With the Liberal Democrats having announced that their leadership election will start next month, this article will detail what to look out for with some of the key debates currently going on in the party, and where the dividing lines could be drawn between members and candidates alike.
Pro-Coalition vs anti-Coalition
Attitudes towards the 2010-2015 Coalition with the Conservatives have remained one of the dominant discussion points within the Liberal Democrats since the 2015 general election. With every general election campaign receiving a significant amount of questioning about the Coalition, it seems clear that how we deal with its legacy is going to be a significant aspect of the upcoming leadership election.
On one side are the members who think the Coalition was unequivocally the right thing to do, and will defend our record in government by saying that the bad things were a necessary compromise to achieve the good things like same-sex marriage, record green energy usage, and the pupil premium. On the other are those who think the Coalition was a bad decision full stop, that we should not have done it, and who think we should be trying to apologise and move on from it. The majority are likely to be somewhere in the middle.
With current acting co-leader and former Coalition Energy Secretary Ed Davey likely to run for the leadership, these questions will come up once again. Members will need to decide whether they’re happy to have someone linked to the Coalition as leader, or want to break with the past by electing a post-Coalition leader.
Left vs right
Linked to the Coalition issue but separate from it is the issue of left vs right. Prior to the election of Nick Clegg as leader in 2007, and the renaissance of the Orange Book wing of the party, the Lib Dems had been predominantly left-of-centre for a century. But post-2007, classical liberalism mounted a resurgence and began to take a growing role in the party’s ideological outlook.
The 2015 election between Tim Farron and Norman Lamb was viewed by many as a proxy fight between wings of the party, despite neither candidate having an especially different platform. And despite the party shifting noticeably to the left in recent years, the economic issue remains somewhat unresolved, and arguments about issues like the sugar tax, minimum alcohol pricing and wealth taxes still flare up regularly.
Expect members to discuss the extent to which the party should be an economically left-wing party, a centrist party, or even a party which leans to the right on the extent of taxation and spending.
Radical vs sceptical
An under-discussed divide in the Lib Dems is between radicals on the one hand, who support bold, direct and often idealistic action on the issues, and sceptics on the other, who are in favour of pragmatic and often incremental policy solutions. A recent example of this is on UBI – radicals are largely in favour, whereas sceptics tend to see it as a ‘step too far’, preferring to simply alter the existing welfare system.
This division isn’t as neat as some of the others: some members are radical on some issues but sceptical on others. But it is still a useful thing to watch. It is almost certain that there will be proposals by leadership candidates which are very radical and direct, and almost certain that those will be opposed by some on the grounds of being too unrealistic. Expect the phrase “evidence based policy” to get bandied around too. Members will need to decide whether we’re a moderate party of incremental change, or a radical party of bolshy and idealist policy solutions.
Pro-rejoin vs anti-rejoin
With the EU having been our primary policy area for the past four years, and having gained a significant amount of support last year as a result of gathering Remain voters to our cause, we now have to answer the question of what our attitude towards the EU is. This is a policy area which will ultimately be decided by conference, but it is naïve to suggest the leader will have no influence over this whatsoever.
The primary debate is whether we immediately adopt policy to rejoin the EU, or whether we go for something more gradual, such as close alignment but not full rejoining. With tens of thousands of members having joined the party over the EU issue, this one is particularly unpredictable. Furthermore, after the release of the party’s election review, there will be many who want to pour cold water on any notion of an immediate rejoin policy.
Local vs national
Many older members swear by using local issues as the primary means of building electoral support for the Liberal Democrats. This is often to the chagrin of younger members who want a stronger national vision coupled with a slicker media operation. While this may not dominate coverage of the election, expect debates to rage over whether we should go back to basics and talk only about bins and potholes for the next four years, or whether we should seek to establish a more ideological national identity in building up a core vote.
This article was updated at 1435hrs on Wednesday 20th May to add further analysis of the potential left v right argument.