Last night I braved the stormy weather to attend the Liberal Democrats leadership hustings in Nottingham. I started the evening without a strong preference for either candidate and came away in the same frame of mind. It’s an unoriginal thought in Lib Dem circles, but I believe that either candidate will lead the party well. Even so, Ed and Jo impressed me during the event. So my judgement is that the evening was a high scoring draw, even if (to mix sporting metaphors) many of the questions asked were gentle lobs.
The hustings was more upbeat than the one in 2015 I’d attended. This was undoubtedly due to the much higher attendance and recent electoral successes. It seems like we’re no longer fighting for mere survival, but trying to figure out how to grow sustainably. The presence of Steve Bray also added some welcome colour to an otherwise nondescript university venue.
Ed’s strongest when he highlights the importance of simple, repeated messaging as a way of reaching the electorate. He argues that we need to keep forming policies based on evidence and our principles, even if they seem unpopular. Ed cites the examples of the “Stop Brexit” messaging of recent months and party history, including our opposition to the Iraq war and arguing in the 90s/00s for a penny on income tax to support education.
He’s rightly proud of his green credentials, making the excellent point that environmental policies need to be sold on their benefits rather than a “hair shirt” approach. I’d love to see the party develop the “your house as a power station” concept more, regardless of who wins this contest.
Ed’s most passionate while making his final statement, noting we really could be choosing a future prime minister. He doesn’t tell us to go back to our constituencies and prepare for government, but he’s not far off. “Stop Brexit, heal the country. Let’s win”.
Jo is at her best when she states that rebuilding trust with the electorate and communicating are the same. She says that authenticity is important and making emotional connections with policy is essential. Winning is not solely about having rational policies and catchy slogans. Actions are important too. She says that others (including MPs, hopefully!) are definitely looking at how we treat new people joining the party, like Chuka Umunna.
Jo puts the biggest smile of the evening on my face when she talks about the importance of lifelong learning (without actually using the phrase). She sees reskilling as being one way of ensuring de-industrialised areas aren’t left behind economically, as happened in the past. I get the impression that the future of work and spreading opportunity outside London and the South East is something she’s put considerable thought into. I’d love to see more detail on this in due course. She’s passionate when condemning the lack of attention given to this topic by the current government.
Her closing message is that she will be a leader who can cut through by working across generations, across the country and across party lines.
There were no questions asked about electoral reform, and neither candidate introduced it into their answers. This was slightly disappointing, as I suspect electoral fairness will soon become a hotter topic than ever before. If we cede Liberal and Social Democratic leadership in this area the public will not forgive us. Fair votes are essential to a properly functioning democratic society.
As I said at the start, I remain undecided as to how I’m going to vote. I’ve signed up for the online hustings tomorrow evening, so maybe that will help me to decide. It feels like a really important decision and it’s one that I don’t intend to duck.