Liberal Democrat Newswire #67: State of play in Lib Dem leadership race

Liberal Democrat Newswire #67 came out last week, looking (surprise!) at the race to be Liberal Democrat leader.

You can also read it below, but if you’d like the convenience of getting it direct by email in future, just sign up here. It’s free!

Since LDN #67 came out, there’s been further news in the leadership race:


Welcome to the 67th edition of Liberal Democrat Newswire, which includes a special survey for party members about the leadership race and an analysis of the state of play ahead of ballot papers going out on Wednesday, 24 June.

Best wishes,


P.S. Although the leadership race has been dominating my blog in recent weeks, there’s been time to cover other topics too such as How to lose a seat: a Conservative perspective and Ledges, cliffs and the myth of short-term factors. Or what Ryan Coetzee got right.

In this edition:

Party member? Take part in leadership survey

Member of the Liberal Democrats? Then take part in the exclusive Liberal Democrat Newswire leadership election survey and have your say on what you make of the candidates and contest so far: https://www.surveymonkey.com/r/232YB85

More emails about socks than leadership

These are not my socks.

With an expense limit set at £50,000, there is only limited scope for direct one-to-one communications aimed at party members during the Lib Dem leadership contest.

The costs of postage these days leaves little room for doing mailings within that limit, whilst the limitations of the party’s phone number records (and the time phoning 60,000 takes) also curtails that form of direct communication. Emails are being sent out on behalf of the candidates to members, but again the volume is relatively muted thanks to the rules limiting the number. I’ve had as many emails about my latest online socks order as are being sent out in total by the party on behalf of the candidates.

Add to all that only limited media coverage and this all makes for a fairly ‘low information’ campaign – which helps explain why so many members report coming out of a hustings meeting impressed by both candidates and still not quite sure who to vote for. There isn’t a lot of information to go on for most members – and matters aren’t helped by the stultifying format for official hustings, which minimises the chances of revelations in the Q+A sessions.

What’s more, with his enthusiastic embrace of the party’s decision to go into coalition, and an intent to go into coalition again in future, Tim Farron is leaving very little space between himself and Norman Lamb on the big strategic issues.

Even on what should be the contentious question of how much time the party spends talking about the past – defending its record on coalition – compared to moving on, both Farron and Lamb say much the same, defending the past and making references to how events since the election show the party was right all along – with the (sometimes even explicit) inference that the voters were wrong and will come to see the error of their ways.

This all should be a contentious question because it’s a hard one to answer: is talking again and again about what the party did just before it got a mammoth kicking from the electorate wise? But would not talking about it be to make the same mistake that Labour made after 2010, leaving its record in government to be framed by the Conservatives instead?

Again, on this Farron and Lamb are in step with mostly interchangeable answers. For the front-runner Tim Farron you can see the tactical smarts in this: why offer up a gap between the two which could threaten his lead? For Norman Lamb it genuinely reflects his views and moving off to an answer clearly different from Farron’s would be a ‘brave’ move. Yet no gap on policy or strategy leaves Farron ahead on oratory and years of gladhanding members. 

That is why Lamb’s campaign is looking for dividing lines elsewhere: talking up issues of personal liberalism – such as same-sex marriage and the right to die – which put in the spotlight Farron’s religious beliefs. It was a smartly done piece of smiling sharp elbows for Norman Lamb to single out Lynne Featherstone in the audience at the London hustings and praise her work on same-sex marriage. Who could object to someone praising a member of the audience? And so what better way to indulge in a bit of positioning of yourself against your fellow candidate than to clothe it in such praise?

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(Ex)MPs make their views known

In Liberal Democrat Newswire #66 I wrote about the importance of endorsements in the leadership race:

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…

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.

So far, 20 former or current Lib Dem MPs have backed Tim Farron (17 former, 3 current) but 24 have backed Norman Lamb (23 former, 1 current). That gives Norman Lamb a useful edge although there are enough names in both lists who are controversial enough amongst party members for the full set of names not to be something for either campaign to be too wild about advertising.

Meanwhile, each has scored one media endorsement – Tim Farron from the New Statesman and Norman Lamb from The Independent.

