Last week Vince Cable was elected unopposed as leader of the Liberal Democrats, following Tim Farron’s resignation. This is not a situation many Lib Dems expected to be in a month or so ago. I don’t think I would have voted for him if the selection had been contested. Yet I dare to hope.
Let’s start with my reservations. The first is his age at 74. This is the least serious. Age has different effects on all of us, and Vince has clearly been looking after himself, physically and mentally. He will have bitter memories of 2007, when he was advised not to run for the leadership vacated by Ming Campbell, who was only slightly older. Ming was widely bullied for being too old – I remember some vicious cartoons. And yet the reasons for his failure were clearly something else – age was just a convenient proxy, reflecting the prejudices of the time. By picking the relatively youthful Nick Clegg, it is far from clear that the party was better off. Meanwhile there have been a number of successful older politicians – including Jeremy Corbyn and Donald Trump. Age does mean that Vince’s tenure is likely to be less than a decade. But that may not be a bad thing.
My next reservation is more serious. It is that Vince is not known for grassroots campaigning. His constituency organisation in his Twickenham seat was notoriously weak between elections – and that ultimately lost him his seat in 2015. In the jargon, Vince is a man of the air war, not the ground war. That is a worry because the Lib Dems weakness in ground organisation is one of the bigger issues that the party has to face. Tim Farron, by contrast, was much stronger on the ground activity. But am I worrying too much? Vince’s constituency campaign this year was one of the better organised – and the result was spectacular. Tim came within a hair’s breadth of losing his seat, which had been the “safest” in the country (there’s no such thing as a safe Lib Dem seat). For all Tim’s enthusiasm for grassroots campaigning, he did not strike me as a gifted organiser. We may be no worse off.
And finally there is policy. I have advocated fresh thinking on economic policy for the party, in particular to unlock under-used potential in poorer areas. I am also deeply suspicious of monetary policy as a method of managing aggregate demand. Vince is much more of a traditional economist – he seems more interested in using neoliberal ideas more effectively than looking for the next revolution in economic thinkin. Again, I am probably making too much of this. He has a lot of common sense, and does not strike me as a man that pushes policies that aren’t working because he thinks they work in theory. And innovation needs to be small-scale at first if it is to win public confidence.
Against my reservations, though, I am finding quite a lot to like. He is very impressive when being interviewed on the radio. He answers the questions being asked, and confidently, displaying a great deal of expertise and honesty. He has enormous credibility, built up over many years – not least his five years as a senior cabinet minister. He can overdo the honesty and get himself into trouble – but this is a net benefit. Former London Mayors Ken Livingstone and Boris Johnson have learnt to pull this trick – being a bit too honest – off very successfully (though Mr Johnson’s shine has now worn off), as has the Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn. When it works it is a priceless gift. Vince has much more impact on the media scene than did Tim Farron. He makes headlines effortlessly – and not by making gaffes.
And Vince’s evident experience and expertise puts him ahead of almost every other front bench politician in the country – especially since Labour have been forced to promote inexperienced MPs into front line roles. This makes the Lib Dems look like a player in the grown-up game of politics, which hasn’t been the case since the party’s catastrophic defeat at the 2015 general election. Especially since there is now a back up team of experienced politicians in Norman Lamb, Ed Davey and Jo Swinson. This is important, because if the major parties do start to break up under the pressure of divisions over Brexit, the Lib Dems are starting to look like a credible alternative for refugees – or at least a vital alliance partner for any new grouping.
So that is why I dare to hope. But meanwhile the party is very weak. Many of the sixty or so parliamentary seats where the party used to be in close contention now look gone for good. It is not clear how the party is to replace them with new ones. The party might have some success in tapping angry Conservatives, but it is remains pretty hopeless against Labour in the pitch for younger voters. I am seeing quite a lot of manufactured kerfuffle about how Labour is supposedly breaking promises on student debt. Any Lib Dem who thinks that the party is going to make traction with that line of attack should think again. It’s best hope against Labour remains its firm position against Brexit – but as yet Labour remains coated with Teflon on the topic.
Recently I read an article in the Guardian by Deborah Orr that lambasted the party as a waste of time. What is striking is that this liberal, well-informed journalist only ever thought the party stood for electoral reform – and so the party’s failure on that in coalition leads her to claim that it “lost all it stood for”. That shows how much work the party has to do. Most people think that the party stands for very little – they associate it with a single policy, like electoral reform, or, before 2010, free university tuition. When the party fails to deliver on this policy, it is reduced to emptiness in their eyes and it has start all over again. Meanwhile the Conservatives and Labour can chop and change policies at will, because they are seen to stand for something much broader. At the moment the big policy for the Lib Dems is opposing Brexit, with legalising marijuana as a second string. This is far too narrow.
So the Lib Dems need to be seen as standing for a broader range of ideas, and not tied to a single headline policy. There may be an opportunity for this. Most left-inclined liberals still think Labour stands for them – but Mr Corbyn and his allies want to take their party somewhere different. And many Conservative supporters think that their party stands for pragmatic liberal economics – but Brexit ideologues in cabinet don’t seem to care what happens next as long as it is Brexit. If anybody can convince these people to look, or to look again, at the Lib Dems, it is Vince Cable.