Last night, I attended the Liberal Democrat leadership hustings in Nottingham. It was held in a large, but peculiarly airless black box theatre at the Djanogly City Academy, bringing back uncomfortable memories of Saturday mornings a few years ago when my OU critical social psychology tutorials were held there.
I had intended to diligently take notes on what Norman Lamb and Tim Farron said, and then report back here on the nuances, but as the chair pointed out at the beginning of the evening, a Liberal Democrat was definitely going to win this election. On matters of substance, the two candidates were therefore likely to be in agreement 99% of the time. So it proved. Even when Norman started one of his answers by saying that he disagreed with Tim, I really couldn’t spot much of a difference in the substance of his answer once he’d got to the end of it.
So if there’s little to differentiate the candidates on matters of policy, how do you choose who to vote for? It was certainly true that the people I spoke to at the meeting had found their own choices difficult to make. Pleasingly for the future of the party, the choice is difficult because of the outstanding quality of both candidates. I’m sure that another party currently holding their own leadership contest wished that any one of theirs were even half as good as either Tim or Norman.
Given that both candidates live and breathe Liberalism (and that’s obviously the case based on the evidence of last night), the key test for me is which of them stands the best chance of being noticed by the public over the next 5 years and enthusing the 20% or so of the electorate who might be persuaded to vote for us in 2020. Oh, and enthusing the party at large to go out and campaign, donate money, deliver leaflets and rebuild our local government base, of course.
Two things convinced me during the evening that Tim is the right choice to lead now, in the circumstances that the party finds itself in today.
Firstly, Norman’s obvious intellect shines through everything that he says. His deeply held and considered views on mental health, drug reform and many other topics are clear. But in the parlous circumstances the party finds itself in, we need more than pure intellect to survive. Likewise, Tim has deeply held and considered views on range of topics – housing, poverty, social justice – but I also get the impression from listening to him that he’s got the rhetorical skills, raw passion and sheer bloody-mindedness needed to make sure that a hostile press and a sceptical public can’t ignore him … and better than that, actually want to listen to him.
Secondly, although both agree that we need to be bolder in putting forward what the party believes in, rather than defining ourselves in terms of what the other parties may or may not believe, it was Tim that had started to answer the “so what” questions – in other words, why our beliefs make the Liberal Democrat view of the world distinctive and valuable to the electorate. For example (and this isn’t an exact quotation from last night, but I hope that it captures the sense of what Tim said), “Our Liberal values mean that we’re internationalists, which is why we support the UK’s membership of the EU. Our membership is important, because it’s the EU which has made war between European nations unthinkable today, and means that we can act effectively together to tackle the threat posed to us all by terrorism”.
So, as I’ve said here before, I’m backing Tim for leader. I hope that whatever the outcome of the leadership election, they both continue to work together constructively as colleagues for the good of the party, but more importantly, I’m sure they’d want to do so anyway for the good of the country.