The Liberal Democrats will announce the result of their leadership election on Thursday, with the winner facing the onerous task of rebuilding a party punished hard by voters for its five-year partnership in government with the Tories.
Voting closed at 2pm on Wednesday in the contest between two of the party’s eight MPs, Norman Lamb and Tim Farron. On Thursday afternoon, the Liberal Democrat press office Twitter account will announce the winner and he will give his victory speech in the evening at Islington Assembly Hall in north London.
While Labour’s leadership contest has been attracting more headlines, the two Lib Dem leadership candidates have attended 25 hustings, more than 100 campaign events and covered about 20,000 miles between them.
The pair announced their intention to stand within a week of Nick Clegg’s resignation speech the day after the general election, in which the party lost 85% of its MPs and two-thirds of its voters.
Both candidates agree that the eventual aim was to get the party into a position where it can be in a coalition government again, though both have ruled out entering into a coalition without a guarantee of electoral reform from their governing partner.
But the immediate task is to rebuild the Lib Dems as a campaigning party, continuing to grow the membership – which has jumped by 18,000 since polling day – and winning back council seats before attempting to get more MPs elected in 2020.
Farron, the MP for Westmorland and Lonsdale since 2005 and a former party president, argues that this can be done by championing issues that the Tories and Labour will not touch. He has promised that, under his leadership, the Lib Dems would campaign against government proposals to extend the right to buy to housing association tenants, something he has predicted Labour will not be brave enough to oppose.
Farron’s Lib Dems would be unequivocal about the tragedy of the Mediterranean migrant crisis while extolling the benefits of immigration. “If we cheese off 70% of the electorate, but 30% embrace us, we’ll have that,” he told the Guardian in an interview during the campaign.
Quoting Oscar Wilde, he said there was one thing worse than being talked about and that was not being talked about. He said the Lib Dems needed a leader who was “spiky” and would say things that get the party noticed.
Lamb, the MP for Norfolk North since 2001 and a former care minister, has a quieter approach. He argues that the electorate prefers credibility in government rather than short-term soundbites. He stresses that the Lib Dems need to become an effective campaigning machine again, but must first win the battle of ideas.
Lamb says the party needs to present a clear vision of what liberalism means in the modern age, arguing that during the election campaign it talked too much about what it was not as opposed to what it was. He feels Lib Dems need to be on the front foot in arguments with the Conservatives about how to manage a modern welfare state and provide public services and have to be prepared to team up with other progressive forces in British politics to take on the government.
Farron has been the bookies’ favourite to win since the race began and on Monday a poll conducted by Lib Dem Newswire put him on 58% of the vote. He is seen as a key figure on the left of the party and his candidacy has been helped by the fact that he kept his hands clean of the coalition’s most unpopular policies, voting against the bedroom tax and, crucially, higher tuition fees.
Although the party portrayed itself during the election campaign as a potential moderating influence on either the Conservatives or Labour in a coalition, Farron says he is not a centrist. “I think centrism is pointless. It’s uninspiring,” he said at a recent hustings, though he avoided revealing where on the political spectrum he saw himself.
Lamb was Clegg’s parliamentary private secretary and held various ministerial positions in the last government, and is therefore considered to be more aligned with the politics of the coalition. His campaign made much of his record of “fighting for and winning on liberal values at a national level”, but his opponents paint him as a continuity candidate.
He is known for his record on mental health campaigning and for being more outspoken than most on liberalising drugs laws, which has won him support among many younger party members. He has also won the support of many of the party’s most senior figures, including the former leaders Menzies Campbell and Paddy Ashdown and the founding member of the Social Democratic party, Shirley Williams. Clegg has stayed firmly out of the race, but it is presumed that if he had backed a candidate, it would have been Lamb.
The bulk of Farron’s support is among the grassroots of the party and he has been backed by the leaders of the Scottish and Welsh branches, Willie Rennie and Kirsty Williams, more than 100 former Lib Dem election candidates and more than 200 of the party’s leading councillors.
The competition was superficially civil, with both candidates professing their admiration for one another and saying they agreed on most policy areas. But last month Lamb suspended two members of his campaign team when they were found to have privately polled party members about what Lamb’s aides considered to be Farron’s illiberal voting record on abortion and LGBT rights.
Farron is a committed Christian and was among nine Lib Dem MPs to abstain at a third reading of the marriage (same-sex couples) bill, a move he attributes to concerns about aspects of the bill relating to “protecting people’s right to conscience”.
When asked to name a policy area that the pair differed on, Lamb would cite his support for assisted dying – something Farron opposes – as being fundamental to his social liberalism. Farron would speak of his view that social care should be folded into the NHS, which Lamb argues is unaffordable, saying it would require about an extra 10p on income tax.
With only eight Lib Dem MPs left in parliament, both leadership candidates will play an important roll in trying to rebuild the party. The question that has faced its 60,000 members is: which man is best to guide the the Liberal Democrats back from oblivion?
This article was written by Frances Perraudin, for theguardian.com on Wednesday 15th July 2015 16.20 Europe/Londonguardian.co.uk © Guardian News and Media Limited 2010