Wednesday, 16 June 2010

Lib Dems elect Hughes as their Deputy Leader, but does anyone care?!

Last Wednesday the Liberal Democrat MPs elected Simon Hughes their new Deputy Leader. The story was slightly buried under the drama of Diane Abbott's late surge in nominations, which meant she made it onto the Labour leadership ballot in the nick of time. Hughes replaces Vince Cable, who stood down to concentrate on his new ministerial position in the Coalition Government. But the main issue here is does this actually matter?!

To many the Liberal Democrats are still largely irrelevant. This is a view encapsulated by a response we had on twitter when we enquired if anyone knew what time the Deputy Leader result would be revealed. A follower replied simply "does anyone care?" Clearly the vast majority of Liberal Democrat activists care; even if the result was a foregone conclusion and they we're able to vote themselves. But should anyone else care? It's easy to see the fuss surrounding the Labour Leadership contest. The winner has a very good chance of being the country's next Prime Minister. The Deputy Leader of the Liberal Democrats does not have such an obvious high profile career path, Simon Hughes' election should not be so easily dismissed.

Times are changing in British politics and the Bermondsey & Old Southwark MP is actually now in a curiously prominent position within it. The Coalition Government has bestowed a far greater importance on a couple of cabinet posts which usually slip under the radar. The Lib Dem Deputy Leader position is another which will enjoy far greater media exposure than it otherwise would have done. The Deputy Prime Minister is a position assigned purely at the discretion of the PM. Gordon Brown did not replace John Prescott after he stood down from the role in 2007. Nick Clegg's power will come purely from his status as the junior coalition partner's leader, not by holding the office of Deputy PM. This is in contrast to, say, a department like the Home Office. And the recent furore surround David Laws has emphasised the office of Chief Secretary to the Treasury. I'm not sure how many members of the general public had heard of Liam Byrne when he held the position but in the Coalition the Chief Secretary's role represents the Liberal Democrats influence within the Treasury. It's in this vein that Simon Hughes will be listened to a lot more than Vince Cable was as the Lib Dem's Deputy Leader.

Hughes now has the opportunity to become his party's alternative spokesman. With Nick Clegg muffled by the principle of collective responsibility the Liberal Democrats need someone not in the Cabinet to help prevent the party becoming swallowed by their senior Coalition partner. A Distinct Voice, so to speak. I happen to think Hughes is the perfect man for this job. His speech at the emergency conference persuaded activists on the left of the party to support the agreement so he understands the importance of showing solidarity. But that doesn't mean slavishly agreeing with everything that is put before them. With all the novelty of an official Coalition between two parties it's easy to forget how our big political parties are, in reality, coalitions themselves. Tony Benn in the 1970's and John Redewood in the 1990's are good examples of how internal dissent can be managed well and extremely badly. Essentially Hughes has been elected to provide that kind of dissent, and I expect Cameron and Clegg to deal with him effectively.

On a more ambitious note Hughes has actually manoeuvred himself into an excellent position to become the next leader of his party. With other potential front runners irrevocably damaged (David Laws) or tied to Coalition policy (Chris Huhne) Hughes would be a strong favourite if this Government failed miserably. The Liberal Democrats would almost certainly shift to the left politically if the orange bookers mess up the Coalition and this will play perfectly into Hughes hands. I can't for a moment imagine Hughes hopes to find himself in the middle of that scenario though. He will instead like to be a friendly check on a successful Government, and the man who safeguards his party's distinctive voice in British politics. Even so, at 33/1…!


Tom Harris


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