A hint of serious differences on the economy and public services

The leadership race has seen a curious role reversal when it comes to economic policies and public services. One candidate has been forthright in praising the last five years whilst another has been praising centralised national targets backed up by extra public spending.

Yet the most vocal praise for the last five years has, as mentioned above, come from social liberal Tim Farron and the call for targets and public spending (in the form of action on mental health) has come from Orange Booker Norman Lamb.

If nothing else, it shows the limitation of such labels, but it also helps explain why economic policy has featured so little in the disagreements between the candidates so far. Moreover, what little there has been has often been to narrow the gap between them, such as with Tim Farron dropping his previous support for a 50p tax rate.

Look closely, however, and there are substantive differences of which there was a hint at the Local Government Conference hustings where Tim Farron said he’d have been happy to go on the anti-austerity march if it hadn’t clashed with hustings but Norman Lamb avoided answering. Likewise, in their interviews with Liberal Reform, both mention inequality but Tim Farron mentioned it sooner and with greater passionate than Norman Lamb. Both are passionate about equality of opportunity, but there is a difference of instincts on inequality.

Hustings: score draw, which means a win for Farron

I’ve covered in some detail on my website two of the hustings events so far:

  • Lamb pulls off a surprise at Lib Dem hustings, but race is still Farron’s to lose: “[The hustings was] really the leadership race so far in miniature. Norman pulling off the occasional smart move – including the revelation that he threatened to resign as a minister in order to ensure mental health waiting times were introduced – but never opening up enough off a gap for long enough to seriously upset Tim’s position as favourite … Tim Farron also continued [to be more] effusive than Norman about the party’s record in government, praising Nick Clegg strongly and adding: “There is no mileage in repudiating what we have done together”. Tactically smart as critics of coalition have no other candidate to turn to and the party’s new members generally are not critics of it.”
  • There’s a new game at Lib Dem leadership hustings: guess the implausibly shoe-horned answer: “For hardened leadership hustings veterans there is now – aside from the game of ‘how long until the first mention of Malta?’ – the sport of ‘guess the answer’. Both Farron and Lamb have a relatively limited number of points they try to work into each Q+A session even though the questions themselves are ranging quite widely. You can therefore play a game of trying to guess which answer is going to be shoehorned into which not-quite-relevant question as you go – and in Manchester Lamb won the Brazen Shoehorn Award for turning a question about the anti-austerity march in London into an opportunity to talk about cycling policy on the Continent.”

More analysis in my posts on both those hustings.

Don’t miss out!

Are you reading a forwarded copy of Liberal Democrat Newswire? Or perhaps the web-based version? If so, then why not join thousands of others and sign up to receive direct to your email inbox future editions of what the Daily Telegraph calls a “must read” and which Tim Farron calls, “a must read for all Lib Dems or people who want to understand the Lib Dems”.

Follow the race in more detail

You can read more about the Lamb-Farron contest in the series of posts over on my blog (full archive of posts here), including the fallout from the phone calling controversy that led to Norman Lamb sacking two volunteers from his campaign team and Tim Farron’s forthright support for coalition both in 2010 and in 2020.

Meanwhile the 10 factors I outlined in the last edition of Liberal Democrat Newswire still look to be the ones that’ll determine the race, which is one where Farron is still the frontrunner and it’s his to lose.

That makes each incident where Lamb scores a slight edge – and there have been a few – is really more a missed opportunity for Lamb than a victory for him. A few slight edges aren’t going to be enough and each time it’s only a slight edge that’s one less opportunity left to overturn the race.

With ballot papers only just going out this week, however, there’s time yet for something dramatic to happen: Farron’s the frontrunner, not the shoe-in.

And remember, if you’re a party member then take part in the exclusive Liberal Democrat Newswire leadership election survey: https://www.surveymonkey.com/r/232YB85.

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Thanks for reading

I hope you’re found this edition of Liberal Democrat Newswire interesting, informative, useful – or all three! Remember you can also follow the Lib Dem leadership race via this Facebook event, where both Farron and Lamb are regularly answering questions from members.

Best wishes and thank you for reading,


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