OPINION: Lobbyists should not ignore the Lib Dem leadership battle

Olly Kendall says that the next Lib Dem leader has every chance of giving the party a foothold in government.

Clegg: next Lib Dem leader?
Clegg: next Lib Dem leader?

With the race to replace Menzies Campbell as Liberal Democrat leader now under way, the battle lines that Nick Clegg and Chris Huhne try to draw will be on policy.

Sandra Gidley MP, a dec­lared Huhne supporter, has already suggested to me that Clegg would not be popular because of his views on policies such as immigration.

From what I can tell she was referring to existing party policy, but if this reflects the direction of the Huhne campaign then we can expect to see his team depict Clegg as the Cameron-lite right-winger who cannot reach out to party members.

The Huhne camp should note that any negative campaigning or back-biting will only serve to further damage the Lib Dems. Rather, the next seven weeks is a great chance to promote the att­ributes of the party.

The candidate best able to embody what political scientists refer to as the ‘valence’ factor (as distinct from the ‘positional’ factor) will win this leadership election.

Valence refers to the abil­ity of the political class to fulfil more ephemeral aims: being trustworthy, reasonable, temperate. The positional view is the opposite. It claims that political popularity is premised on more tangible virtues: what voters think on specific, measurable issues such as crime and health.

Both candidates will put a premium on rushing out new policies, but Lib Dem members should look for the person who can sell the party’s policy programmes in an eng­aging and trustworthy way.

The leadership battle will be about evolving the party’s narrative. It is no good telling voters what we would do – the party needs to explain why.

Thatcher fought the enemy within, Churchill the enemy over the sea and Blair was fighting the perceived decadence of 17 years of Tory rule. What’s the Lib Dem narrative? Fighting for the environment? Fighting to uphold civil liberties? Or fighting the cosy policy consensus of the two bigger parties?

The public affairs industry will be looking closely at the leadership race: with the polls so volatile in recent months and the future of the third party in the balance, it is difficult to confidently make any electoral predictions.

There has never been a more capricious time for a generation in British politics. That means the public affairs industry must not discount the Lib Dems as a possible partner in government in a hung parliament. If the new leader is able to turn around the party’s ailing fortunes then the public affairs industry will have to look more ser­iously at the Lib Dems.


Olly Kendall (l) is a former deputy head of press for Charles Kennedy. He now heads up the environment and transport practice at Ins­ight Public Affairs

 

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