Questions for the Leadership Candidates

We put in a request to the Liberal Democrat leadership candidates to answer our questions and these are their responses. In addition we have some questions and answers from Liberal Futures - our sister organisation in Scotland. So far only Jo has answered the questions sent to the candidates.

A. Social Justice

The Preamble to our Constitution commits us to “upholding .. values of individual and social justice” and seeking “the widest possible distribution of wealth”.  Conference agreed a strategy which asserts that: “we stand for an open society, social justice including an economy which challenges inequality and for powerful communities at every level”.

Q1          Do you agree that social justice is a central element in our Party’s Values?

Jo. Yes. The first sentence of the preamble our constitution really says this best – that “we exist to build and safeguard a fair, free and open society, in which we seek to balance the fundamental values of liberty, equality and community, and in which no one shall be enslaved by poverty, ignorance or conformity”.

These words just can’t be achieved without actively championing those in need and holding the powerful, including the wealthy, to account. It’s the foundation upon which we build a society that we can all be proud of.  Social justice should form the foundation of everything we do: that way, we can work to ensure that the balance between individual liberty and fairness across society is achieved.

Ed. Yes, completely. Social Liberals such as Hobhouse, Hobson and Beveridge always placed liberalism within its social context and this was then further reflected in the concept of community politics where an individual’s freedom has to be seen in its social context.

Therefore, the pursuit of social justice and avoidance of enslavement by poverty has to be at the heart of the Party’s values, policies and campaigning.

Sadly too many people in our country are currently enslaved by poverty and it was the feeling that the current economic system is not fair which drove much of the resentment which led many to vote for Brexit.

One of the party’s core messages in the Brexit debate ought to be, the need to fix the economic causes of Brexit – including Britain gross personal and regional inequalities.

Q2           What are the headline policies and big messages which communicate our commitment?

Jo. Firstly, we need to focus on rebuilding the social contract and the safety net that we all need at one point or another. We can all see that the system has broken down – over many years and under many governments. It’s just no longer true that if you work hard and contribute when and where you can, that you will be rewarded with a job that pays enough to live on, a secure and affordable home, or the support of our welfare system when you need it. In this country in 2019, that’s simply not good enough. Liberal Democrats should be clear that we are a party that is focused on fairness and generosity – on rebuilding a society that looks after those who need it and which rewards the people who support and contribute to it, not those who try to undermine it to make a fast profit.

I also believe as a party one of the biggest policies and commitments we have made throughout our history is the belief that decisions should be made as close as possible to the people that they affect. That communities are best placed to make the right decisions. I want to make sure that Government supports this, firstly, by ensuring we are measuring the right things as a country – looking beyond GDP to understand the issues that matter to people – whether there is decent work, good homes and access to strong local services. Secondly, by reshaping our economy to put people and planet first – for example, making the largest companies to publish their climate risk exposure to incentivise decarbonisation and ensuring they report on staff wellbeing in addition to profits in their Annual Financial Statements.

These messages are, of course, looking beyond Brexit – but we all must be clear that stopping Brexit and working strongly with our friends in the European Union has to be at the heart of our party’s message in this leadership election and beyond. Our position is unique, it’s popular, it reaches out beyond our existing party members – but most importantly it goes to the heart of who we are as a party. Never have Charles Kennedy’s words to conference in Glasgow in 2013 rung more true – “A lot of the responsibility now rests with us… If the voice of rational pro-Europeanism is going to be heard, there’s only one place it can come from and it should be us and it will be us.”

Ed. To achieve social justice requires a government-wide approach, on everything from economic policy, tax and welfare to housing, education, health and much more – and we should say that: the system is broken, it needs to be fixed.

However, the question is rightly about “headline policies and big messages” because politics (regrettably) works that way. So here’s three specific policies I would want to lead on, and why:-

  1. The biggest council house building programme in over 50 years
  2. Give a decade-long spending boost to Britain’s 6 poorest regions to help narrow the gap with Britain’s richest regions
  3. Make the UK the best educated and skilled nation in the world, within a decade

I’ve chosen these for specific reasons.

