The 2021 elections are a significant challenge for the Lib Dems for three big reasons:
- Councillors up for re-election in 2021 won in the 2016 post-coalition bounce-back.
- It is Ed Davey’s first electoral test. He will be keen to prove himself and shake his ‘Sir Six Percent’ label.
- There has been an almost unprecedented churn in Westminster, party HQ and across the regions, putting a massive strain on the party’s campaigning abilities.
But the Liberal Democrats are a constant reminder of how quickly and dramatically politics today can shift. In the last ten years, they have been catapulted in and out of Government, shot to the top and plummeted to the bottom of polls, beaten both Labour and the Conservatives, then been crushed by both, swept up at the ballot box and been kicked off it.
This year: Out goes Jo Swinson and her team after a deeply disappointing election campaign, fatally undermined by a pitch to be ‘Britain’s Next Prime Minister’, together with the left’s inability to work together, Labour’s ability to portray itself as simultaneously pro- and anti-Brexit and a blue wave carrying Boris Johnson into No. 10 with the largest majority in over 30 years.
Despite losing her own seat, Swinson remains popular with the grassroots, but her departure kickstarted the biggest shakeup in HQ and across the party since the 2015 collapse. The party’s press office has been all but gutted, along with much of the campaigns team, advisors, aides and policy team. HQ itself is due to leave its illustrious Westminster home.
That said, plenty of people are working hard in Westminster, HQ and across the country, so here are some of them.
Top 50 Lib Dems of 2020
1. Ed Davey
Leader of the Liberal Democrats and MP for Kingston and Surbiton
The former Secretary of State for Energy and Climate Change during the Coalition government lost out to Jo Swinson in 2019 but fended off competition from Layla Moran earlier this year. Now, as Leader of the Liberal Democrats, it’s his job to revive the party—and fast.
The pressure is greater than ever, and the 2021 elections across England, Scotland and Wales will be an exceptionally tricky first test. It will be a huge relief if he can lead the party to hold ground in their base areas. If the party suffers more losses, it could be the beginning of the end.
But Davey is resilient, even by political standards; his father died when he was just four, and eight years later, he cared for his mother when she became terminally ill until she died when he was 15. He’s now married and cares for two children, one of whom has an undiagnosed neurological condition which means he can’t walk or talk. It is no surprise, then, that fighting for recognition and fair pay for carers has become a staple of his leadership.
Despite his hardship, Davey is a genuinely warm, dignified and honourable man more than worthy of the chance and opportunity to lead the party to which he has served for more than 30 years.
However, the party is in a tricky space; the road ahead for Davey is long, and the only way is not just up.
2. Kirsty Williams
Welsh Education Minister
The much-underused Welsh Liberal Democrat Senedd member has proven herself a formidable, effective and intelligent politician. She demonstrated real strength and leadership during the Covid-19 crisis in Wales, particularly over the exams chaos. She has been leading the charge for curriculum reform in Wales and is winning; the number of pupils from disadvantaged backgrounds achieving Grade C or above has increased by 30% under her leadership. Wales and the Lib Dems will be immeasurably poorer when she steps down next year.
3. Mimi Turner
Director of Strategy
The new Director of Strategy has more than 20 years in journalism, communications and brand strategy, but she comes in from leading marketing at Lad Bible. The party has struggled with direction and long-term strategy for too long, meaning Turner has an almighty task ahead of her and will need to hit the ground running to pull off a result that’ll satisfy the leadership and members.
4. Mike Dixon: CEO of the Liberal Democrats
All eyes are on Nick Harvey’s replacement, who came from Addaction, a mental health and young person’s charity, with some fanfare. He has emphasised improving party communications and saving the dwindling membership, which will be vital to boosting activity levels ahead of the May 2021 elections. His influence over direction and strategy will be critical to the party’s survival. Expectations are high.
