Liberal Democrat Newswire #66 came out last week, looking at the 10 key factors in the leadership race between Norman Lamb and Tim Farron.
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Welcome to the 66th edition of Liberal Democrat Newswire, and a special welcome to the many new readers who has signed up in the last few weeks, helping push readership up by 43% over the last year.
No prizes for anticipating that this edition looks at the race between Norman Lamb and frontrunner Tim Farron to be the fifth leader of the Liberal Democrats. Read on and you’ll find out about the 10 factors which will determine who wins. You can also follow the race on this Facebook event, which includes exclusive video content from both candidates.
But first thank you also to the generous readers who make a small monthly donation to help cover the costs of Liberal Democrat Newswire. You too can join these kind folk at www.patreon.com/markpack.
There is a consistent pattern (which isn’t unique to Liberal Democrat leadership contests) of electing a new leader on the basis of them being the opposite in many ways to the previous leader.
It’s the leadership equivalent of the seven-year itch: the appeal of what you’ve had wanes and you wish for something different.
Hence, for example, Paddy Ashdown’s hands-on attitude to party management and flirtatious attitude towards Labour was replaced by the hands-off, Labour-agnostic Charles Kennedy.
This time? Tim Farron is the seven-year itch candidate: a hands-on attitude towards the party’s organisation (something which Clegg took little direct interest in and spoke about even less), combined with the attitude of a preppy outsider rather than than a serious minister.
Lamb is much more like Clegg in his likely leadership style, so on past form this factor means advantage Farron.
2. A quarter of the electorate just joined
The quite remarkable post-election surge in Liberal Democrat membership means just under one in four of the party’s total membership is now made up of people who have joined since the election (see the live figures here). What’s more, they are overwhelmingly new members, rather than rejoining ex-members – and the reasons they give are of the form “OMG! Only 8 Lib Dem MPs” rather than “Hooray, coalition and Clegg are gone”.
There are some re-joiners from those who left because of the events of the last Parliament, but as both my own research collating comments posted online from new members shows and the party’s own new member survey found, they are only a small proportion of this membership surge. More than four in five have not been a member of the Lib Dems before and over half are aged under 35 – though the oldest, Tily, is 91. And the place with the largest membership growth so far? Nick Clegg’s own Sheffield.
This huge surge in membership is doubly significant. Tim Farron may have got close to making true the apocryphal stories of him having shaken the hand of every Lib Dem member, but now there’s a whole load of new members, hands unshaken.
Moreover, their reasons for joining are more in tune with Norman Lamb’s record – in government, implementing Liberal Democrat policies – than with Tim Farron’s clean hands approach of politely ensuring he was never offered a government post.
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How the party should view its time in government, and whether it should defend it or move on, is about more than just the views of new members. It’s also a choice for existing members to make. As I wrote about in Liberal Democrat Newswire #65:
Each time the Conservatives now do something extreme and controversial, it’ll be very tempting to point back to 2010-15 and say, ‘see, we were right all along – look at what we stopped then compared with what’s being done now’.
In 2010-15 Labour never resolved whether to defend its past record in government or to apologise for it – and Labour’s struggles were no unique problem. The Conservatives after Thatcher faced similar problems too, to take just one other example from political history. Will the Liberal Democrats regularly reminding people of what the party did just before its most crushing electoral defeat really be wise?
The very posing of the question reveals my doubts over a simple piece of finger pointing at history. This will be a major strategic choice for the party to get right.
The clearer the break you want with the past, the stronger the choice of Tim Farron is – not a minister, and with votes against some high-profile controversial government policies to boot.
Yet with not only the attitude of those new members but also with popular achievements such as same-sex marriage secured in the last five years, it would be risky for Farron to play this card too hard. It could easily backfire, especially as…
4. Farron’s diversity problem
Before the race for party leader had even officially begun, there were stories in the media showing a remarkable level of instant detailed research about Tim Farron’s past, with some quite fantastically bizarre rumours pushed into circulation too.
Old news and untrue rumours haven’t done Farron any damage so far, but there’s one issue he’s been asked about time and again already: his votes on same-sex marriage and his attitude towards equality for lesbians and gays more widely.
If Farron were a simple careerist, he would have voted for same-sex marriage at each and every possible opportunity. Yet rather than grudgingly accepting that at least it shows he will stick to his principles, the reaction of many Liberal Democrat activists is to worry all the more that those principles are based on an interpretation of Christianity that doesn’t fit comfortably with their own liberal views. (And there is a sub-stratum of Lib Dem activists for whom diversity stops at the doors of religion, with rhetoric about those who base their political views on religious beliefs as harsh as their rhetoric about Ukip).