Housing costs and quality remain key factors in people’s well-being and finances. Unless and until we provide more affordable housing, of greater quality, people will continue to have huge health problems due to everything from damp to overcrowding, and will continue to struggle to have much money left over when they’ve paid the rent (or mortgage). And housing benefit as a good housing subsidy has proved a failure. We need a radical shift.

Regional inequality is utterly shocking in the UK. We have 2 of the top 10 richest regions in northern Europe, and 6 of the poorest regions. While this will need a myriad of different solutions, none will be cheap – and all will need a long term commitment.

Education remains the best chance to help a child make the best of their lives. The pupil premium has been an amazing success, but we still need significant new resources to ensure all disadvantaged children get the extra help they need. So we need a national mission that includes every child and young person, not just the “majority”.

There’s so much more that could be said – on benefits and tax in particular – but I personally think this type of policy programme conveys more to more people about our commitment to practical social justice.

 B. Disruption

There is greater disruption in the UK Party system than at any time in a century.

Q3          How should the Liberal Democrats position ourselves to promote and gain maximum benefit from that disruption as a party and as a liberal movement?

Jo. I want the Liberal Democrats to become the rallying point for Britain’s liberal movement – not focused on centrist populism but on making the liberal case in society. The amazing results we saw across the country in the local and European elections go beyond our message on Brexit. People are fed up with our broken politics and want something new. Throughout my political career I have worked with others who share our values to make progress and secure change. We can build on the momentum of the recent elections, to become the home for all those who share our values: who believe immigration is a good thing, who want to stop Brexit and who believe we must work together to solve the biggest issues facing the world like the climate emergency and ageing populations.

Ed. Between a nationalist right wing Tory party and a statist, sectarian Labour party there is a huge gap in the political spectrum for those like us with liberal, internationalist values.

We have the opportunity to set up camp firmly in that space and attract those with similar values to ours who have previously felt that the first past the post electoral system means that they must be a supporter of either Tory or Labour.

Our pitch to maximise the benefit must start with our “Stop Brexit” message – we must never forget that our current success, and our relevance at the critical moment, is down to our principled and consistent anti-Brexit message.

But if we are to attract and keep both lifelong Conservative and lifelong Labour voters in our fold, we have to package a range of long held Lib Dem messages in ways they’ve not heard before.

So, for example, for former Tory “business-friendly” voters, our messages on everything from business rates reform to a green industrial strategy will carry weight.

And for Labour-inclined folk, see my answer to the last question!

Q4          What is the Leader’s role in making that happen?

Jo. A leader needs to be able to get cut through, to speak passionately, convincingly and directly to those who do not yet consider themselves Liberal Democrats. This is not about who can get us from eight to twenty percent in the polls – we have already done that thanks to our wonderful members. This is about breaking through twenty percent. This means working with our members on the ground, supporting our campaigning, and working to once again get us the coverage we deserve. I have demonstrated my ability to get on the media to make the case for Liberal Democrats. In the 24 hours after I appeared on Question Time, 1500 people joined the party. I am the Leader that can take us beyond twenty percent – I will not put a cap on the Liberal Democrats’ ambitions.

Ed. Policy comes from Conference – and any Leader must always recognise that and embrace that.

Yet the Leader must be the lead Lib Dem articulating our policies and values in a clear way – and with the discipline to focus on and repeat just a few simple messages.

If we say everything, we say nothing – so repetition of very few strong messages is a key part of the Job Description and requirements for the Leader in my view.

Of course the Leader has many other tasks beyond the media – from driving forward on our diversity agenda, especially our relative failure to select many BAME candidates, to leading the fundraising efforts. But in positioning our party to maximise electoral benefit, it is absolutely simple messages and themes, repeated often.

Q5          What should be the Party’s strategy for breakthrough?