5. Mark Pack: President of the Liberal Democrats
Pack worked for the party from 2000—2009 as Head of Innovations and ran the party’s 2001 and 2005 ‘internet’ general election campaigns where he was rightly passionate about the party getting its act together on digital campaigning, now even more important in a Covid-19 world. He has since gone on to be a trainer, author, campaigner, activist, editor, writer, blogger and Federal Board member. Finally, all his email gathering had to lead somewhere, and that somewhere was President of the Liberal Democrats. Supported by Layla Moran, Tom Brake and Catherine Bearder, Pack was elected in 2019 with nearly 60% of the vote.
6. Layla Moran: MP for Oxford West and Abingdon and Foreign Affairs and International Development Spokesperson
Moran overturned a whopping Tory majority to become the UK’s first pansexual and Palestinian MP. She has been the party’s champion for education and made great strides for mental health awareness with her frank honesty about suffering from a negative self-image and obesity. Although the former teacher lost to Ed Davey in the 2020 leadership election, she still has a lot to offer the party as an eloquent, passionate, young and charismatic campaigner. If things under Davey don’t start to improve quickly, expect a grassroots campaign pitching Moran as his successor to gain momentum very quickly.
7. Daisy Cooper: Deputy Leader, MP for St. Albans and Education spokesperson
Cooper is one of the party’s newest and most popular intakes. Quickly selected as Deputy Leader to Davey, there are always rumours of a leadership pitch swirling around the promising MP who headed Jo Swinson’s party leadership campaign. She has a strong record for turning organisations around, inspiring staff and volunteers into action, which is a skill she will need to reemploy if she is to turn her party’s fortunes around. She is a diehard Remainer who formerly worked for Hacked Off and More United, founded by the late Lib Dem legend Paddy Ashdown.
8. Tim Farron: MP for Westmorland and Lonsdale, Housing, Communities & Local Government, Food & Rural Affairs spokesperson and Former Leader
In 2015, the party needed a rabble-rouser to take over. Farron’s bold decision to define the Lib Dems as a pro-European, second referendum party may just have saved them from complete extinction, and for a short time, even offered a real opportunity to stop Brexit. Maybe if he’d allowed himself the full five years without tripping up over issues around faith, he could have made more of an impact. Nevertheless, his passion for social issues like housing and refugees have gone a long way to repairing his image in the party, and he remains a popular figure who rarely gives a speech that doesn’t end in a standing ovation.
9. Rhiannon Leaman: Chief of Staff to the Leader of the Liberal Democrats
Leaman joined the party from The Ramblers Association and Save the Children, where she quickly climbed the ranks. Formerly the party’s Head of Campaigns during the party’s critical ‘Stop Brexit’ phase, Leaman has been Chief of Staff to the party leader since August 2019. She must now work to bridge the gaps between the often-fraught Parliamentary aides, Leader’s team and HQ staff. Transferring from Swinson to Davey, building an effective team around the Leader will be crucial to his success, and as Chief of Staff, the buck essentially stops here.
10. Timothy Wild: Press Secretary to the Leader of the Liberal Democrats
Quick, practical and a reliable pair of hands. Wild is an experienced and well-liked politico, which will be his key to leveraging support in the media for a leader firmly on the sidelines. But if he is to turn Davey’s fortunes around, he will need to rid his boss of the ‘Sir Six Percent’ tag. And fast.
11. Willie Rennie: Leader of the Scottish Liberal Democrats, MSP for North East Fife and Scotland Spokesperson
Frankly, no one is jealous of his thankless job, but on he goes with a huge grin on his face and a spring in his step. Rennie is an excellent debater and another much-underused regional figure by the national party. His vast experience should serve him well as all eyes will be on the Scottish party when they head into the elections next year. Can Rennie pull the party back from the brink? If anyone can, it’s him.
12. Munira Wilson: MP for Twickenham and Health, Wellbeing and Social Care Spokesperson
Replacing Vince Cable, Munira now has one of the party’s safest seats. She is another bright and capable MP who has worked her way around the party, including as councillor and on Nick Clegg’s staff in 2006. Now the party’s spokesperson on health and social care, a critical area for Davey’s vision, members’ eyes will move to her if Davey’s leadership doesn’t take off. A former lobbyist for Save the Children and Beating Bowel Cancer, she has experience in persuading people round to her side.
