Last week Tim Farron and Norman Lamb, the two contenders running to be the next leader of the Liberal Democrats, debated from Garden Court. The room was busier than I’ve ever seen (including Freshers Ball and exams) full of Liberal Democrat members, national, local, and student press. During a quick break in the debate, I had a chat with both of the contenders separately. Here’s what they had to say.
First up I spoke to Tim Farron, MP for Westmorland and Lonsdale. Farron speaks with a strong northern accent and tells me the last time he spoke at SUSU was in the nineties where he was trying to convince students to keep our affiliation with the NUS. He has been an MP for 10 years, and was the only Lib Dem candidate to gain more than 50% of the vote at last month’s General Election. Until last year, he was the President of the party and is the bookies’ favourite to replace Nick Clegg as leader.
Why are you running for Liberal Democrat leader?
Tim Farron: Because I think the Liberal Democrats need saving, and Britain needs saving. Liberalism is absolutely essential, if you want to tackle climate change, if you don’t want to lose the Human Rights Act, if you don’t want internet snooping. You want to make sure all those things are fought for or fought against, then you need a Liberal party. We’ve never been under more threat than we are now, we got annihilated in the election, but there’s a way back – but it’ll only be by inspiring people across the country to join us, just like the thousands who have already in the last 5 weeks. We need to make sure the Liberal Democrats have a place in the hearts and the minds of every voter. I don’t just want the voters to think relatively well of us, I don’t mind if 70% hate us, I want enough people to go out and vote for us – so we can again be at the centre of British politics.
Why should a student join the Liberal Democrats?
Tim Farron: I joined the Liberals as a student, I was a sixth-former, yes I was that much of a nerd! I didn’t join because of a young person’s issue, I think it’s a bit patronising to talk to young people as if the only thing they only thing they’re bothered about is young persons issues. What motivated me, was watching a TV programme. It was made before I was born, it’s called ‘Cathy Come Home’ by Ken Loach – it’s on YouTube, you should watch it, if it doesn’t make you cry I’ll buy you a pint. It’s about youth homelessness in Britain. I watched it as a repeat when I was in my mid teens and it broke my heart, and I joined Shelter and I joined the Liberals as I wanted to do something about it. To be honest with you, young people, students, apprentices, or whatever they’re doing with their lives, I think they are people who want to be spoken to in an honest way, they don’t want managerial talk. I take the view that if I don’t make the hairs on the back on my own neck stand up, why should anybody else’s? You’ve got to move people, and inspire them. What I just said in there [the debate] is that great speeches and great politics take people from one place to another. What we see at the moment is a threat to our basic freedoms in this country. The Tories attack on Human Rights which Labour won’t oppose because they partly agree with them. Climate change is the biggest threat we face, and the younger you are the bigger the threat is, as the more of your life you have left to live and it’s not going to be pretty, unless we tackle it. Tackling all those things is absolutely essential, making sure that people from the kind of backgrounds I’m from, can go to University and it’s not just the preserve of the rich. I’m the candidate who voted against [the rise in]tuition fees, I took the view it was wrong to break the promise. Having said all of that, it’s important to recognise that the new system is slightly fairer than the one it replaces, but that doesn’t mean it’s perfect, we need to make it better. So that everybody, from every background can enjoy access to higher education, if it’s something that they’re able to do.
Speaking of tuition fees, there was news recently about the possibility of the poorest students losing their grants. What’s your stance on that?
Tim Farron: It’s shocking. It’s a real reminder that despite the unbelievably negative publicity which we partially deserve over fees, the Liberal Democrats did an awful lot of good for students. We fought very hard for those grants, and they wouldn’t have happened if the Tories were there on their own, and here’s proof, the Tories are on their own and now they’re going! We’ll fight very hard against that. I mean we’re in a situation where the Tories have a very small majority in parliament, and they will be a lot of very nervous Tory MPs. I suspect down here, in places like Eastleigh, for example [A Conservative gain from Lib Dem at the General Election] where we are absolutely determined to take those seats back next time round. They will either betray students and young people and lose their seats next time round, or they’ll join us in the fight and vote the right way. I don’t think just because Tories have a majority they’ll get their way on everything. You as students, and as a student movement across the country, understand that you’re very powerful. All the Tories need to do is lose 7 seats and they’ve lost their majority, and there’s a lot more than 7 Universities in this country, and between you, you can help to bring a lot of pressure to bare to help protect you’re interest and everybody else’s.
So do you think the Government will last 5 years?
Tim Farron: That’s a good question, actually! I was about to say, ‘I hope so’ because that’s the answer I was giving in the last 5 years! I think I take the view that it will probably last 5 years, but it’ll be a tough one. We passed fixed term parliament, which means the parliament should last 5 years, but who knows what could happen. I think the reality is those people who aren’t Conservaties in this country will want the Conseravite government to end as soon as possible. We’ll see what happens, I think a lot of it will depend on what a messy state the Conservative party is in after the EU Referendum, when they end up fighting like rats in a sack.