Jo. We do not have twenty years to build up slowly. The country needs a strong liberal voice now – to stop Brexit, yes, but also to build a prosperous future where we harness the technological revolution for the benefit of the people. That is why the strategy for breakthrough has to be one that reaches out to everyone who will listen, to have a bold message that is clear and unequivocal. This means not just appealing to our existing membership – important as you are – but reaching out beyond our supporters to those who feel let down by the current political system and the failure of the other parties. I am the leader to deliver that message and to build a broader liberal movement.

Ed. First, we should be very open to working closely with other parties to achieve specific aims like stopping Brexit and electoral reform. Such close co-operation is already taking place in Parliament, over Brexit, but it must be extended – and I have written extensively about my ideas for this, including a temporary Government of National Unity. We need to be planning how we do this at the next General Election – from tactical voting to even standing down for people like Caroline Lucas, as we did in 2017.

Second, we should avoid any Coalition with Brexit Tories or Brexit Labour – plus I don’t see how we could work with either Johnson or Corbyn if they become/remain leaders of their parties. But we should use our – hopefully – much greater number of MPs, to pursue our objectives from the Opposition benches, as happens so often in other countries.

C. Realignment

We want to see a re-alignment in UK Party politics to reflect the real issues and choices in the modern world.

Q6          What do you say to people who are leaving Labour because of Corbyn and Brexit?

Jo. I say that you will find a welcoming home in the Liberal Democrats. We share your commitment to social justice and a fair and open society within our borders and beyond. We understand your frustration – your sense that even though the Labour party members are pro-Remain, your leader is refusing to listen and shutting the door to our European friends We agree that a leader should say what they really think rather than trying to hide their view in an attempt to be all things to all people.

As leader, I’ll say the same things I have been saying for years – Liberal Democrats welcome everybody who believes in building a fair, free, and open society, and everybody who wants to see a stop to Brexit. That includes you.

Ed. If you want to be part of an internationalist, pro-European, pro tackling climate change party, that shares traditional Labour objectives for tackling inequality and investing in public services - and can sign up to the preamble of our constitution - come and join us and you will be most welcome.

If you can’t, but like us you want to fight to stop Brexit, then let’s work together to stop Brexit and change our electoral system so you can be true to your own beliefs.

Q7          What do you say to people thinking of leaving a Boris-led Tory Party?

Jo. That if you were a Conservative because you believed in freedom of movement and a single market that supported British businesses and consumers, we understand you. If you’re leaving because Boris Johnson’s casual racism and loose relationship with the truth, we agree with you. If you were a Conservative who welcomed David Cameron’s support of same-sex marriage or the introduction of a higher minimum wage to force businesses to put their employees before their owners – you will find allies in the Liberal Democrats. We’re not a party where the leader dictates our policy.

We’re a party of our members, of debate, and a great many people with a great many backgrounds. But most importantly – whether or not you join us, we can all focus on building cross-party support to stop Brexit, regardless of where we started out.

Ed. If you want to be part of an internationalist, pro-European, pro tackling climate change party, that shares traditional Conservative objectives for promoting business and investing in public services - and can sign up to the preamble of our constitution - come and join us and you will be most welcome.

If you can’t, but like us you want to fight to stop Brexit, then let’s work together to stop Brexit and change our electoral system so you can be true to your own beliefs.

Q8          What should the Liberal Democrats be doing to involve new members and supporters in understanding and feeling at home with liberalism and committing to our Party’s wider values and strategy?

Jo. In recent years we’ve seen a change from people joining a local party because of what we’re doing in their area to joining us because they see what we’re doing nationally and they want to support our values and ideas. I believe that’s just as true of the people who joined post-2015 and post-Referendum as it is of people joining in the last few weeks. I really welcome the work local parties have done to become more of a social hub – bringing in new members and making friends with them before luring them into a Focus delivery round!

I do think – however – we need to recognize that not all people will want to be involved locally but would love to get involved with campaigns nonetheless. As Leader I would like to see an increased focus on national issues campaigning – doing precisely what you’re suggesting and bringing in new members and supporters, making them feel at home and broadening their commitment to our party values. This would help us build a core vote, even in places where our on the ground campaigns are weaker, and strengthen public understanding of our values.