13. Caroline Pidgeon: London Assembly Member
Bright, funny and intelligent. The party’s only London AM since 2008 but faces an uphill battle to retain her seat next year. The London mayoral campaign, which often dictates success in the Assembly, was thrown into disarray when the candidate dramatically resigned from the party. Pidgeon deserves to stay put, though. She has fought and won for real change in London, practised liberal values, and her voice would be greatly missed.
14. Lord David Sainsbury: Donor
The former Labour peer donated more than £2m to the Lib Dems’ remain campaign and followed that up with the largest single donation in British political history when he aided the party’s 2019 general election campaign to the tune of £8m—over half the entire election campaign funding. Whether he will stick around will largely depend on the party continuing to argue a clear line against Brexit.
15. Dorothy Thornhill: Peer
First directly elected mayor of Watford, Lib Dems’ first directly elected mayor and first female directly elected mayor in the United Kingdom but it was her report into the Liberal Democrats’ 2019 General Election Campaign which provided stark, honest and bruising reading for members this year. The party must take note if it is to learn from its last three disastrous general election campaigns.
16. James Lillis: Head of Campaigns and Elections
Lillis has worked his way up the ranks of Liberal Democrat campaigns for over a decade. Starting as a campaign assistant, he is now Head of Campaigns and Elections for a party in dire need of winning again. He played a key role in forming the Stop Brexit campaign which proved exceptionally successful in last year. Also a City Councillor.
16. Wera Hobhouse: MP for Bath and Justice, Women and Equalities Spokesperson
After a shaky start to her leadership pitch this year, the former Rochdale councillor seemed to settle on running to refocus the party’s attention outside of London and the South East. Her push to be a ‘Leader for the North’ gained her solid and much-needed media coverage. Her early drop-out took seemingly also pierced the case to abandon equidistance, something the party grappled with since the fateful decision to enter coalition government in 2010. Still, she is a much respected MP after her campaign to criminalise upskirting was a roaring success.
17. Catherine Bearder: Former MEP for the South East and Former Leader of the Liberal Democrats in the European Parliament.
Feisty, passionate and intelligent, Bearder stood as the sole Lib Dem MEP for five years before the remarkable 2019 elections. Exceptionally well respected in Brussels, she will likely be sorely missed as the country crashes out of the EU later this year. She claims to have retired, but many will be expecting a return to frontline politics if there’s even a hint of reversing Brexit.
18 Dick Newby: Peer
Influential in the early years of the SDP, former Chief of Staff to Charles Kennedy and instrumental in managing the succession of leadership from Kennedy to Campbell. So it was no surprise he was elected as the Leader of the Liberal Democrats in the House of Lords, where the party still commands an 88-strong group in the bulging chamber.
19. Alistair Carmichael: MP for Orkney and Shetland and Home Affairs, Brexit and Northern Ireland Spokesperson
Carmichael is one of the few MPs to have survived the 2015 bloodbath, was the only Scottish Lib Dem MP during the 57th Parliament and is the longest-serving Lib Dem MP in the current Parliament, so he must be doing something right. He was an effective whip during the coalition government and retains a tight grip on the Parliamentary party.
20. Christine Jardine: MP for Edinburgh West and Spokesperson for Home Affairs and Women and Equalities
Famously joined the party after sharing coffee with Jo Swinson, Jardine was Scotland Media Adviser during the coalition before winning her seat in 2017. She has since built a strong record of tackling challenging issues like immigration and domestic abuse, but it is her jolly and personable character that has gained her a strong following in the party, which will likely place her as a future President, maybe even Leader.
21. David Green: Head of Media
Green was an aide to Lib Dem giant Charles Kennedy right up until his tragic death in 2015. As an all-round decent bloke, about whom no one has a bad word to say, it was not long before he was drafted into the party’s London press office. He stepped up as Head of Media after the disappointing 2019 general election kickstarted a raft of resignations. But if he wants to achieve real and meaningful cut-through, he will need to step outside the party’s comfort zone. With dwindling funds, depleted and utterly exhausted local parties and a mass exodus of members, garnering decent media coverage is just about the most critical task.
