Tomorrow (15th July) is the deadline for the return of ballot papers in the election of a new leader of the Liberal Democrats, and by Thursday 16th July, we will know whether the verdict of the membership is Tim Farron, or Norman Lamb.
I left the party more than a few years ago now, but it was in my blood for many years. It felt like family. I joined the party at the tender age of 17, and was a contemporary of Tim Farron. It was clear back then that he was a future leader, and if I was still a member today, I would cast my vote without hesitation for him. I worked on many of his campaigns when he was a stalwart of the National Union of Students, and served with him on the executive of the party’s student wing. He is a campaigner without equal in the social liberal tradition, and can help get the liberal cause back to a position where it is deserving of electoral support. When he was on standing for the NUS Executive, I remember one of his favourite refrains was to accuse the then Labour leadership of being about as ‘radical as an episode of Terry and June’ which seemed to be on BBC One all the time back then. Plus ca change!
But his job, if he is indeed successful, is a more profound one than I think many in the party are prepared for. Two notes to help make my point.
The first is a contribution from a Guardian reader on 4th July, printed in preparation for the hustings events, and what they feel the next Lib Dem leader needs to do differently:
“Liberalism was and is naturally a movement of big ideas that were seen as unrealistic in the first place yet provided guidance for future reform. In contrast, the Lib Dems appear to have failed to provide a big and and long-term vision since Paddy Ashdown stood down from the leadership. So what is your big idea, contrasted against short-term soundbites from Labour/Tory party when it comes to the economy or fiscal policy?”
They hit the nail on the head. The party needs once again to be the intellectual powerhouse, pulling the rest of the political landscape towards IT – not the other way round, by chasing the positioning of the other parties.
The second is a note I wrote to myself in the aftermath of the General Election result about what the Liberal Democrats would have to do to make them ever worthy of my vote again, let alone tempt me to consider joining them. This is what I wrote:
“This election result was clearly a verdict on the party over the last five years. The Party doesn’t just lose 2/3rds of its vote share, and more than 85% of its MPs because other parties have constructed a campaign of fear. I have yet to hear the party accept that this is the democratic verdict of the people – instead it insists on sounding ‘hard done-by’.
“Perhaps the party could have conducted itself differently during those five years? While the party feels it went into coalition in the national interest, maybe it could have achieved more by either securing control of whole ministries – or even by having a ‘confidence and supply’ arrangement, where it could have maintained more of its identity through vetos, while still securing a stable economy. This could have prevented the bedroom tax; NHS reorganisation, and tuition fees increases, for example. Maybe the party needs to accept that there may have been other alternatives to the path it took.
“On tactics, why did the party play into the whole ‘fear’ thing by refusing to work with the SNP? I thought the party were the ultimate pluralists, and surely the SNP would make more natural coalition partners than the Conservatives when it comes to policy?
“In terms of the the future, I don’t want to see the Liberal Democrats trying to ape the ‘big two’ parties. I want to see a party that ‘gives a sh*t’ and wants to do something positive. I want to see a party that demonstrates that we can mobilise and make common cause in a way that is more powerful than the sum of the individuals; intervening proactively where markets fail, and challenging some of the framing of debates that we take for granted – for example, on austerity, on social housing, and on nuclear deterence.
“The party should be about understanding and challenging concentrations of power, and coming up with people-centred solutions to problems.
“The party should be about a wider spread of opportunity, which has to mean a dispersal of unearned, inherited wealth. The ‘Pupil Premium’ just isn’t enough.
“The party shouldn’t be about protecting its own backside (and we have seen that far too often in the last parliament) – the party as a vehicle is only of any use for achieving these ideals if it brings more of us together to achieve these things in common. People want to see things done differently.
“The party should be about championing an optimistic vision of society which allows each of us to explore who we are and what we can contribute to our community, not just take as much from it as we can.”
If the new leader is to succeed, and if they are to recruit me back as a voter, or even a member (not that they even want me, or me the same), I think they have to build a ‘Liberal Cause‘ with a strong emotional pull, not a tick-list, number-crunched, business-as-usual ‘party’ in the traditional sense. That is what I signed up to as a 17 year old when I joined the Liberal Party way back in 1987. It’s what I thought I was ultimately building towards whenI became National Secretary of the Student Liberal Democrats in 1990, worked for Simon Hughes MP in 1993, and a party Press & Broadcasting Officer in 1996. My home town of Yateley has been a Liberal stronghold ever since I was a child. This year, it lost a district councillor, and kept the other by a single vote. The party at large has lost a huge swathe of goodwill because it was seen as being silent from beginning to end in the face of the Coalition project taking shape, and for a democratic movement, this was not healthy. The party movement needs to develop a voice of its own again, just as it did when I first joined in 1987.
That ’cause’ has to be about challenging power; privilege; pollution; and poverty and injustice – things it was perceived to have abandoned. It must be positive, practical, progressive, and pluralist. Far too often in government, it came across as too tribal for its own good, too preoccupied with collective responsibility with the Conservatives.
I wish the new leader every success – and hope for the party’s sake it is Tim Farron.