While the four contenders for leadership of the Labour Party duked it out in a TV debate last night, I was in Logan Hall, University College London, listening to Tim Farron and Norman Lamb, the two men vying to become the next leader of the Liberal Democrats. This was a leadership hustings rather than a debate: the Q&A section was a polite answering in turn, expertly chaired by party president Sarah Brinton.
A quick aside before I report on the hustings itself. When I first started this blog, I had never been a member of any political party and was on the fence about a vast range of issues. I decided to join the Lib Dems in the aftermath of the May 2015 general election, knowing that the party would be doing a lot of soul-searching and feeling the need for a strong liberal voice in British politics. I have no intention to turn this into a Lib-Dem-only blog, but the issue of who next leads the party and what direction it decides to take next is something I deeply care about. In other words, I’ll be paying more attention to the Lib Dem leadership contest than the Labour one… but I haven’t forgotten about the latter, and will post on it in the coming weeks.
Each candidate was allowed to make a ten-minute opening statement before the Q&A section, but not within the hearing of each other. This meant that, following the introductory notices from Tim Gordon and Sarah Brinton, Norman Lamb took to the floor for his opening statement whilst Tim Farron was led off-stage to an undisclosed location. The atmosphere in the hall had a lively buzz and there was a lot of laughter at this slightly bizarre convention.
Norman Lamb opened by saying he believes in leading from the front. The Liberal Democrats have lost some brilliant MPs in London, including Lynne Featherstone, who introduced same-sex marriage legislation in her time as Equalities Minister. Feathersone was present at the hustings and received such a tumultuous round of applause that Lamb had to cut it short, joking that it would use up all of his ten minutes. He got another laugh by saying ‘I confidently predict that this is one election that will be won by a Lib Dem’.
Lamb then set out his more serious credentials: he has tried in his past roles as councillor and lawyer to protect liberal values, for example winning compensation for women who were unfairly dismissed by the MoD for becoming pregnant. As Health Minister he oversaw the first ever waiting time standards introduced for mental health in April of this year. He believes that with freedoms achieved by liberalism comes responsibility and we should work internationally to unite people and protect the planet.
On the future of the party, he said the Lib Dems need more effective campaigning, perhaps bringing in external influences to strengthen it and inspire young people to the liberal cause. With his young London audience in mind, he said we should ‘think of ourselves as a start-up’. With the right rejuvenation the Lib Dems can restore people’s faith in politics.
Norman Lamb was warmly applauded and then there was a brief lull as he was shepherded off and Tim Farron retrieved from the unknown location backstage. As Farron prepared to speak, the disembodied voice of Lamb drifted back to us, and the tech people were quickly briefed to switch his microphone off. Farron laughed it off as an attempt by his rival to shoehorn in on his ten minutes, and then we were off again.
Tim Farron said that a great speech is one which moves people from one place to another. On 8th May, Nick Clegg used his resignation speech to assert the value of liberalism to our nation. Farron paid further tribute to Clegg as a man who would do something on a point of principle, whether or not it would bring him recognition or reward. He cited the example of Clegg ending the detention of children for asylum purposes, which was done at expenditure of great personal and political capital and went largely unreported, but changed the lives of those 5,000 children.
Farron said that the boost in party membership saved the Lib Dems from complete despair in the aftermath of the general election, and that new members have done a huge amount just by joining. But there is no doubt that the Lib Dems were sent into the political wilderness on 7th May. There is an overwhelming need to rebuild and ‘if you want to win, I am your man’. The Lib Dems are needed as a ‘vanguard’ to protect the Human Rights Act, to tackle housing issues and to take the lead on climate change.
Setting out his personal backstory, Farron said he grew up in Preston in the 1970s and was raised by a single mum who was so strong-willed that he never realised at the time how poor they were. He sees inequality as not just immoral but also stupid: it squanders talent and opportunity. He has the same vision for both the party and country, and that is ambition. His political hero is William Beveridge and we are again in a time where we need ‘big answers to big, big questions’. This has not been the Lib Dems’ first ‘near-death experience’ and ‘never has there been more of a need for a liberal voice in British politics’. But survival is not inevitable and we have to fight for it. Farron;s approach would be to plan to win (at a local level: ‘pick a ward, win a ward’ rather than thinly spreading resources) and build an infrastructure, learning lessons from 38 degrees and the Dutch party D66.
Farron rounded off with a tribute to Charles Kennedy, picking out three of his many attributes. Firstly, ‘he was human’ and not spun, famously refusing to go what was considered on-message and instead following his own message. Secondly, ‘he was principled’ – opposition to the Iraq war may be a populist position now, but back then he was heckled by all sides of the House of Commons and called a Chamberlain-like appeaser. Thirdly, ‘he was effective’ and led the Lib Dems to their greatest electoral success since that of the Liberal party under Lloyd George. To Farron’s mind, these three are linked and made him a great leader. The Lib Dems need another leader now, and also need every one of the 62,000 party members to become leaders.
There were over 60 questions submitted, of which 21 were asked. The two candidates were in agreement over a lot of areas, most notably:
Future campaigns: The Liberal Democrats need to stand strongly on their own agenda; not a wishy-washy centrist position or defining themselves in relation to other parties. The messages in the 2015 election campaign were a mistake and blurred the party’s identity. It must be clearly promoting liberal values including civil liberties, internationalism and humanitarianism.
Diversity: Both men were embarrassed that the party’s rules (leadership contenders must be an MP) left a pool of eight eligible candidates, all of whom were ‘male and pale’. The party is in need of more female, BAME and LGBT+ representation at the top level and both candidates would work towards achieving this.