22. Sarah Olney: MP for Richmond Park and Energy, Climate Change, Business & Industrial Strategy and Transport Spokesperson
Olney joined the Liberal Democrats shortly after the 2015 collapse and was quickly selected as the candidate for the 2016 by-election. In true Lib Dem style, Farron and Olney unseated Zac Goldsmith with a staggering 30.3% swing. Her victory was a huge win and put the party’ back in business’. She lost the seat in the 2017 general election by an excruciating 45 votes but comfortably regained it in 2019
23. Jo Swinson: Former MP for East Dunbartonshire, Equalities Minister and Leader of the Liberal Democrats
The first female Leader of the Liberal Democrats fell into the biggest political trap of 2019 and paid the ultimate price by losing her own seat to the SNP. Despite this, she did shatter or at least crack a glass ceiling in the party. Rumours she would stand in the 2021 Scottish elections have proved just that, but she still has a lot to offer the party, and many members will be keen to see her return in another high profile role.
24. Vince Cable: Former MP for Twickenham, Business Secretary and Leader of the Liberal Democrats
The former Business Secretary finally took reigns as Leader in 2017 and helped define the Lib Dems as a pro-European party, leading them through their most successful set of local and European elections ever. His ability to embrace new campaigning, including the much-publicised ‘Bollocks to Brexit’ tagline, helped solidify his skilful handling of the party’s fortunes. Although his immense knowledge and experience will be greatly missed since he resigned last year, his opinions will be well-known inside – and outside – the party.
25. James Gurling: Executive Chairman of Public Affairs at MHP
Gurling first worked as a press advisor to Paddy Ashdown in the 1997 election and has since served as a councillor, on the party’s federal executive committee, chairing its campaigns and communications committee and running multiple election campaigns. He has also authored several election reports and retains sway on the board despite returning to MHP, where he previously worked. He was awarded an OBE for political service in 2015.
26. Lynne Featherstone: Peer, Former MP for Hornsey & Wood Green and Minister for Equalities
Feisty and energetic, Featherstone is still a leading blogger and immensely popular peer despite losing her parliamentary seat in 2015. Her relentless and unstoppable charge on same-sex marriage solidified her ‘icon’ status in the party whilst also garnering her immense respect among the LGBT community and wider population as a fierce campaigner for equality. Unsurprisingly, she was awarded Stonewall’s Politician of the Year, Attitude Magazine’s Politician of the Year and PinkNews Ally of the Year.
27. Alex Cole-Hamilton: MSP for Edinburgh Western
Another charismatic Scottish figure, Cole-Hamilton, has enjoyed soaring popularity since his 2016 MSP win put him firmly in the ‘rising stars’ camp. He worked for various children’s charities before dedicating himself to public service. As an excellent speaker and campaigner, he is a likely successor for Leader of the Scottish party.
28. Jamie Stone: MP for Caithness, Sutherland and Easter Ross and Defence and Digital, Culture, Media & Sport Spokesperson
Stone has risen from councillor through the Scottish Parliament to one of the party’s most beloved Westminster MPs. He is funny, thoughtful and has rightly gained the members’ adoration for embracing his panto-personality. In Parliament, he has been an ardent champion for the ‘Excluded 3 Million’ during the pandemic and expanded his reputation beyond the Lib Dem niche.
29. Louisa Porritt: London Mayoral Candidate and former MEP
Eloquent rising star Porritt joined the Lib Dems shortly after the EU referendum and has quickly worked her way up from an experienced councillor, group leader and former MEP to London Mayoral Candidate. She has made good moves in calling for empty offices to be transformed into affordable housing and reform of stop and search but will have to work harder than ever to gain a respectable place in the London elections, which is Sadiq’s to lose.
30. Mike German: Peer and Party Treasurer
An accomplished and respected political leader, German shaking money buckets is now a Lib Dem conference staple. He passionately pushed for progress in Welsh businesses and was awarded an OBE for his public and political service.
31. Tom Brake: Director of Unlock Democracy and former MP for Carshalton and Wallington
Brake was beloved by the party membership, and many are still reeling from his narrow – and unnecessary – loss in 2019. He was actively involved in human rights issues, a dedicated former councillor and an unwavering St Helier Hospital champion.
