A few weeks ago I smuggled myself into the Islington hustings between Tim Farron and Norman Lamb – a socialist cuckoo in the liberal nest. I was curious to discover what the mood was within the party that suffered an even more brutal reckoning with the electorate than Labour, and what, if any, lessons our leadership candidates could glean from the contest.
One attitude prevailed over all others: defiance. The Liberal Democrats are not prepared to roll over and die. Farron’s pitch was aimed squarely at rebuilding the party’s presence in town halls and bolstering its ranks in parliament. Lamb, for his part, argued for an intellectual renaissance including every member in order to revive popular support for liberalism across the country. Neither candidate, nor any of the assembled members, wanted to trade another stab at government for the ideologically “purity” of perennial opposition.
Yet there was no hiding from the recent past, either. Both Farron and Lamb spoke candidly about the failings of their party in government, to appreciative nods from at least some in the audience. The expected mea culpas for the bedroom tax and tuition fees betrayal flowed thick and fast during the Q&A, but there were also principled defences of the things the party “did right” in government, such as taking (some) of the low paid out of income tax and getting to grips with mental health. Support for Nick Clegg was also forthcoming, especially from Farron, in a clear departure from the position Labour’s hopefuls have taken towards Ed.
Parallels with Labour’s existential crisis were also easy to draw. Swallowed by a Tory-dominated government and dyed pale blue in the eyes of the electorate, the Liberal Democrats must also ask what they are for today. In one revealing exchange, both candidates were asked which one of the three Liberal Democrat values (listed on the back of their membership cards) they thought most needed attention: liberty, equality, or community.
Lamb trumpeted the importance of standing up for “individual freedom and power to citizens,” but quickly followed up with “I think also we have to be extremely concerned by this growing divide between rich and poor, and in particular by the Conservative threat to remove £12 billion of welfare benefits.” He also called for a “Beveridge for the 21st century,” in a clear bid to reclaim the welfare state as a Liberal Democrat priority.
Farron took an even more lefty line with his choice: equality. “I say this because fundamentally to understand what robs you of your liberty most is to understand that the impediment to exercising your choices are more often or not circumstances[…] We have one of the biggest divides between the rich and poor of any western economy and that is not just morally wrong, it is also utterly stupid and I want to make the case for the inefficacy of inequality, not just that it is wrong, but that is utterly foolish,” he said.
What Labour leadership candidate would be ashamed to claim those words as their own? None, I’d wager.
What this represents is a concerted grab for the left by both candidates. This is to be expected following their lurch to the right in coalition, but does not mean it can be summarily discredited. With Labour seemingly tacking closer to the centre ground under Harman’s interim leadership, space will open on the left for smaller parties to nibble at its vote share.
Right now, the Liberal Democrats resemble a shrunken sect lost in the wilderness. Yet all they lack is a charismatic leader to bring them back into contention as a political force. And the wait for that leader is nearly over.