More emails about socks than leadership
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?