Party unity: Whoever loses the leadership contest will support the successful candidate. Both agree on the need for unity to ensure a successful Lib Dem fightback.
Immigration: This is to be celebrated and seen, in Farron’s words, as ‘a blessing, not a curse’. Labour are starting to jump on the bandwagon; the Lib Dems will not do so. The resource shortfalls in housing, the NHS and education are entirely the fault of years of bad policy and those who choose to move here should not be blamed for politicians’ failures to build extra capacity into the infrastructure. Migration within the EU is currently almost at a balance, with 2.7 million from other EU countries residing in the UK, and 2.6 UK expats residing in other European countries.
Here are three of the Q&As to give a flavour of the level of detail in the individual responses:
Should we apologize for or defend the Lib Dems’ actions in coalition?
Norman Lamb: If you lose people’s trust, they stop listening to you. We have to take collective responsibility for breaking our pledge on tuition fees. But the Lib Dems should hold their heads up high for what they achieved in government, particularly securing the pupil premium, the rise in the tax-free personal allowance, legislating for equal marriage and the liberal reforms of pension legislation.
Tim Farron: To repudiate the five years spend in government would be ‘utterly inaccurate and unfair given the achievements we have made’. The Tories’ attach on civil liberties in the Queen’s Speech may be the moment the penny dropped across the nation of what the difference between the coalition government and sole Conservative government will be. It was ‘an appalling decision’ on tuition fees and we have to work very hard to rebuild trust.
I can’t remember if it was at this point in hustings or elsewhere, but Farron and Lamb’s only direct clash was on the tuition fees issue. Norman Lamb was a minister at the time and felt he had to obey the party whip and vote with the government. Tim Farron said although it was good policy, the fact that the Lib Dems’ central pledge before the 2010 election had been to oppose tuition fees meant he personally felt the need to vote against it. Lamb questioned why Farron voted against a policy he agreed with; Farron said it was a point of principle not to betray voters’ trust and that the party as a whole were ‘rightly punished’ for going back on their word. Lamb said he had taken the pragmatic view of supporting the government so that he could push through liberal policies as health minister, and it would have been a mistake for him to resign over tuition fees. I felt this last point was a bit disingenuous: it’s no doubt true that backing the government on this vote freed up political capital to expend elsewhere, but abstention from the vote would have been permitted without the need for resignation.
What key policies would you focus on as leader?
Norman Lamb: A properly-funded NHS, because independent studies have shown it provides good value for money and equity in healthcare, so we need to maintain it properly. Would push to complete the job of mental ill-health equality. We need liberal solutions to the housing crisis and tackle the issue of overseas investors leaving properties empty in London. Greener energy and cycle-friendly cities should also be prioritised.
Tim Farron: Would pick housing as the number-one issue. Already, buy-to-lets are often ex-council houses and the shortage of affordable housing will grow worse under the Tories’ plans to extend right to buy. The Lib Dems should aim to be the ‘political wing of housing associations’ and aim for legislation which would give them a set proportion of new builds. In all areas of policy, the party needs to be ‘fleet of foot’ and prepared to react quickly on principle.
Does London’s housing crisis require a separate solution to that of the rest of the UK?
Tim Farron: House prices are twelve times the average wage in London; the only other place in the UK the multiplier is currently that high is in the Lake District. We must curtail the trend to buy properties purely as financial assets and then leaving them empty, and reverse right-to-buy for housing association properties. He quotes John Stuart Mill: ‘The only freedom which deserves the name is that of pursuing our own good in our own way, so long as we do not attempt to deprive others of theirs, or impede their efforts to obtain it.’ Farron’s take is that the right to buy a second home shouldn’t trump someone’s right to buy a first home.
Norman Lamb: In the UK, six banks have unaccountable concentrations of power, compared with thousands of more locally based banks in Germany who are more inclined to lend to first-time buyers and small businesses. There has been ‘a complete market failure’ in housing. The government should take control of the issue, directly commission new builds in London and ensure they’re used as first homes for Londoners.
Norman Lamb reflects that a couple of days ago, a Labour supporter stopped him in the street and wished him well in the leadership contest, because he’d made a connection. We need to reach out to those beyond our own party who share our values. As a government minister you meet a lot of people with very tough lives but you can make a difference and help them. If we are to succeed as a party, we must foremost be outward-looking.
Tim Farron says the tragedy is that you can’t make a real difference when you lose the election. There is no point in finishing second, third or fourth; the Lib Dems must win again. We need to be unafraid to be ‘spiky’ over issues and get people listening, promoting internationalism rather than nationalism. ‘We are not just a leaflet-delivering cult’; we are winners who will make a difference.
The hustings was incredibly useful because it demonstrated very clearly the similarities and differences between the two candidates. Farron started off a bit tentatively but became increasingly passionate and got a massive round of applause for his closing speech, which he delivered brilliantly. His method of rebuilding the party would be from grassroots up, with expansion and targeted wins on the agenda. Lamb initially had the warmer reception but was clearly struggling to maintain energy levels, showing us his need to fuel himself with a can of Red Bull during the hustings. His method of rebuilding the party would include external analysis and a more substantial overhaul, with a concentrated effort to win over those from other parties.
Both candidates were engaging and amusing, and they’re putting an impressive amount of effort into attending hustings up and down the country. Both care deeply about the party and want to lead it to victory again. But Tim Farron’s approach is, in his own words, more ‘from the gut’: his politics relies on instinctive points of principle and being able to communicate with people in a direct manner that they understand. From what I heard, I’m prepared to trust his instincts, and he gets my vote. But as we left the hall and were presented with leaflets and support messages, I have to concede that Norman Lamb wins on badge design.