32. Wendy Chamberlain: MP for North East Fife, Chief Whip and Work & Pensions Spokesperson
After several career changes, notably 12 years as a police officer, Chamberlain overturned the SNP’s 2-vote majority in 2019 to become the MP for North East Fife. She has a lower profile than the likes of Moran and Hobhouse – backing the former over Davey in the leadership race earlier this year – but has championed true liberal values, including gender equality, the EU and electoral reform. Still a Westminster newbie, Chamberlain has focussed on building her profile as a popular local MP, but whispers of a future leadership pitch are already beginning.
33. Brian Paddick: Peer
With more than 30 years in the force, Paddick rose to the most senior levels of the Metropolitan Police at Scotland Yard and was the most senior openly gay police officer in the UK. He ran for Mayor of London twice and continues to lead the debate on policing, safety, terrorism and the public trust of police in the House of Lords, where he is the party’s Home Affairs Spokesperson. He is one of the party’s most visible and active peers, maintaining a solid presence and a loyal following.
34. Floella Benjamin: Peer
The television presenter, singer, businesswoman and Lib Dem peer is beloved for her passionate House interventions and campaigning, particularly on early years education.
35. John Leech: Leader of the Opposition on Manchester Council and former MP for Manchester Withington
The nearest the Lib Dems have to challenge Andy Burnham as King of the North. After regaining his council seat a year after the 2015 massacre, Leech stood as the one-man opposition member to 95 Labour councillors. He has since gained a cult following, the origin for which no one seems to be able to explain fully, but with a strong media profile, a stellar record on LGBT issues (he was responsible for Alan Turing’s pardon), and charged with the unenviable task of resuscitating the party in Manchester, he remains respected and admired – even adored by some.
36. Lisa Smart: Deputy Leader of the Opposition on Stockport Council and Chair of the Federal Communications and Elections Committee (FCEC)
Smart is one of the party’s most ambitious rising stars with a laser-like focus on winning and rebuilding the party. As the candidate for the marginal Hazel Grove seat since 2015 and Deputy Leader of the Opposition on Stockport Council since 2016, Smart has quickly built a robust profile which will likely propel her to senior levels once elected to Parliament. All things well, she will be Deputy Leader of Stockport Council come May 2021. As Chair of the Federal Communications and Elections Committee (FCEC), Smart will be under pressure to deliver an effective and coherent communications strategy that achieves success for the party in the upcoming 2021 local elections.
37. Tim Pickstone: Chief Executive of Association of Liberal Democrat Councillors (ALDC)
As Chief Exec of the only organisation that focuses on the party’s local government base, Pickstone will be key in rebuilding Lib Dem councillors as it heads into the critical 2021 local elections. Campaigners and candidates have been battered in recent years and will be relying on the formidable campaigning organisation like never before.
38. Sal Brinton: Peer and former President of the Party
As President of the Party for two terms, Brinton has become a regular face at conference and party events. She is well-liked and often a source of real encouragement and motivation to members, campaigners, staff and even elected representatives who have been bruised in recent years. She is well known in party HQ and Parliament for writing notes and cards to recognise the often overlooked hard work from staff. In the Lords, she has passionately spoken in favour of remaining the EU and was an early supporter of Farron’s shift to a second referendum.
39. Greg Foster: Head of Membership and Engagement
No Lib Dem – not a single one – gets away from the steady stream of (mostly effective, it must be said) emails from the former Scottish Lib Dem staffer who was drafted in after HQ faced a mass exodus of staff post-coalition. The experienced campaigner faces an almighty task of retaining the colossal number of members who are up for renewal. Party membership hit an all-time high of 125,000 by the end of 2019 but is taking a hit post-Brexit. Keeping it above 100,000 will be seen as a huge success.
40. Caron Lindsay: Co-Editor of Lib Dem Voice
Lib Dem veteran Caron Lindsay has edited Lib Dem Voice for nearly a decade. She is passionate, articulate and loyal, but without letting the site become a party press office. Lib Dem Voice provides an essential outlet for party members to launch campaigns, build a profile, vent internal frustrations, and she has managed to handle it all whilst keeping it tidy, efficient and important.
