to have to manage the fall-out from the allegations of sexual impropriety made against Lord Rennard a year ago.
The post of party president is the only Lib Dem role other than that of leader elected through an all-member ballot, and it will take place this autumn. This mandate (along with the requirement to deal with the unexpected) makes it a high-profile position within the party. For the ambitious it can be a way of putting down a marker for future leadership ambitions. For others the role itself is reward enough. Tim Farron, I think, combined both outlooks.
Because it’s an all-member ballot, existing profile counts for a lot. Put simply, if you’re not a well-known face you need to start campaigning early if you’re to have any hope of winning a contested election. So it’s no surprise that the jockeying has begun at Spring Conference, with two candidates openly declaring their intention to stand.
Baroness (Sal) Brinton, a Lib Dem peer since 2011 (currently Lib Dem health spokeswoman in the Lords), having stood to be elected as an MP in the previous four elections, including Watford in both 2005 and 2010. She was previously a Cambridgeshire County Councillor from 1993 to 2004. Sal is a member of the party’s Federal Policy Committee and Vice Chair of its Federal Conference Committee. She was named this week as one of the party’s five-strong team preparing for ‘hung parliament’ negotiations.
Pauline Pearce, AKA ‘Lady P’, the ‘Hackney Heroine’ of the 2011 riots, who stood for the Lib Dems in Hackney Central in the 2012 local elections. She explained her reasoning in this Guardian article, After the riots, the Liberal Democrats stood by me: “The Lib Dems promote opportunities amongst the disenfranchised, and this is crucial to people living in poor communities, like mine, many of whom only know of criminogenic lifestyles.”
I expect others will come forward, looking for the 200 nominations they need from conference representatives of at least 20 local parties. Given the dominance of white men in the party leadership – our leader, deputy leader, party president and all cabinet ministers – I’d be surprised if Lib Dem members didn’t choose a party president who breaks that pattern.
What do we, the party membership, want from our party president? That’s the question Mark Valladares posed at the beginning of the year: 2014 – looking for a dark horse, or a safe pair of hands? Here were the key skills he listed – and of course Mark has something of an inside track, given he’s married to a former party president, Baroness (Ros) Scott:
Resilience would be my first choice. Most Liberal Democrats, along with most commentators, expect a loss of seats. The successful applicant will need to be able to explain why it isn’t an utter catastrophe in such a way that members believe it. If the result is bad enough, they may need to preside over a leadership contest – it might be better if they weren’t a potential candidate themselves.
Management skills would be my second choice. The ability to work with the Chief Executive and with Federal Executive to run the professional and voluntary parties will be critical, although losing our place in Government will be balanced by an increase in Short and Cranborne money. Federal Executive is likely to be fractious, so the Party needs a diplomat, someone who can keep it on track.
* Stephen Tall is Co-Editor of Liberal Democrat Voice, and editor of the 2013 publication, The Coalition and Beyond: Liberal Reforms for the Decade Ahead. He is also a Research Associate for the liberal think-tank CentreForum and writes at his own site, The Collected Stephen Tall.