Liberal Reform interview Tim Farron and Norman Lamb

Last week Tom Papworth and I interviewed the two leadership candidates, Tim Farron, and Norman Lamb on behalf of Liberal Reform supporters who submitted questions.

To give you a flavour, here are the wordles. Can you tell which is which?

Norman wordle

Tim wordle

I am very glad to have had this opportunity, and was impressed by both candidates. Here are a few snippets – see if you can tell which is who.


I don’t think it’s a healthy society when you have an ever-growing gulf between the super-rich and everybody else, and between the super-rich and people who are totally left behind, and if you are enslaved by poverty, poor housing, or whatever it might be, then you don’t have the chance to make the most of your talents, or to live your life exactly as you want to or to flourish as an individual, so a social and economic liberal needs to recognise that. I suppose broadly I would put myself on the centre-left, but I do that because I think that the things that drive me are injustice and inequality, along with the freedom of the individual to lead their life as they want to lead it. And the final thing I would say is that I think sometimes “left” is associated with statism and conservatism, and that’s totally not where I’m at. There are people on the left who, and this cuts across the parties, end up in a position where they almost end up defending the status quo: nothing can change, resistance to reform. And as a liberal I am always impatient for reform, I want to change things to make things work better, to address the failures of the state, particularly in terms of poverty and delivery of public services, which always let down the most vulnerable most — because always people with money can find other solutions, whether it’s health or education, or keeping themselves secure.


The lessons [of coalition] are that it’s worth going into power, because what a difference you can make. Lesson two is that we have got out of coalition the sense that the Lib Dems are competent at governing, which is not something we had before. And very, very, very important given how opinion is in the country is a sense of us having economic and fiscal credibility and we mustn’t throw those away; they are very important things. Lessons on the negative side… There was the article in the Journal of Liberal History called The Black Widow Effect, in 2012 by Tim Bale. If you know what black widows do to their partners after mating you can see the point that was being made, that it would end in tears. It was all about how junior partners in coalition get a right stuffing. My sense is that there are some things we could have done things differently so that our stuffing might have been less royal, but not many.


I’ve noticed various factions ebb and flow over the years. I mean the social liberal/economic liberal thing today, that’s a relatively new construct. It was SDP/Liberal, and people look back now and say Liberals right, Social Democrats left, that’s not how it was, it was actually the opposite. And you’ve got people who are from a generation when it was community politics versus the Westminster elite, and it really was an elite because they had the same number of seats as we’ve got now and a lot fewer peers. So I just think that’s the nature of any organisation. My general solution is twofold. One is just to be very open and to listen, and not to try and ‘defeat’ people within the party. One of the great errors I think we have made within the last number of years and within a number of leaderships, and I don’t think it’s down to the leaders, perhaps the people around them, who have wanted to be terribly macho, who have wanted to have that ‘Clause Four’ moment every bloody week — absolutely pointless.


But the fundamental problem, I am convinced, is that a third party, unless it’s regionally based, where there is a power base, where people vote for you because they are voting for you, but a third party where you’re having to win seats but persuading third party voters in your seats to vote tactically, there is a massive risk, and I think almost a near certainty, that going into coalition results in that tactical vote unravelling. And it wasn’t just that it went back to Labour, but it went to Greens, it went to Ukip, it fractured. No small party, not just the Lib Dems, is going to risk coalition under first past the post, and I wouldn’t advise it, so I would say it has to be a condition that you change the system. And I think the interesting debate during this parliament is where Labour goes. And the critical question will be, will Labour conclude at some point that it’s in their self interest to change the system.

You can read the full transcripts here. And if you are still wondering, 1, 4 and the wordle on the left are Norman Lamb, and 2 and 3 and the wordle on the right are Tim Farron.

* Joe Otten was the candidate for Sheffield Heeley in June 2017 and Doncaster North in December 2019 and is a councillor in Sheffield.

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  • Things that leap out at me (once you remove the big “people think”)

    From Norman’s: Liberal
    From Tim’s: Tories

    Does this encapsulate a fundamental difference in their approach? Tim is “against the Tories”; Norman is “for Liberalism”?

  • Can I ask a perfectly serious question about the “wordies” ?

    How, on what basis, is it determined that one is multi-coloured but the other is not?

    In both of them the word “think” is prominent but in one is in a distinct colour, whilst the other fades to grey.

    One uses yellows and orange (party colours) the other is just grey or pale maroon like faded Ribena.

  • “… And I think the interesting debate during this parliament is where Labour goes. And the critical question will be, will Labour conclude at some point that it’s in their self interest to change the system.”

