One genuine reason why the vote for the Liberal Democrat leadership may have gone down is that some in the party just did not know who to vote for. I would have only just voted for Nick Clegg, despite thinking Chris Huhne is a substantial figure and occasionally I thought it mattered that he was more ideologically closer to me. I am not a member of the Liberal Democrats, but I am a supporter.
Last time I thought Huhne should have won, but he was an outsider and might have caused internal party opposition in a setting of some anxiety and difficulty. The party hierarchy made a great mistake in supporting Menzies Campbell so strongly. Since then Huhne has rather earned his stripes. He put up a good campaign too, less one gaffe, but he has the kind of experience (in business) useful for running a party and he was clear in front of the cameras. Huhne tried an appeal to the Liberal Democrat left to undermine Clegg's support, particularly regarding the future of the National Health Service. On the other hand, a result of this is an undertaking by Clegg not to undermine the NHS as a state supplied health service. Nevertheless, Clegg is a person of some communicative talent, it is thought, and is a vision person.
I noted in his victory speech - and well delivered - that Clegg referred to "liberalism" on more than one occasion. This is his Blair equivalent of "New Labour" and I'm not sure who noticed this. In other words, it does indicate a freer approach to institutions, and that localism is not set against consumerism. There is more of the Manchester Liberal to this.
The problem is the electoral setting of the next election. It could see Liberal Democrats take more from Labour, as it declines, especially in northern conurbations. On the other hand Labour is less the New Labour that was so unattractive in the north and led to apathy. Labour's current incompetence means the governing party is unlikely to recover in the north, but on the other hand it is not so clearly ignoring the north ideologically. Clegg, though, whilst wanting to keep these gains (and being one himself, in Sheffield), and whilst keeping the basis by which Liberal Democrats were seen as on the (liberal) left and getting into these cities, must also check the right and a possible Conservative recovery. His best approach is to say that if Cameron is different, the Conservative Party is not reformed and not fully behind him, as demonstrated before Gordon Brown started to fail and fall.
Clegg also needs Huhne and the effective Vince Cable up front and close. These two will add ballast to Clegg's media front and ideas (ideas also from that other more Manchester Liberal, David Laws). Once again it is policy and solidity that will appeal, and a sense that there are people here who could be in government. A strong focus on equality of opportunity, getting rid of poverty, seriously simplifying benefits and tax, personal freedom with protected data, and local democratic control, should provide a strong front. I would only suggest some caution about the environment (especially global warming), because it is not the attraction that some politicians think it is, unless there are cost effective and business expanding ways of cutting waste and high emissions that can be fronted as opportunities. Europe needs to be tackled in a positive and democracy-expanding manner. They should also consider that there is a lot of hidden unemployment and statistical lying out and about, and so many now rely on benefits and hardly make ends meet (including me).
I would suggest therefore a common theme and a programme of participation - economic, social and civic, and in areas of politics. This could make sense and be a uniting theme with appeal to the electorate.