41. Pablo O’Hana: Director of Apostrophe Talent
The headstrong party advisor, responsible for this notable treasure, now runs a PR firm representing Lib Dem councillors, campaigns and public figures. His unwavering commitment and (in)famous ability to attract media coverage have earned him a solid reputation in the party. However, his straight-talking attitude towards senior figures has landed him the nickname ‘Lib Dem Marmite’. Nonetheless, he takes the highest entry for a worker outside London.
42. Mark Hunter: Leader of the Opposition on Stockport Council and former MP for Cheadle
The former Lib Dem Deputy Chief Whip during the Coalition Government, and now group leader in Stockport (Greater Manchester), is agonisingly close to taking control of the council. The experienced politician has led charges against a controversial planning push from Labour called the ‘GMSF’ and has urged against building on green spaces in the area. The move has been successful so far. A good result in 2021 should put Hunter as head of what is likely to be the only Lib Dem run council in Greater Manchester.
43. Baroness Sarah Ludford: Peer
The former MEP is one of the more active Lib Dem peers and is likely seen touring the country during election campaigns doing her bit for her colleagues. In the Lords, she is a vocal critic of European drug companies supplying executioners in the United States with sedatives – a niche but very liberal cause.
44. Menzies Campbell: Peer and Former Leader of the Liberal Democrats
As one of the most respected and successful politicians of a generation, The Times newspaper once said Ming “runs the risk of giving politicians a good name”. After retiring from the Commons, Ming remains a strong and influential voice in the Lords, where he has promoted an elected upper chamber.
45. Bridget Smith: Leader of South Cambridgeshire District Council
As the party enters a new set of local elections, eyes will turn to one of the most stunning victories of recent years, where Smith’s local party all but wiped out any form of opposition last May.
46. Charles Gibson: Interim Head of Campaigns for the North West
Newly appointed, Gibson was an organiser in Stockport, Greater Manchester, where he is also a councillor. The party is just a handful of seats away from taking control. He oversaw the regional campaigning efforts for North West MEPs Jane Brophy and Chris Davies, but the Best for Britain alumni will need to work hard in a region the party has historically triumphed in, just months before a set of critical local elections. In these former strongholds, the party is all but depleted, losing four of five MPs and nearly 200 councillors since 2010.
47. Stephen Williams: West of England Mayoral Candidate, former MP for Bristol West and Minister for Communities and Local Government
Williams, the Lib Dems’ first openly gay MP, is a popular local figure with over two decades of political experience. Despite falling to third place in his parliamentary constituency, he has a reasonable chance of causing an upset in the West of England Mayoral election next year. In order to do so, he will need to run an impressive and expansive campaign—the likes of which the Lib Dems rarely see.
48. Gerald Vernon Jackson: Leader of Portsmouth City Council and Chair of the English Liberal Democrats
Vernon-Jackson is a well-known campaigner in the party and has been a councillor in Portsmouth for nearly 30 years, leading the council for over a decade. As a public servant, he has fought for true liberal policies, winning a long battle to increase its number of council houses significantly. As Chair of the English party, he oversees the English party’s running and brings vast experience, having served as Deputy Director of Campaigns and Elections for the party and leading successful parliamentary and local election campaigns.
49. Sally Burnell: Vice Chair of the Policy Committee
Lib Dems are nothing if not policy-obsessed, and Burnell fits perfectly in her federal board role. She is director of policy, media and strategy for the British Veterinary Association and previously worked for the Lib Dem press office and in local Government. She understands policy from a local and national perspective, which will be key to rebuilding the party’s local government base. She is a committed expert on criminal and social justice, equality issues, animal welfare, housing and homelessness.
50. Annod Al-Samari: Chief of Staff for London Mayoral Candidate Louisa Porritt
Al-Samari, an experienced London councillor since 2007 and former Simon Hughes office manager, faces the unenviable task of re-motivating activists months before an election where the candidate in place for over a year dropped out. Gaining a respectable result in this unwinnable election will place her in good stead for higher ambitions in the party.