Ed. Firstly, we need to be clearer in communicating in clear simple messages our values in a way which people can identify with.

Secondly we need to make them feel welcome. Too often I hear that people have joined the party but then hear nothing. We need to find ways to open up policy making so that they feel that they can make a difference.

And we should celebrate the progress we have already made. I am heartened by how many people who have joined the party relatively recently have already made their mark in the party - Sarah Olney in Richmond Park, Caroline Voaden our great new MEP in the south West and Siobhan  Benita as our London Mayoral candidate – as well as and countless PPCs in winnable seats and Councillors running local authorities up and down the country.

So there has been some progress, but we need to do lots more, because we’ve got so many new members!

D. Leading, Managing,

Jo. The tabloid press call Leaders “bosses” of their Party. But Liberal Democrats don’t have a boss; we have a democratic structure defined by a Constitution in which the Leader has a place amongst others.  The key roles are Leader (usually Policy Committee Chair), President, Chairs of the Finance and Resources and Campaigns & Elections Committees and State Party leaders.

Ed. Firstly, we need to be clearer in communicating in clear simple messages our values in a way which people can identify with.

Secondly we need to make them feel welcome. Too often I hear that people have joined the party but then hear nothing. We need to find ways to open up policy making so that they feel that they can make a difference.

And we should celebrate the progress we have already made. I am heartened by how many people who have joined the party relatively recently have already made their mark in the party - Sarah Olney in Richmond Park, Caroline Voaden our great new MEP in the south West and Siobhan  Benita as our London Mayoral candidate – as well as and countless PPCs in winnable seats and Councillors running local authorities up and down the country.

So there has been some progress, but we need to do lots more, because we’ve got so many new members!

Q9   How would you create a united team at the top of the Party to bring the Party together to define and deliver our strategy and goals?  What’s the Leader’s role in that team?

Jo. We have a strong constitution for the party but the reality is that success in the top team is not based on what’s on a sheet of paper but about people’s attitudes - what we want, how we get it, and the relationships we build with others along the way. A good leader doesn’t need a perfect system to drive the party forward - they need good people who understand how the system works, and the energy and commitment to make change happen.

That’s why I will focus on building relationships that have been lacking in recent years - working with the party, not detached from it. Our greatest asset is our membership and to be a success a leader needs to know how to work with you, how to listen to you, and how to build a team that keeps us all pushing for the same thing.

Ed. My political hero is Paddy Ashdown and he was a great leader of our party.

Paddy led from the front and sought to seize on issues and promote policies which emphasised our liberal values in simple messages. The policy of a penny on income tax to fund education or his stance to give the right to Hong Kong Chinese to come to the UK. Paddy led from the front and he inspired many people, including me to follow him. I didn’t always agree with him, particularly concerning his dealings with Tony Blair, but nobody could doubt that he was a liberal to his fingertips. 

One of the reasons he was so successful as a Leader was because he surrounded himself with a great team and always listened to people even if they profoundly disagreed with him. That is a sign of a great leader.

E. Social Liberal Parties

Amongst the world’s liberal parties, the UK Liberal Democrats are a leading social liberal party along with the Canadian Liberal Party, South Africa’s Democratic Alliance and the Dutch D66.

Q10       Are the Liberal Democrats a social liberal Party?

Jo. I think we are, and I’d go further than that and say I think a large proportion of society is too. Although we see the tide of populism and nationalism rising, what I have found most reassuring in recent months is the push back around the world of liberals against the nastiest of politics. Just as the Liberal Party at the turn of the 20th century discovered that classical liberalism was an insufficient answer to the pressing issues affecting the UK then, we are now finding that economic, laissez-faire liberalism has proven insufficient as we continue into the 21st.

We’re liberals and we have moved with the times - in the current system there’s just no way that standing back and hoping for the best from businesses and markets delivers fairness, liberty, and equality of opportunity. This is as true regarding social justice as when it comes to meeting the challenge of the climate emergency.

