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Stephen Tall’s guest slot: another Lib Dem election?

August 31st, 2006

Past precedent, future Presidents…

For those feeling starved of party election contests, the Lib Dems might just have a morsel to stave off the hunger pangs pending the Big One, Labour’s Brown v Someone battle.

Simon Hughes (pictured), the current party President, is nearing the end of his first two-year term of office, and is eligible for re-election for one further term. The question is: will he re-stand, and if he does will anyone challenge him?

When last the post was up for grabs, in 2004, Simon won an impressive mandate: 24,333 (71%) Lib Dem members chose him over fellow MP, Lembit Öpik, in an election which saw a pretty healthy 47% turn-out. But, prior to that, you have to go back a decade, to 1994, for the previous contested election.

Which may suggest the post of President is not exactly the most coveted of roles – so what is it the President is expected to do? Well, officially s/he “shall be the principal public representative of the party and shall chair the Federal Executive”. Or, as Simon has rather more snappily put it, the job is “to be the voice of party members within the party, and the voice of the party to the outside world”.

Two aspects may well arouse greater interest in a contested election this time. The first, and most obvious, is the opportunity it affords any MP thinking of a future leadership contest to raise their profile within the party. The happy precedent here would be Charles Kennedy, who topped the poll twice, in 1990 and 1992, enjoying embarrassingly Stalinist votes of 82% and 70% respectively.

However, the presidential path is not always paved with gold. Simon’s first year as President appeared not to stand him in good stead during his second unsuccessful run for the leadership, with the previously less well-known Chris Huhne instead emerging as the activists’ favourite. Nor did Lembit’s failed presidential campaign strengthen his base of support within the party.

That the Lib Dems’ leader and deputy leader are both men in their 60s will certainly increase the pressure on one of the party’s up-and-coming female MPs to throw their hat into the ring. Lynne Featherstone, Susan Kramer, Jo Swinson and Jenny Willott (for example) all have loyal followings, and each would be an asset at the party’s top table.

There is, though, a second possible aspect which may pique interest. There is no reason why the President must be a Parliamentarian – though the need to have time, relevant experience and a public profile will likely limit the pool of possible candidates who may wish to stand on an “activists’ ticket”. In any David versus Goliath battle, a fair few Lib Dem members will be hardwired to root for the underdog. And on a 40-50% turn-out anything might happen.

Nominations for the presidency open on 4th September, and close on the 27th September. If the Presidency is contested, the all-member ballot will take place between 11th October and 3rd November. There’s no betting market as yet, but it would provide gamblers with a diversion from the future of the Labour party.

Stephen Tall is a Lib Dem councillor in Oxford. He runs his own website, www.stephentall.org.uk, and blogs at A Liberal Goes A Long Way.






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