    I am still working my way through the full text. But with this quote from NL – he does himself no favours.

    We have just come out of an election where people on all sides of the party (and objective observers outside the party) all seem agreed that it was a big mistake to define ourselves in terms of our opponents.

    So Norman says that for him the interesting thing over the next five years is “where Labour goes”.

    Norman, our party is fighting for survival. The critical thing for Liberal Democrats in this parliament is our survival.
    Where Labour ends up is much, much less interesting.

  • (Matt Bristol) 16th Jun '15 - 2:29pm

    TCO, I think you’re ignoring the almost-as-large ‘Labour’ in Tim’s wordle. If you recalibrated your remark to be – ‘is the pitch Tim made to Liberal Reform about fighting our opponents and the pitch Norman made to Liberal Reform about articulating and developing a Liberal set of values?’, then I might follow you at least some of the way.

    Still not sure that that would be a comprehensive summary of their overall positions, though, just a summary of how they chose to pitch things in a specific hustings.

  • Malcolm Todd 16th Jun '15 - 2:55pm

    I think John Tilley’s questions about the wordles are important, but don’t quite go far enough. The real question about all “wordles” (god help us), is: Are they any use at all as tools to aid comprehension? I think the answer is a straightforward no — they actually make a virtue of taking words out of context as if that makes them more meaningful, when in fact words without context are the very epitome of meaninglessness.
    Of course, there is another question: Are these things any use at all? And the answer, of course, is yes: they are yet another way of presenting disguised propaganda (as John’s question implies).

  • @John Tilley ” Norman says that for him the interesting thing over the next five years is “where Labour goes”.
    Norman, our party is fighting for survival. The critical thing for Liberal Democrats in this parliament is our survival.
    Where Labour ends up is much, much less interesting.”

    If Labour decide finally to embrace electoral reform, that would be quite interesting don’t you think? And a potential game-changer.

  • Also from NL —
    “… I don’t begin to understand the structure of the party…. …. In my view that’s all got to go … .. . ”

    But hang on a second. Is this not Norman Lamb?. The same Norman Lamb who was a PPS to Charles Kennedy 2003-2005, Ming Campbell’s ‘Chief of Staff’ in 2006 and Nick Clegg’s ‘Chief Parliamentary and Political Advisor’ from 2010.

    Is it too unreasonable to expect someone who has occupied those particular posts to at least have some understanding of the structure of the party?

    In fact – wouldn’t an understanding of the structure of the party be quite an important part of each of these jobs?
    Was this false modesty?
    Or a less than subtle attempt to pitch for a bunch of votes from a particular group of members, whatever the likely consequences?

  • TCO 16th Jun ’15 – 3:03pm
    “…If Labour decide finally to embrace electoral reform, that would be quite interesting don’t you think? And a potential game-changer.”

    You need to explain yourself.
    What’d you mean by “game changer”. You may want to vote Labour if they adopt as policy “electoral reform”. I would warn you against that on the basis of a lifetime of not voting Labour.
    An end to the unelected House of Lords has been Labour Party policy all my lifetime — I will leave it to you to guess why that has not convinced me to vote Labour. It simply has not been a “game changer”.

    It also depends what you mean by “electoral reform”. Surely one of the lessons of the Coalition disaster is to avoid vague, non-specific references to any old miserable little compromise which can pretend to be “electoral reform”?

    If it ain’t STV in multi-member constituencies it ain’t worth a proverbial barrell of warm p#ss.

  • Nick T Nick Thornsby 16th Jun '15 - 6:54pm

    John – you may be interested in Tim’s answer on this very point:

    TF: I think so, and there are ways you can achieve that by the way, and I think we should start doing that in this parliament. So the idea that we build a consensus for a Great Reform Act. And you bring all the parties, anybody out there who’s interested, into the same place. And I’m talking Ukip, any sensible Tories we can find, Labour, ourselves Greens and preferably loads of people outside of party politics who think that it is a disgrace that 25% of people voted for three parties that got 10 MPs between them and that you’ve got a government with 100% of power on just shy of 37% of the vote. I think there are a load of people who think that. I’m absolutely committed to single transferable vote in multi-member constituencies but if as the result of some kind of cross-community convention like that we end up hammering out some compromise which is a different system I might live with that. And the idea would then be that all those parties would then need to go through their own processes and choose to put that agreed compromise position in their manifesto in which case we’re in a position where there is a mandate in the next general election for that.