Ed. I am very clear that we are a social liberal party but I want to sign a note of caution.

We cannot and must not be too purist in who we welcome into the Liberal Democrats if we are to seize the opportunity to unite those with liberal values within the Liberal Democrats. Particularly under a First Past the Post electoral system we cannot afford to be a narrow sect. 


Questions and Answers from Liberal Futures (Scotland)

In addition to the SLF questions, Liberal Futures (Scotland) also sent the candidates some questions. At this moment in time only Jo has filled in the answers, we will update when Ed does the same;

What are your priorities for tackling inequality in Scotland and the UK?   

We need to take action on both sides of inequality – increasing low incomes

fixing the social safety net, and preparing for the changes to employment that will come with the technological revolution; and at the same time ensure that we are not being short-changed on tax income by multinationals. We need to make sure that people who are in low-paid jobs, supporting children, or unable to work don’t have to worry about whether they can afford to pay rent or feed their children – by ensuring that our social safety net is fair and supports people during the bad times. And at a macro level we need to look at the way government manages its economic success – for too long we have seen government proclaiming record levels of income and rising wages which are disconnected from ordinary people’s experience of life. Inequality, inequity, and intergenerational fairness need to be on our government’s radar and to do that we need to make sure they’re measuring the right things.

Blows to manufacturing in Britain continue, with Scunthorpe steelworks and the Bridgend engine plant currently under threat.  As leader, how would you work with affected communities, and what should be the role of government?  How can the Party broaden its appeal to industrial and post-industrial constituencies?

Regional inequality is a significant problem in our country, as countless towns and cities around the UK watch London and the South East race ahead. With a government that is constantly distracted by Brexit and keeping the Conservative party together, this inequality isn’t being addressed with the urgency it requires. 

As leader, I would be clear about the kind of society we want to build, and how we can point all of our resources – whether it’s government, public services, civil society or the ingenuity of business – toward achieving those goals. As a party, we need to not only talk about how we decarbonise our economy, but also how we can make it work better for people and tackle inequality. 

I think government has a responsibility to commit to a long-term, holistic industrial strategy. It needs to be tailored to the economy in each part of the country, so that we are making the right investments in training, infrastructure and building thriving, connected and caring communities. And it should empower individuals to have their say, and to influence the decisions being made about their local economies. We need much more meaningful ways to listen to people, to understand what they want for their communities. That means being bolder about devolution and rebuild the power of local authorities which have been undermined and starved of resource and autonomy. 

Would a federal UK as favoured by the Party mean parliaments for England, Scotland, Wales, and NI?  If so, how would these be elected and how would differences in population size be taken into account?  How would the federal parliament be constituted and elected, and what would be its powers?  What would happen to the House of Lords?

As a Scot, I am strong supporter of devolution, and as a Liberal Democrat I believe fully in federalism. In practice, I think we see strong examples of national parliaments in Scotland and Wales – with aspects of proportional representation and with extensive powers already. The one big change, obviously, would be in England – and I think all of our work indicates that it would be more appropriate to have regional framework rather than national at this level to ensure that decision-making wasn’t run solely by London and the South East. I also support existing party policy to have a Constitutional Convention where questions about powers and elections are properly considered at length. Finally, I ran on a manifesto in 2017 to ensure the Lords have a proper democratic mandate as a elected rather than an appointed body, and that is something I am proud to support.

Given the likelihood of the Brexit Party entering into a pact with the new Conservative Party Leader, what are your views on internationalists in different parties organising ahead of the next General Election?

As Leader of the Liberal Democrats, I will do whatever it takes to stop Brexit. That will include working together with MPs in other parties who share that goal, regardless of what party they are in. Whether we leave the European Union is one of the most fundamental issues facing our country and it will set our path for generations to come on what kind of society we want to be. This is a question that is bigger than any single political party, and it requires a non-tribal approach to politics. 