Next up I spoke to Norman Lamb, who was first elected as MP for North Norfolk in 2001 and has held the seat ever since. He’s a proud Norwich City season ticket holder, and was Minister of State for Care and Support during the coalition, where he campaigned for better treatment for sufferers of mental health. During his career in the Liberal Democrat party, he has been a Parliamentary Private Secretary to both the late Charles Kennedy, and to Nick Clegg, and worked in various government departments.
Why are you running for Liberal Democrat leader?
Norman Lamb: I’m running because of the things that I believe in, my values, and, my determination in this job to make a difference to people’s lives. That’s what I’m about, that’s what motivates me. I think we’ve lost sight to a degree of talking about our values, the things that motivate us. I want us to become an intellectual powerhouse, I want to get the brightest brains in our country [in the party]. People who are liberal’s might not be in our party, I want people to think about what it is to be a Liberal in this modern age, and I think if we win the battle of ideas, and we have a really good and effective campaigning machine to go with that, so we have a clear message, particularly for young people. So many young people are liberal to their heart, but they don’t necessarily associate themselves with the Lib Dems, we have to again connect with those people and convince them that we’re the party that represents their views.
Do you think aspiring to be an intellectual powerhouse could be off-putting to the working classes?
Norman Lamb: No, because I think it’s about understanding the challenges of our age. Coming up with good liberal solutions for entrenched poverty, for lack of educational opportunity. Our country is horribly divided between disadvantaged people who don’t get the same chances as others and the rest. We have to come up with good liberal solutions, but we need to think big, about the big challenges of today. Also, we need to be consistently liberal, I have argued – for example – to be clear and radical about drugs policy. It’s crazy that we have this prohibition has criminalises tens of thousands of young people, people who end up with a criminal record because they’ve taken a drug for their own use. As a Father, I have a real problem with drugs, but the answer is not to criminalise people, but to treat it as a health issue. In Colorado [USA], they’ve legalised cannabis, they regulate it, and they can use the money from taxation to educate people on drug use, that’s a much more rational approach and a much more liberal approach – and I hope it’s in accordance with what people feel.
You’ve mentioned young people a lot, as a student, why should I join the Liberal Democrats above another party?
Norman Lamb: Because I think so many young people, and so many students fundamentally are Liberal. Whether it’s about radical drugs reform, whether it’s for total equality for people who are gay, or lesbian or transgender. Whether it’s about ensuring everybody gets access to treatments, whether it’s a mental health problem, or a physical health problem. There’s a discrimination against people who suffer from mental ill health, it effects so many young people and it’s an outrage that people don’t get access to the treatment they need. If we speak about these things, that many young people care about, as well as being ambitious, and [talking]about opportunity for young people and about addressing problems like the housing crisis that we face, then I think we can start to connect to people again.
What was your proudest moment in the coalition?
I think there is a central discrimination against people suffering from mental ill health, they don’t have the same right to access to treatment as anyone else. In April this year, I introduced the first ever maximum waiting time standards for mental health, and in particular, for early intervention in psychosis – this particularly effects youngsters, those in their late teens and twenties. A youngster who suffers a first episode of psychosis, if it goes untreated it can completely ruin that persons life. A life without work, a life with difficult relationships, a miserable life. The evidence is there that means we can rescue that person, we can give them the chance of a good life, we can stop the condition in it’s tracks. The fact that we’ve now introduced these waiting time standards is something I’m immesensly proud of, because it can make a difference to people’s lives.
In your speech, you said that you want to win elections, that seems a long way off at the moment, how are you going to go about doing that?
I like where we’re at now to the world of commerce and the idea of a start-up. Things change so rapidly these days, the old assumptions have all gone. In commerce, big household names on the high street are suddenly gone, they’ve disappeared, they’ve been destroyed. Start-ups emerge, that suddenly catch fire and capture people’s imaginations, and grow rapidly. We’ve got to liken ourselves to a dynamic start-up, to again connect with the market. There’s a massive market out there for us, people who share those liberal values, and if we can connect to those people, we can become very successful, and much more quickly than many people imagine.
What are your campaign plans for the EU Referendum, and, why do you think the UK should remain in Europe?
I’m very strongly in favour of us remaining in the European Union, and I’m also in favour of reforming it. I think there are ways in which it doesn’t work effectively. As a Liberal party, and a democratic party, we are always challenging the way in which politics works in this country, and we must be in the same mindset when it comes to Europe. I’m very strongly in favour of us remaining in, but I’m also very strongly in favour of ensuring that it’s always accountable and it’s always open, that we devolve power to the lowest level, as near to the people as possible. We’re going to campaign on the principle and the vision that this continent has turned it’s back on conflict. After two world wars borne in this continent we have secured peace in this continent, by trading together, by working together, by bringing in those countries from the old Soviet Bloc. That’s something we should be very proud of, and we should defend the importance of it, very strongly. We should make the case, along with the economic case, about jobs and opportunities, an young person can travel anywhere they want in Europe and get jobs anywhere they want in Europe, because of the free movement of people. These are big principles, and we should be clear in articulating them, and we should make the case for Britain remaining in Europe.
Norman Lamb and Tim Farron put forward their cases to become Liberal Democrat Leader at hustings on Friday 12th June, and were hosted by the University of Southampton debating society.