  • Samuel Griffiths 16th Jun '15 - 7:40pm

    Interesting reads. I learned new things about both people, but didn’t come out feeling very revolutionized. In a perfect world, I would love a leader of dramatic change and reform, not someone is just trying to hold the party together. The LibDems existed well because they offered a dramatic alternative to the status quo – that needs to be recaptured! I think Norman came across very well, clearly bringing a lot of experience. Tim however needs to stop trying to find excuses for the economic liberals. If he’s against the idea I would much rather he came out and said so! We need to stop beating around the bush on this matter and I really wanted a party leader who would solve the dispute once and for all.

  • Stephen Hesketh 16th Jun '15 - 7:57pm

    I have been away from LDV for a while so it was with great pleasure that I returned to see all my old friends still here and that they had not changed in my absence.

    A nice warm coloured Wordle with specially selected words to represent Norman and a cooler one with specially selected words under-representing Tim. Who needs the Tory press?

    @TCO – The reality of Norman’s campaign is that it majors on mental health and his worthy achievements in that area and Tim Farron’s on a much broader based view of mainstream Liberalism and on his undoubted ability to reach a wider range of historical Lib Dem voters. Play around with the preselected words from the Lamb camp all you wish but at the end of the day members are listening to Tim’s videos and reading his speeches rather than studying these clearly biased Wordles.

    John Tilley, Matt (Bristol) and Malcolm Todd – pretty fair comments.

    @Nick Thornsby Thank you for the addition of Tim Farron’s reply re PR – so Tim and John Tilley as Liberal Democrats agree on STV/multi-member constituencies. Tim does add that he MIGHT be able to live with an alternative. That is surely a reasonable statement from a person wishing to see cross-party talks and build a consensus on the topic

    The additional info from Nick T does however suggest that not only have Wordle’s weasel words and colours been specially selected but so too have been the candidate’s responses.

    If I didn’t know better, I might think that Norman was being painted in a more mainstream Lib Dem light and Tim less so.

  • Thank you to those who have pointed out the selectivity within the wordles. We should all be more aware in future; as a ‘new member’ I feel someone is playing games which are illiberal. Not what we expect on LDV.

  • (Matt Bristol) 17th Jun '15 - 10:22am

    Stephen — ‘Nick Thornsby Thank you for the addition of Tim Farron’s reply re PR – so Tim and John Tilley as Liberal Democrats agree on STV/multi-member constituencies. Tim does add that he MIGHT be able to live with an alternative. ‘

    To be honest, when I spoke to Norman after the Bristol hustings (ooh, get me), he pretty much outlined the same position. He stated he would prefer STV, but might be able to accept AV+ (as per the Jenkins proposals) if there was a clear consensus around it.

    I think the way both candidates are presenting themselves is interestingly similar. Those (on right and left) who’ve been wanting to do the show-right-here and have a striaghtforward left-right scrap in the party for the last few years are left looking for ways to interpret hints and nods from the candidates as they are not acting out exactly the argument many have been looking for.

    Both are pretty much presenting themselves as ‘orthodox’ LibDems. At the hustings I attended, TIm went out of his way to praise Nick Clegg, praising Charles Kennedy later in his presentaiton, and Norman focusssed on praising Charles Kennedy and went on to speak of Nick later.

    To summarise: In my prception, Norman is clearly portraying himself as to the left of the Coalition, but is clearly temperamentally more about detailed policy development. Tim is also positioning himself to the left of the coalition (maybe infinitessimally further left), but he is slightly more explicit about how he would seek to build coalitions of support outside parliament at a campaigning level.

  • I am a huge supporter of STV (member of ERS and have run and counted mock STV elections in my time). But I recognise that getting electoral reform for the UK Parliament will require Labour support and some form of additional member system such as AV+ recommended by Jenkins is more realistic. STV is hard to explain (I thought AV was quite easy, but many people seem not to understand it in the face of astonishing bare-faced lies in the referendum), so we should not risk a referendum on STV…

    I do think we can press for STV for a second chamber and above all for local elections. In doing that we should point out that we will lose overall control of all the councils we still control..

  • Stephen Hesketh 17th Jun '15 - 12:58pm

    (Matt Bristol)17th Jun ’15 – 10:22am

    Hi Matt, thank you for the summary. We have the North West hustings in Manchester this weekend and will be listening with interest!

  • Stephen Hesketh 17th Jun '15 - 12:59pm

    Tony Rowan-Wicks17th Jun ’15 – 9:46am

    Indeed Tony, indeed.

  • Simon Banks 17th Jun '15 - 5:52pm

    One conclusion I draw from this is that on policy and philosophy, there’s not a million miles between them and both are genuine and thoughtful Liberals.

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