This is my first leadership election as a member of the Liberal Democrats. I joined in September 2008, so I missed the last one – and, even though I had started volunteering a year before, I can’t remember anything about the Clegg-Huhne dust-up. It’s a contest which I’ve been anticipating (waiting for?) for several years now, but one where I presumed that I would be a neutral observer, at least to start. And yet, I find myself strongly supporting Tim Farron to be our next Leader.
Why has this happened? It’s not out of any antipathy towards Norman Lamb – I have enormous respect, and even affection, for Norman, whose effective championing of mental health as a minister deserves all the praise that it gets. Nor is it an uncritical endorsement of Tim – I can see his flaws, and think that he’s a work in progress (as most party leaders are when they’re elected). But, despite this, Tim is the candidate for now, the one able to lift us out of the dire situation that we find ourselves in.
It’s worth considering just how awful things are for the Liberal Democrats. Not since the early 1970s have we had so few MPs; we have ceased to be the third force in British politics, overtaken by UKIP in England and the SNP in Scotland; we dipped below 5% of the vote in the majority of constituencies in the UK. Seth Thevoz’s analysis of the results at constituency level is as acute as it is utterly depressing. We have elections for the Scottish Parliament and Welsh Assembly in less than a year, where on current trends a further wipeout, on top of the disastrous 2011 results, looks likely. Our financial resources are limited by a severe reduction in the hoped-for Short Money, and we can anticipate the collapse of many local parties held together by an MP’s money, staff, or force of character (and there are far more of these than we’d like to think). Yes, we have had a welcome boost of members since the election – I welcome them, and I say that they will be absolutely crucial in the struggle ahead – but unless our fortunes enjoy improvement sometime soon they will become disengaged. So will our longstanding activists, who will begin to wonder if they shouldn’t devote their time to pressure groups or join another party. We have no newspaper, except perhaps The Independent, which supports us, and most are downright hostile. But, worst of all, nobody knows what we stand for, and after an election campaign where we changed our messaging several times and defined ourselves as moderating influence to everyone else, who can blame them? I have heard an alarming number of members say that, as bad as things are, they’re worse for the Labour Party. I think that this is self-comforting balls. Labour’s situtation is grave, but there is a path back to government for them. We could die as an effective national force, and without a severe jolt to the system we probably will. Even with that jolt, we still could.
What’s the point, you might ask, of this wallowing in miserablism? My point is that I believe we need two things to have a hope of survival: a reason for existence, and a means of getting that through to voters. Tim, I believe, is the candidate who offers both. Norman is probably stronger on the details of policy (although Tim is sharper here than his critics suggest), but Tim is better on the big themes that are necessary for where we are now. Tim has had time to develop these on the backbenches, and you can see them on show in his Beveridge Lecture to SLF conference a few years back where he describes the way forward for a modern, interventionist liberalism. Tim has also chosen to emphasise housing policy, which is something as close to his heart as mental health is to Norman’s (it is also a passionate interest of mine) – it is also an issue of increasing salience with the electorate, particularly younger voters, and one where there is a lot of space for the Lib Dems to make the issue our own. These are the broad narratives on which we can build a distinctive platform.
But more than anything else, Tim can communicate our ideas and policies better than any British liberal I know of. He comes across as an ordinary bloke, and his roots are decidedly outside the Westminster Bubble. He is passionate and unwavering in defence of the liberal position on issues like immigration, but doesn’t come across as chiding or lecturing. I know that there is a suspicion of his way with words from some in the Party, but it is a skill which we desperately need right now as we fight for airtime against the other minor parties. Having met Norman, I can attest that he can electrify a small gathering with his charisma, something which explains his success in North Norfolk. But Tim can project his energy and passion to a far wider audience.
There is another reason, which has come out of the campaign, which makes me glad to have backed Tim, and that is the way that Norman’s campaign has defined their candidate as a ‘true liberal’. I’ve long said that we Lib Dems are far too nice to each other for our own good, so it isn’t the deliberate implication that Tim isn’t a ‘true liberal’ that bothers me so much. It’s the definition of what exactly makes a ‘true liberal’, which seems to amount to abortion, assisted dying, drugs, and gay rights. I have sympathy with the last point – Tim’s record on LGBT rights frankly isn’t where I would like it to be, although he does have a clear plan of future action in this area. But Tim has said that he supports the 1967 Abortion Act, and his on drugs is far more liberal than anything advocated by anyone in the two main parties. Moreover, the singling out of these issues as the acid test of a ‘true liberal’ makes me uncomfortable. There is an insidious pattern in party discourse to see these issues as the real ‘liberal issues’, and things like public services, unemployment, and so on as extraneous, despite the enormous effect these latter issues have on people’s ability to live their own lives independently and on their own terms. James Graham has described the problem with this kind of thinking better than I can, though I did have a stab a few years ago. Furthermore, there is an irony that Tim has often been accused of just saying what people want to hear, but it’s Norman’s campaign which has sought to stroke the sensibilities of Lib Dem activists. I know that a leadership election by its nature is about pleasing party members, but we need to remember that there is a wide world out there which needs to be persuaded of the merits of immigration, drugs reform, and so on. Sometimes the Lamb campaign seems to ignore that you can be very, very liberal, but if you can’t bring people with you then it’s a complete waste of time. If a Lamb leadership were to continue along these lines it would, I think, be a dangerous path for the health of British liberalism and the success of our party.
I think that this leadership election will be closer than most people think, although Tim is still the frontrunner. These are my personal reasons for voting for Tim, and you might find them unconvincing. I do ask, though, that if you have a vote in the election that you (a) use it, and (b) vote as if the future of the party depended on it. Because, as I have explained, we are in deep trouble, and the leader we choose now will be central to whether we live as a relevant force in British politics, or crumple into irrelevance. The hour is dark and the times are hard. It’s time for Tim.