Monday, January 09, 2006

On Coronations

There is much speculation in the press at the moment that, in a similar fashion to the Tories in 2003, the Lib Dems are about to rally behind Menzies Campbell as their leader in a "coronation", no-one being willing to damage their own personal standing by running against him. If that happens, then I think the reaction of the party members will be a very good indicator of what the Liberal Democrats are actually like as a party.

Party members will always be irritated if they are denied a chance to vote for their leader. That was seen in the Tory party's rejection of a change in the rules for election last year, but it was also seen in 2003. Many local activists were seething that they hadn't been given a chance to choose the leader, nor to be able to show their support or otherwise for Michael Howard by being given the chance to formally approve him.

Nevertheless, within a short time, it was shown that such anger was, by and large, a storm in a teacup. My belief is that this is because of the "Conservative mindset". This applies not just to party members, but to loyal voters who, in reality, would never seriously countenance voting for another party. That mindset is that you stick with the leader you have. In 2003, I'm not actually certain that a poll of the members would have removed IDS as leader, despite him being a laughing stock to the rest of the country. Why? Because IDS was a "good chap", and loyalty meant that you had to stick by him. Once he was removed, the facts changed; Howard became the man in charge and loyalty to the party demanded that everyone rally behind him too. Which, by and large, they did, to the extent of defending the nastier aspects of his manifesto.

Will the same thing happen with the Liberal Democrats? If there is a 'coronation' of Campbell, I think it will prove a testing ground for the nature of the party as a whole. Of course, Campbell is something of a compromise candidate: he allows the young pretenders to build their reputation safe in the knowledge that age will give an upper limit to the length of his leadership. This, however, I suspect is less of an issue for party members.

The Times has speculated today that whatever the outcome of the leadership election, the party is set for months of 'feuding'. That isn't a given, though: it should be perfectly possible for a thorough policy review to be carried out and decided democratically, reasonably and fairly through the means of the party conference. That will need strong leadership, granted, but it will also need the agreement of the grassroots members as a whole. They will need to be patient, because the Kennedy affair will be hugely damaging to the party, and if there isn't a decrease in the polls then it would surprise me. And this is what I mean about a coronation being the test of a party. If there aren't opponents to Campbell, the chances of a full and frank debate on direction, as happened in the Tory party race, will be slim or none. The debate over direction will still be necessary, however. How well the party handles that will be a measure of its future.