On Thursday (9th July) I went along to a Bristol Festival of Ideas and Guardian Live event at the Arnolfini in Bristol, where the two Liberal Democrat leadership contenders (Norman Lamb and Tim Farron) were in discussion with Andrew Rawnsley. It was a fascinating debate, with real honesty and integrity from both speakers, expertly facilitated by Andrew, which left me thinking about how seldom we seem to engage in real political debate about the issues that matter. Too much of the debate we see and hear is shallow, reactive and glosses over the real problems and instead focuses on ones that are easier to solve or popular to attend to.
What was so refreshing about the approach taken by both Tim and Norman, was the recognition of what had gone wrong during the general election and how they needed to get back to positive campaigning. The focus was very much about core values and rebuilding the party on those values and principles, with a realisation that the Liberal Democrats need to remind people what they really stand for and give people a reason to vote for them. It was a grown up debate about principles and values, about issues that really matter and thought provoking on what Liberalism is and who it appeals to.
Tim Farron spoke eloquently about the housing crisis as one of the biggest issues we are facing at the moment. He spoke about wanting to make a difference to people and doing what’s right for the powerless. Norman Lamb referred to the importance of the liberal principle of community politics and reminded us of the need for ideas, inspiration and vision. They both saw the Lib Dems as a radical, progressive party that needed to operate effectively beyond and outside the Westminster bubble.
Despite their obvious agreement over many issues and general approach, the two leadership contenders couldn’t be more different. Tim comes across as a charismatic, opinionated, confident and someone who will undoubtedly take bold positions on key issues. Whilst, Norman, is quieter spoken, more deliberate and considered in his approach, providing an air of wisdom and experience as well as a long standing record of delivery on Liberal values. I was impressed with both for different reasons and they would seem in my view to make an excellent double act at the head of the party! As the members vote draws to a close over the next week or so it will be interesting to see who wins this contest and what direction they take the party.
For me the debate and discussion was interesting because it is exactly what I had been hoping to see in the Labour leadership contest, a grown up political debate where the issues that matter are addressed in a thoughtful and considered manner. But perhaps more important than this is the need for the labour party to go back to basic principles and remember why it was set up and where its core values are. Sadly, so far, I have seen little evidence of this kind of self awareness in the party, with little serious reflection on what so obviously wrong for Labour during the election. The constant suggestion that it’s because Miliband was too left wing so the party needs to move to the right, reflecting conservative policy and values, is deeply worrying and depressing.
For me the Labour Party has always been about challenging inequality and poverty, representing and standing up for those that are powerless, and providing and supporting the services we need in a civilised society so everyone benefits from them. Somewhere along the line the party seems to have forgotten some of these values and is playing a reactive role, firefighting whatever the latest Tory policies are with little to offer in exchange. That’s why the Labour Party need to have a proper debate about what the party stands for, what its core values are and what that means for the future leadership of the party. Without that debate, how do we judge leadership contenders? How do we know how the party will move forward? Without that debate, people like me will continue to remain outside the party, looking for a way forward politically and for a party that reflects our core values – it used to be Labour, but isn’t any more!