In 48 hours, either Tim Farron or Norman Lamb will be announced as the next leader of Liberal Democrats. Lamb kindly agreed to hop in my Mini for a chat about the leadership contest two weeks ago (during the hottest day of the year) — you can watch the highlights from our chat above.
If you haven’t been following the contest, Lamb is the 57-year-old Liberal Democrat MP for North Norfolk. During the coalition government, he served as PPS to Nick Clegg, employment minister, care minister and is currently the Lib Dem's spokesman on the economy. Despite the endorsement of Paddy Ashdown, Ming Campbell and the rapper Dappy, Lamb has consistently trailed in second place, in polls and according to the bookies, throughout the leadership race. Ladbrokes currently has Lamb on 10/1 to be the next Lib Dem leader, compared to Farron on 1/33.
Lamb's path to victory
But Lamb is cheerful about his prospects and points to the 17k new members who have joined the party since the election as his route to victory. He believes the new Lib Dems will ‘see things very differently from existing party members’. ‘I’m setting out a radical agenda, and it’s enthusing many youth members,’ he says. 'So we’re winning support across the party, challenging the status quo rather than seeking to defend it.’
Whereas Farron wants to turn the Liberal Democrats into more of a campaigning force, Lamb's mission is to turn it back into a party of ideas. ‘We can’t run on empty intellectually’, he says, adding that there are many liberals that the party failed to reach. ‘Predominantly, those people who have these liberal values don’t identify as Lib Dems. So, we’ve failed to connect with them and our task is to reach out to them'.
Mistakes in coalition
Lamb is generally seen as the chief defender of the Liberal Democrats’ role in coalition and he does not believe joining forces with the Tories was the sole reason for the party’s performance in May. Instead, he describes a ‘perfect storm’ for the Lib Dems, where ‘we stopped talking about our purpose, what our mission was, so we defined ourselves in relation to others’.
Yet Lamb is not a slavish defender of the Lib Dem’s role in coalition. He argues that the party was not ‘nearly clear enough at the start that this was a sort of businesslike, professional relationship. We were acting in the national interest but these were two very different parties’. He admits that the Tories ‘played the game more effectively than we did’ and his party resorted to ‘a sort of technocratic language’. ‘I don’t think people began to have any idea of some of the big things that we achieved,' he says.
So would Lamb go into coalition again, either with the Tories or Labour? He says it would be madness to rule it out, ‘my mission has to be making a difference to people’s lives, and you only do that by securing power. Securing power to disperse power, and to apply liberal values’.
The MP annoyed some quarters during the campaign by arguing for a lesbian couple in the children’s cartoon Peppa Pig. ‘It can start very young, this sense of attraction to someone of your own sex,' he explains — read his full remarks regarding Peppa here. But the other controversy of the Lib Dem leadership contest has been over abortion and same-sex marriage and in particular, Lamb's voting record in comparison to Tim Farron’s. Does he see a contradiction in someone like Farron being leader of a liberal party and having strong Christian values? Lamb denies there is a conflict between these two matters and instead says it is a battle about ‘liberal values’.
‘Well, inevitably both of our voting records have been in debate, he says. ‘Some people have condemned me because I stepped up to the plate in coalition and when you’re in government you can’t make a judgment to vote against certain things, you take it or leave it. They are what people describe as issues of conscience… they [abortion, same-sex marriage] are part of my liberalism, but I leave other people to make their own judgment.’
Working with Tim
If the bookies are to be believed and Farron triumphs over Lamb on Thursday, would he serve under the new leader? ‘I won’t seek in any way to undermine Tim’s leadership… I will play my part in the Lib Dems, I’m not going to walk away’, he says. But, would he continue to play a public role in the party? Lamb nods.