The Liberal Democrat leadership election is over. Tim Farron is the new party premier – having won by a sound margin. It seems appropriate to take a moment to appreciate what an honest affair the contest was, with neither man having said a bad thing about the other. This is of course in stark contrast to how the Tories scurrilously secured power at this year’s general election, dispatching literature such as the below through my letterbox every other day.
The Liberal Democrat leadership contest was one of ideas and positivity; a consolidation of 21st-century liberal philosophy. Tim Farron and Norman Lamb were fairly united on the broader issues. They both expressed that Nick Clegg’s decision to enter a coalition with the Conservatives was the right one, that grassroots campaigning is the way forward, and that government needs to become more transparent, accountable and democratic. One man championed social housing above all else (Farron) and the other mental health (Lamb).
A particularly refreshing aspect of the contest was how both men explicitly advocated a move away from Westminster, stressing in unison the importance of campaigning away from those hallowed green pews, and winning voters over “house by house, family by family”.
Having watched the approach that both men adopted throughout their campaigns, and their reflections on the Lib Dem's failings at the general election, I feel satisfied about the future of the party. The pair stringently lambasted the turgid ‘split-the-difference’ message which urged voters who didn’t like the Tories nor Labour to opt for the middle-ground. Rightly so, for this is not how liberalism reached its peak of popularity. Liberals are traditionally renowned for being bold with their beliefs and proactive with their solutions; ‘no to the war in Iraq’ said Kennedy, ‘decriminalise drugs’ said Clegg.
In fact, the liberal values espoused by Farron and Lamb were near identical to those which have been championed by leading Lib Dems since the turn of the 21st century:
Decimalisation of drugs
This is why I’m certain that the Lib Dems didn’t suffer catastrophic losses at the 2015 general election due to ideas or values; they lost due to everything else. So spineless and uninspiring was the campaign, it’s no surprise that swathes of the electorate looked left, looked right, looked down the middle and then looked right again. I know that there are still millions of Lib Dem voters out there; voters who turned Blue at the thought of an anachronistic Miliband government propped up by an antagonistic Sturgeon SNP. With the right approach, and a clearly articulated set of priorities, the Lib Dems can slowly begin to tempt this anxious portion of the electorate back to Yellow soil.
Pathos, logos, ethos
However, here lies the dilemma for Lib Dem members: what is more important – ‘the right approach’ or ‘a clearly articulated set of priorities’? I followed the leadership campaign closely, and I don’t think it’s too trite to say that Farron had the better approach, whereas Lamb possessed a more clearly articulated set of priorities (at least in terms of modern liberal values).
Farron’s reputation as a hands-on campaigner preceded him throughout the leadership election, and not without foundation – this is a man who discusses ideas with his constituents over a game of football and who transformed a Blue constituency into a Lib Dem stronghold. However, let’s not overlook the campaigning zeal shown by Norman Lamb. Lamb participated in 27 hustings and travelled over 10,000 miles over the past two months.
What concerned me most, which is the reason I chose to plug for Lamb over Farron, is the Red Ed flashbacks that sometimes invade my thinking when listening to Farron speak. A very emotional man, Farron’s tendency to lay on the pathos unnerves me (he often speaks of weeping about the recent state of the Lib Dems). If the 2015 general election taught us anything, it is that Britain has a proclivity for a steady and careful government in steady and careful times. Getting angry and sticking it to the man might be the exact sort of rabble-rousing rhetoric that mobilizes the troops in Spain or Greece, but it’s certainly not something the British public cares much for.
Lamb’s subtler, more contemporary ‘orange book liberal’ values and approach would have made him much more appropriate for the current national situation. This is a time to remind Britain of the central tenets of the Liberal Democrats - those of equality and individual freedom (values more frequently extolled by Lamb than they are Farron) – and then let the Conservatives shoot themselves in the foot with anti-populist measures such as repealing the fox-hunting ban and building a new runway at Heathrow.
The successful goading of a sheepish electorate requires a soft and sagacious touch. I doubt whether Tim Farron possesses these qualities. Indeed, if the nationwide rejection of Ed Miliband taught us anything, it’s that invoking class warfare isn’t a very effective tactic for winning over the electorate. Liberalism is not about the tenant vs. the landlord, the employee vs. the employer, or the lender vs. the teller, it’s about freedom for all – big, small, short or tall. Let’s shout about our ideas of course, but please let’s not make any more enemies.