Much of this is left unspoken in public: honestly and openly debating what role personal religious beliefs should and do have on political views is not a part of British politics. But don’t be surprised if you spot Liberal Democrats activists who on most criteria would be firm Farron fans backing Lamb instead.
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On the surface, the Liberal Democrat nightmare that was the tuition fees pledge is a powerful reason to vote for Tim Farron. He stuck to the pledge and voted against tuition fees, making him the obvious choice for leader if the party wants to move on.
Even for those who think the party shouldn’t repudiate its record in government, there’s a strong attraction to at least move on with tuition fees, as demonstrated by the backing for Tim Farron of previous Clegg-loyalists the married ex-MPs Duncan Hames (former chair of the Federal Policy Committee) and Jo Swinson (a former minister who rightly has much to be proud of her record in government).
So advantage Farron on this one?
Well, sort of. Because there’s another factor at play behind the scenes.
In rebelling and voting against tuition fees, Tim Farron ignored the democratic vote at the party’s 2010 special conference, which was that the party’s MPs should abstain. It’s a rare case of an MP ignoring a conference vote and being cheered on by those who usually demand MPs pay full regard to conference votes.
Farron is not going to start getting flack during the leadership race from such members for ignoring a conference vote, but behind the scenes it has helped cost Farron support amongst his then Parliamentary colleagues. Listen carefully and you hear people who were MPs at the time say that the least worst outcome would have been the MPs sticking together and abstaining – and place the blame for that not happening in part on Farron publicly committing to voting against rather than working to keep colleagues united on what conference had agreed.
So whilst tuition fees will gain Farron votes, it will also help Lamb gain some endorsements. On the subject of which…
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Some in the party love to hate endorsements, yet as Sal Brinton’s victory in the race for Party President showed just a few months ago, they have a powerful impact.
Rolling out your endorsements is partly a game of political momentum building so don’t read too much in to the names so far, beyond the interest that Duncan Hames and Jo Swinson have backed Tim Farron despite their reputations in the 2010-15 government as being rather less of the social liberal wing.
Names as varied as Paddy Ashdown and Vince Cable having publicly criticised Tim Farron in the recent past, so there are likely to be some surprises in endorsements to come, and with Farron being the frontrunner, it’ll be easier for Lamb to beat expectations in the endorsement game.
If Lamb does well amongst (ex) MPs – helped by tuition fees, see above – that will not only give his campaign some valuable momentum, it is also crucial for the grassroots campaigning in this contest as the party’s membership is heavily biased towards their seats.
One reason Chris Huhne never became leader was his lack of popularity amongst fellow Parliamentarians – which meant many MPs were quietly busy in their own constituencies, swaying large numbers of members to vote against him. Ex-MPs have less ability to do this than MPs but they are still a big factor.
7. Campaign organisation
So far, the Farron campaign organisation is better, bigger and slicker than Lamb’s. That’s an important advantage and due – in no small measure – to Tim Farron carefully putting the pieces in place before the general election.
Plotting a leadership campaign well in advance didn’t cause Nick Clegg much trouble (mostly because it went largely unnoticed) and Farron’s much more high profile preparations haven’t either because of their smart dual nature.
Become Party President and spend four years touring the country meeting and enthusing members? Hunt out and respond actively to party members on social media? Or even always respond positively to requests for content and questions from myself? There’s not been any doubt over what part of Tim Farron’s motivations have been for doing all that for several years now, but they are also all good things to do (especially the last one in my book!) – and a good sign also of what he would be like as leader.
Several years ago I picked up a second hand copy of The Collected Speeches of Sir Russell Johnston, Leader of the Scottish Liberal Party 1979-1986. Even by political geek standards it is a niche publication whose nicheness I couldn’t resit. Yet it is also one of the best collection of political speeches I’ve read.
Leader at a time when politics was so grim for Scottish Liberals that even the current situation seems not quite so dark, Johnston was brilliant at giving a small, struggling political party a sense of importance rooted in the history of its beliefs and in war stories of its struggles. Although Johnston had a long political twilight in which he was best known as the answer to political quizzes for his remarkably low winning vote share in 1992 and for popping up in the party’s weekly newspaper under such curious headlines as “Johnston meets Albanians”, in his pomp he was a brilliant orator.
