Last year, Britain’s Conservative Party opted for generational change
with the election of David Cameron to the leadership. Now the third
party, the Liberal Democrats, face
their own choice as the leadership election gets under way following the
resignation of Charles Kennedy.
The Lib Dems have undergone many changes of name and structure over the
years, but their continuous history stretches back three and a quarter
centuries. As its name still proclaims, they were the original
inspiration for Australia’s Liberal Party, although the party has since turned
its back on that heritage and now prefers the embrace of the Conservatives.
The task for any Lib Dem leader is to keep the party’s left and right
wings together – something at which Kennedy did an admirable job. The
most centrist of the candidates to replace him is acting leader Menzies
Campbell. Campbell is well respected, but has
two major weaknesses: he is resented by many members for playing a part
in destabilising Kennedy’s leadership, and at 64 he is seen by some as
too old for the job.
Campbell has two serious rivals, Simon Hughes from the left and Mark
Oaten from the right. Hughes, currently party president, is popular with
party activists but may be too closely identified in the public mind
with high-taxation policies. Oaten, who is said to have Kennedy’s
support, represents the younger “Orange Book” group of free marketeers in the
party, but so far is trailing both Hughes and Campbell. There is also a
dark horse candidate, first-term MP Chris Huhne.
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With the youthful Cameron busily repositioning the Tories to attract
Lib Dem voters, it may be that the experience and gravitas of Menzies
Campbell would be an effective counterweight. The bookies have installed
Hughes as favourite, but the contest is still wide open; nominations
close next week, with the ballot of party members to be completed by 2
The Guardian is unfortunately not running a coconut shy, but it does
have extensive coverage of the contest here.