Liberal Democrat leadership: So what happens at a Lib Dem hustings meeting?

newcastle bridges by ratherbewalking
I was peeved when I saw that the Scottish leadership hustings were taking place this coming Saturday as I knew I had to be in London for a Federal Executive away day. In a moment of madness, though, I decided that I would make a trip to Newcastle for the hustings last Friday night. I am, after all, the FE liaison person for the North East region so it would be good to meet people there.

After a 90 minute train journey, a delicious Chicken Fajita in a place called Zapatista and a quick look at the Centurion pub next to the station to see the amazing Victorian tile work (honest), I headed to the Station Hotel a full hour before the hustings started. It was already buzzing with people. They were expecting so many to turn up that they had had to arrange a bigger room.

I managed to get one of the last seats in the room even though I’d got there so early. Strictly speaking, I might have spent too long drinking gin in the bar with my friend of two decades, Jo, where I also found out something about Tim Farron’s past that I didn’t know. I am now hunting down the evidence and when I find it, you will be the first to know. It’s not scandal, unless you count crimes against fashion in that category. 

I was really frustrated with the format. Here was the first chance many people in the room had had to see the party they’d just joined in action and their voices were not heard. If you wanted to submit a question, you had to do it in writing and there was no time for supplementaries. We talk about trusting the people and we can’t even trust our own members to ask their own questions in their own way. It annoyed me that the only voices we heard all evening were Tim, Norman and the chair, Nigel Martin.

When I mentioned this on Facebook, opinion was split. People definitely enjoyed the event, including, presumably, the random member of the public who came in to see the speeches and was so inspired that he joined the party in the break and was readmitted to the members’ only session. I do think we need a bit of a rethink about how we do these things, though.

Anyway, in the first part of the meeting each gave what would be called in the West Wing their “modified stump” speeches. Tim’s was more locally focused with mention of elections at all levels. Norman cracked a joke about setting an example as a former health minister – he had a can of Red Bull in front of him. He spoke about his record on mental health, speaking with great compassion and practical common sense about the changes he’d made. He talked about the need to be intolerant of poverty and and injustice and giving every child the right to flourish. He also raised a laugh when he talked about how he’d forced ministers to reveal who they’d met when he was a back bench MP and then had to live by the conditions he’d set as a minister.  He talked about bringing in the people who share our values but who don’t vote for us. If that sounds familiar, you aren’t wrong. Go back to the last leadership contest in 2007, and you’ll find almost exactly the same thing was said by Nick Clegg. 

He told an audience in his Sheffield Hallam constituency he wanted to reach millions of people who shared liberal values but who did not vote Lib Dem.

He talked about the days in the 1960s when 2000 people attended Young Liberal conferences and about how he planned to reach out to them. It was a very thoughtful speech, which appealed to the many thoughtful members we have.

Tim’s speech was a very different style. It was proper oratory of the sort that sweeps you up and takes you with it. He’s often been painted as someone who’s more comfortable with opposition but he made it clear he wanted us in government at every level to change people’s lives. He was passionate about the things we achieved in government, particularly the pupil premium, helping disadvantaged kids in the sorts of schools “the Tories don’t send their kids to.”

He and Norman agreed on 99% of things, he said. It was a contest of two real liberals, but he was clear: “If you want to win, I’m your man. If you elect me as your leader, Britain will know who we are and Britain will like it. He promised us sore feet, empty bank balances, but  aching faces from the massive grins as we won again.

After a break so non members could leave, both men took questions. On dealing with the SNP, they both said very similar things about tackling the things that people were actually concerned about. On ISIS, again, both majored on need to preserve human rights (TF), make sure surveillance was decided by judges (NL) and not adopt the sorts of policies that marginalise people and send them into the arms of ISIS.

On the future of Trident, I was surprised that Norman appeared the more radical. He suggested that he might be willing to look at whether we need it at all. Tim was passionate about the need to make sure our conventional troops were properly equipped but he didn’t go as far as Norman had.

The flaw in the format meant that you couldn’t question them on the things they said that needed greater scrutiny. When Tim talked about us taking the lead in the Yes side of the pro EU campaign you had to wonder who would let us anywhere near that and when Norman talked about reforming the party, you wanted him to come up with more detail on what that actually meant.