At a General Election, I would look to work closely with local parties to understand the situation on the ground and how best we can maximise our chance of keeping the UK in the European Union. We have already seen how that might work in Brecon and Radnorshire, where the Green party and Plaid Cymru both stood aside for our amazing candidate Jane Dodds. 

More broadly, this is about building a strong liberal movement to counter the nationalist and populist forces that are rising in our country. As Leader, I would want the Liberal Democrats to set out an alternative vision to the one of hate and division being propagated by Johnson and Farage.

Scottish voters chose by a sizeable majority to remain in the EU.  In the event of a Johnson premiership, what constitutional mechanism should be put in place to protect Scotland from a botched or no-deal Brexit?

As leader, I will do whatever it takes to secure a People’s Vote with the option to remain so that we can stop Brexit. I do understand that, having seen Boris Johnson’s disregard for the unity of our family of four nations, some will be tempted by the idea of independence for Scotland, especially if the UK leaves the EU without a deal. 

But having had a front-row seat watching the Government trying to unpick a relationship of 40 years with the European Union, I dread to think of the difficulties and damage that breaking one of more than 300 years would do to Scotland.

For all that I disagree with the SNP, I will give credit where it’s due. When we had the referendum on Scottish independence in 2014, they published an extensive, 650-page white paper on what that would entail. And based on that information, the people of Scotland rightly decided to stay. I firmly believe that Scotland is better off in the UK, and the UK better off in the EU – it is by working together with our closest allies that we can overcome the biggest challenges we face. 

How will you work with the significant group of Scottish Party members who would vote for Independence in a future referendum?

One of the great strengths of our party is that we have very different views on issues and still come together on the matters on which we agree. 

So, while I understand that some Scottish Party members will want to campaign for independence, I will not be changing my position on this issue. 

I believe that our party offers something unique to Scotland, as we are the only party who wants Scotland to stay in the UK and for the UK to stay in the EU – a position held by the majority of Scots. And, if there were to be another independence referendum, I would want the Liberal Democrats to be at the forefront of any campaign for Scotland to stay. We cannot let the Conservatives, who have done untold damage to our United Kingdom with pursuing Brexit, lead on this. 

Coalition with the Conservatives led to our worst-ever general election results.  As a member of that government who lost your seat after it, how would you field questions focussing on your close involvement with the Conservatives?

This is a question that has come up time and again, and I think we just need to be honest with ourselves. If we want to claim the successes of our time in the Coalition Government, we must also own the failures.

We did a lot of good while in government – I, we, introduced Shared Parental Leave, we introduced same sex marriage, in England we introduced the Pupil Premium which provided additional funding for the poorest children. 

But we didn’t get everything right. Introducing the bedroom tax is one example. Another is breaking our promise on tuition fees. We let down our voters by going back on something we had said we simply wouldn’t do. And it was a mistake that unfortunately led to many of Liberal Democrat MPs, myself included, losing our seats at the next election.  

We shouldn’t look back at our time in the Coalition Government with either rose-tinted spectacles or loathing. Instead we should learn from what we did – the good and the bad – and I think voters would appreciate that level of honesty and self-awareness in a political party. 

What are the best strategies to achieve the UK’s (and Scotland’s) climate-change targets and how can we move faster towards those targets?

The Liberal Democrats have a 40 year track record on climate change, putting the issues on the agenda under the leadership of Paddy Ashdown and Charles Kennedy. It is clear now that the Climate Emergency demands that same strong leadership again. I am fully committed to the party’s policy to achieve net zero by 2045 at the latest, with clear milestones to measure progress. That means investing in renewables from large scale projects such as the Severn and other Tidal lagoons to community renewable schemes. 

I also believe we will not achieve these targets through the work of Government alone. Big business needs to realise the responsibilities they have to people and planet too and I would work to promote those who are committed to profit with purpose and seek greater transparency from  large companies, pension funds and other big investors to report their exposure to climate risks through the introduction of mandatory reporting. 


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  • Can you amend the page so that the end of Ed’s reply to Q10 is not cut off? Ta.