Which is just what the Liberal Democrats need now. I’ve referred in the past to Tim Farron as being the most naturally gifted orator of his generation in the party, which again makes Lamb the person with lower expectations but also the skill to beat them.
Lamb’s skills are more those of the small group than the packed hall, but if he can show at least a touch of the bigger stage stardust in the race, the benefits of oratory won’t all accrue to Farron.
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Tim Farron’s aim for 100,000 party members isn’t without issues (which I’ve written about here) but is a welcome focus on the need to revive the party’s organisation.
An important part of that is the need to revive the party’s ability to target seats effectively under first past the post. As I wrote in Liberal Democrat Newswire #65:
8 MPs, 8% of the vote. That is a result which is painfully easy to remember. It’s also a seats to votes ratio of just 1:1 which is, by the party’s previous standards, appalling.
In my history of the Liberal Democrat approach to political campaigning I looked at the history of this ratio. With 650 (or so – the number varies) seats in Parliament but only a maximum 100% of votes, a 1:1 ratio is pretty poor if you wish to be represented in Westminster. Yet from 1970 to 1992 the ratio varied in the narrow and low range of 0.7:1 to 1.1:1.
The 1997 Lib Dem breakthrough saw the party’s number of MPs leap up from 19 to 46 even though the party’s national vote share fell. This triumph of targeting under Chris Rennard saw the seats:votes ratio hit 2.7:1, going up again to 2.8 in 2001 and 2.9 in 2005. The party was both growing in support and getting increasingly good at turning votes into seats.
But in 2010 it slipped back to 2.5 and now this year has collapsed to 1.0, as if the party has lost all its acquired ability over the last 20 years to show a campaigning edge in key seats.
Fail to fix that problem and much of the rest of what the leadership candidates say will turn out be grand irrelevancies. I’ll return to this topic in more detail over the summer.
For the leadership contest, it’s a challenge and opportunity for both contenders as there’s an eager appetite in the party for convincing answers. Watch carefully how well they both do in their attempts to supply those answers.
10. Policy? Not really
I have left policy to last because it’s unlikely to be a big determining factor during the leadership contest. That’s for two reasons.
First, both Norman Lamb and Tim Farron have rightly grasped the need for the party to avoid a divisive contest at such a fragile time for the party and so are unlikely to don the mantle of Chris Huhne and play up the policy differences between them with sharpened elbows.
Second, policy is not the issue. If a list of media coverage generating popular policies is what the party needs, then last summer would have been a triumph. (Spoiler for those with short memories: it wasn’t. See The summer strategy: well that didn’t work from LDN #53.)
That is, people don’t decide who to vote for based on looking at policies and seeing how closely a party or candidate’s policies match up to their own preferences. Rather, they lean on decisions over perceived competence on issues where different parties all have the same shared objective. For example, voting Conservative because you think they’ll be best at creating new jobs is a valence choice. All parties want more jobs, so picking the Conservatives is about perceived competence, not ideology.
Although there certainly are ideological choices and they do have an influence, it’s valence that dominates in British elections. Hence the problem for the Liberal Democrats in the general election wasn’t about having controversial policies which people didn’t like. There wasn’t even a small echo of the problems with the immigration amnesty policy of 2010 for example (good policy but burdened with the fatal combination of being both controversial and not amenable to a one-sentence defence). Asked where they put the Lib Dems and themselves on the political spectrum, voters kept on putting the party near to themselves overall.
Rather the problems were valence ones – about competence and trust in particular. Overhauling the party’s perception on those is not going to be a minor matter.
To be done seriously, the work has to infuse every corner of the party’s operations, from its disciplinary procedures through to how well the party does (or doesn’t) respond to voters getting in touch for the first time. The new leader, if they wish to be successful, needs to ensure a thorough overhaul, both internally and externally.
There will doubtless by some would-be headline grabbing policy ideas floated during the campaign, but a wiser eye will be kept on the broader question of who has the best answers to those valence problems.
If Farron does indeed become the party’s next leader, it’ll also be one of Nick Clegg’s legacies to the party. The circle of advisers around him treated Farron well over the last five years: he could have been put on the spot with a public offer of a post in government, Clegg’s team could have maximised the impact of Farron’s wavering over same-sex marriage rather than working hard to minimise it, and the stories now in the press about his past could have appeared before the election. Clegg’s team were no Damian McBrides, battling to destroy at every opportunity.
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