On climate change, Norman’s suggestions were focused and practical – more cycling, government funding insulation for all. Tim looked at the messages we should be giving out – what would persuade people that we needed to take it seriously. Hairshirts and austerity wouldn’t persuade but explaining to people that there was a good reason to do something about it and explain who it would affect them if left unchecked was vital.

The last question, which my friend Jo had submitted, made them think: “In job interview style, what is your biggest flaw. Also in job interview style, marks will be deducted for saying that you work too hard or you’re a perfectionist.” Tim said he wasn’t so big on the details and the nitty gritty. He went for the big picture. Norman said he was a massive worrier. Then they both went on to tell us about their strengths. Tim said he could win elections and get us back in a position where we could change people’s lives. Norman talked about his ability to achieve for young people.

What was very clear is that we have two fantastic candidates. Either of them could do the job well. Members will need to decide which of these men is more likely to bring in and inspire new people. Whatever happens, the party needs Tim’s exuberance, passion, campaigning skill and heart and Norman’s thoughtful, compassionate and practical approach.

I’m told that that was the biggest ever meeting of north eastern Liberal Democrats. Let’s hope that all the new member are involved and become the next generation of activists.

In under a month we will know who has won.  We’ll have to rein them in when they get too big for their boots as leaders invariably do, but we will have to unite and work together.

Photo of Newcastle bridges by ratherbewalking Chris Cole

* Caron Lindsay is Editor of Liberal Democrat Voice and blogs at Caron's Musings

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7 Comments

  • Lamb is clearly the Clegg establishment continuity candidate. When so much of the party establishment are for one candidate that should tell any liberal to be worried about such a candidate!

  • Simon McGrath 24th Jun '15 - 10:57pm

    @alex -think people like Tessa Munt, Julian Huppert and Bob Russell are the party establishment – all backing Norman

  • Elaine Woodard 24th Jun '15 - 11:14pm

    Having heard Lib Dems ask questions at conference fringe meetings I’m not surprised these have to be submitted in advance. Too many take the standpoint of why ask a question when you can make a speech!

  • Stephen Howse 25th Jun '15 - 11:14am

    I’m a North Eastern (Newcastle) Lib Dem and the most heartening thing about the night was the number of hands going up when the room was asked who had joined since the general election.

    We have no MPs in the region now, and we don’t run any councils here any longer, but it’s clear that old and new members are well up for the fightback. (It was pleasing to hear Tim specifically mentioning Newcastle as a council he wants to win back!)

    Oh, and Zapatista is excellent – although I must say I prefer the beef (with extra hot salsa, of course).

  • All three of the names Simon mentioned have strong prior connections to Norman in eastern region (2 were MP there and 1 was a by-election candidate).

  • While Norman is very able, I do wonder how the Daily Mail & Co will present the blackmail thing if he is challenging a Tory government head on, rather than being a junior minister in a Tory-led one? Will they then be more inclined to spin it as: ‘Well-done for standing up to bullying, but this is where liberal parenting gets you! A son apparently committing criminal offences (drug taking – shock horror!). And mixed up with people who try to extort money from you! And Norman initially tried to pay the criminal off…?
    Of course such a characterisation would be grossly unfair, but it is likely that this will be pushed unmercifully at the next election if Norman is leader. So it is a relevant factor in our current election. As was said at the time, Norman and his family deserve our support. But I don’t think that includes making him our figurehead, which would expose him to such bile.
    Tim seems the much ‘safer’ option to me.
    https://www.libdemvoice.org/norman-lamb-and-his-family-deserve-our-support-45012.html

  • Richard Underhill 27th Jun '15 - 4:36pm

    Both candidates should be judged by what they have done and what they say.

    Norman Lamb’s use of the word “existentialism” is definbed by Chamber’s Twentieth Dictionary as
    “a term covering a number of related doctrines denying objective universal values and holding that a man must create values for himself through action and by living each moment to the full”

    Tim Farron’s use of the word “prat” in a speech in the House of Commons was not ruled as unparliamentary by Speaker Bercow.

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