At last! A departure from the standard stump speeches by Tim Farron and Norman Lamb at the Ethnic Minority Liberal Democrats (EMLD) hustings last night.
It wasn’t all change, especially as this time there was a decent reason for Tim Farron’s habit of staring at the ceiling. An intriguing collection of celebratory (birthday?) balloons lodged in its furthest, highest corner.
And studded through Farron’s speech and later answers was many familiar mini-riffs from the campaign. The contrast with Lamb’s speech was familiar too – Farron stronger on the personal stories and passion; Lamb stronger on the thoughtful gravitas.
Lamb had the greater variation from his standard stump speech and answers. He potentially had better personal stories too – such as his first date on a protest outside the National Front HQ – yet didn’t have the delivery to match Farron’s oratory even when he had the better material to work with.
In fact, at times Lamb’s speeches remind me of Patrick Macnee’s memoirs. Many years ago I read the latter – Blind in One Ear – and remember still how frustrating a read it was. Full of stories about the funny people he had met and the amusing incidents he had been involved in, but rather than conveying the humour he just kept on telling the reader ‘this was funny’ without giving the joke itself to laugh at. Likewise Lamb often doesn’t quite manage to evoke the sense of emotion in the listener that the material should generate or the phrases require.
When it came to the questions, both backed not only positive action but also positive discrimination to tackle the party’s lack of diversity and were clear that as leader they would regular intervene in party decisions and processes in the name of improving diversity.
It was good that both questions and answers ranged more widely than Westminster candidates, or indeed candidates, but also into membership and who leaders surround themselves with. That helped draw out some specific commitments on party management from the leadership candidates. Tim Farron would move Leader’s Office out of Parliament and into party HQ. Norman Lamb wants a ‘Morrissey 2’ to look at issues of racial diversity and equality in the Liberal Democrats – a point that Tim Farron later matched.
Although their promises of action were often quite direct, they both hedged a little when it came to the question of what they’d ask EMLD to be better at itself and the series of questions critical of Quilliam, and Maajid Nawaz in particular.
Neither, for example, chose to raise the contrast between EMLD’s efforts to speak for BAME members in the party with the number of questions at an EMLD hustings hostile to one or more BAME members in the party. Does EMLD wish to speak for all BAME Liberal Democrats? If not (and of course there plenty of party bodies who are openly selective in those they wish to speak for – such as the Social Liberal Forum and Liberal Reform), then what’s the criteria for who EMLD does or doesn’t wish to be the representative voice for? And if it’s not a broad voice for all BAME members, then will that undermine its demands to be heard and listened to more often within the party? Or perhaps seeking to be one voice for such a broad and disparate groups as BAME members is not a sensible aim to strive for? Or indeed is perhaps non-BAME members such as myself seeing EMLD through the lens of being the voice or not for everyone just looking for neat pigeonholing which isn’t appropriate? All important questions in terms of how the party operates but both Lamb and Farron passed up on the chance to address them.
This is all insular, if important. So it’s worth adding too how much Farron and Lamb did address broader, public issues about diversity – especially inequality (Farron) and unequal access to public services such as mental health treatment (Lamb).
Two particular quotes stood out for me during the evening:
- “Patriots love their country. Nationalists hate their neighbours.” – Tim Farron
- “There is an anger and a total sense of frustration [from BAME members] about not being treated properly within the party” – Norman Lamb
At the end, it was notable that – for all I’ve said above about Lamb’s oratory – this time he got his peroration right, rising to a crescendo delivered with passion – and drawing longer applause than Farron, who had initially edged it in the applause stakes after the opening statements.
The event, by the way, was chaired by Simon Woolley who shepherded everyone through a good format – breaking away from the stultifying format of the official hustings – to take questions on themes, intervening with follow ups and switching to the floor on regular occasions to explore issues in greater depth. It was a much better and more insightful event thanks to the format and his chairing.