Who to choose, that's the big question facing all Lib Dems at the moment. MP's, ex MP's candidates and party bigshots from all around are throwing their endorsements in the ring. Even lowly party members like myself feel they have something worth adding to the debate.
It's a difficult choice, made harder by a rather lacklustre and repetitive campaign and debate from supporters on both sides, contrasted with some excellent statements, proposals and speeches from the candidates themselves. However I have finally made up my mind.
The negatives thrown at each candidate by their opponent's supporters don't necessarily hold much water for me, although reflecting on why not has helped me define what it is I feel our new leader needs.
I don't believe Norman's voting for tuition fees puts him in a difficult position with the electorate, this is an issue that the party as a whole has to address together and is tied up with the tricky issue of how we deal with the whole of the past five years. I personally believe we need to own, not disown our history, to defend vehemently our reasons for doing what we did and what we achieved. The other side of that coin is we need to take responsibility for the hardships caused to people from some of the things which happened on our watch; we must take ownership of these problems too and find real ways to alleviate them in our local activities and community action and find real lasting solutions to the problems that lie behind them. There may have been little we could do to keep down the use of food banks, to stop the hardship caused by the spare room subsidy, the anxiety and stress caused by benefit sanctions and assessments. We may be justified in claiming these problems existed before, were partially unavoidable, were fought for by the larger Tory part of the coalition, but they happened on our watch, and we should feel responsibility towards those people who need someone to stand up for them: that is the real reason for not distancing ourselves from our role in coalition, we owe it to people who were at the hard end of its policies to acknowledge what was done... because the Tory's sure as hell won't. We all need to own the totality of what happened over the last government, we cannot put it all one person, or group of persons.
Thankfully both candidates have been robust in talking about the past five years, but we need a party leader comfortable in talking holistically about our role and what it means in terms of not just what we did, but what our successes and failures mean for the people of the United Kingdom.
One of the biggest issues thrown at Tim is his faith, let me just say that this has no relevance for me, I have known enough people of different faiths and none to understand that their is more variety within these groups in how they treat other people than there is between them. This does however bring in to focus the fact that the Liberal Democrats, out of all parties, most celebrate the diversity of culture, including the different religions that exist within the UK, understand how this can enrich our country and society and how this is magnified by our freedom to openly express these views. But where we don't do so well is in reconciling the drive for a liberal society with this diversity of thought, of world views and of attitudes towards the actions and behaviour of others that this rich cultural diversity brings. We must work harder to convince those outside the party that such a reconciliation is possible, is in fact natural and positive. We do not need everyone to think that everyone's way of life is right and acceptable to get them to accept everyone has a right to live their life their way. Our leader has to be a liberal champion but, I would say, not a paladin, not someone who burns so bright with the light of liberalism that they cast a shadow on those who do not live up to their high standards. We need a leader who not just promotes liberalism, but helps people accept liberalism in their lives.
As for the positives, well, the arguments that have been put forward have probably done less to convince me which way to vote. Tim is claimed to be a 'fresh start' and 'free from the millstone of tuition fees' ... well, see my above comments for how much stock I put in that. When it comes to Norman the big claim seems to be that he is a 'true' liberal. Firstly, again, see my comments above, but secondly I object to the idea that there is some perfect ideal of what a liberal should be that we must all aspire to be. Our world is complicated and every action has a multitude of consequences for different groups of people. As Liberals we must fight for equality and rights for all people, and whilst it is usually possible to see where the greatest inequality is and tackle it inequality should never be used as a reason to dismiss views that we feel are 'illiberal' but to explore and challenge, and help people find a position that they can co-exist within because one of the biggest threats to liberty is mistrust, suspicion and bitterness towards others. I am now convinced that it is vital that any potential leader needs to demonstrate an understanding of the complex interplay of liberalism and social interaction, because this is one of our biggest challenges in selling liberalism to people.
Both candidates have put forward some excellent ideas. Tim is quite right when he says we need to 'become a movement', Norman is quite right when he says we need to win the 'battle of ideas'... they are both right when they say that we need to connect to reconnect to the community to grow the grass roots again. None of these however are mutually exclusive, we don't need to do one or the other of these we need to do all of them and whilst this doesn't help the decision of who to vote for, it is great that the contest is generating good quality thoughts on how we regroup and revitalise. Tim may be a great public speaker, and Norman may be a great policy maker but we certainly cannot, and should not, rely on one man to do these things for the party, it must be a joint effort to build our offer to the public and sell it to them. What we need is a person to take all these great ideas, to empower party members to grow and sell them, and to orchestrate our revival.
For me, this person is Tim Farron. While others have been praising him for his oratory skill, it has been the associated skill of narrative that has impressed me, the skill of the conductor, the storyteller or author to weave together different strands in to one compelling whole. This is the one skill I feel we really need in a leader right now, because there are so many great ideas and people in this party and so much rich and varied history, but they need to be orchestrated not just well, but masterfully.
Tim's voting record has been brought in to question, and I admit to sharing some of the uncomfortableness that others have expressed, but Tim's arguments give me some reason to give him a bit of leeway here. The argument over same sex marriage was built around the consideration of those who would have to assimilate this directly in to their daily lives. I want a leader who considers the wider implications of liberalism, even if it leads them, on occasion, to be more cautious in pushing the liberal agenda; as I said earlier equality and unity have a symbiotic relationship, and we need both to grow for each to exist. Things are never black and white, complexity rules and we can either face that full on, or ignore it and risk failing to understand the challenges liberalism, and society face.