The New Statesman endorsement for the Liberal Democrat leadership: Tim Farron, pictured here outside parliament. Photo: Daniel Berehulak/Getty Images
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The NS leader: why we're endorsing Tim Farron for the Liberal Democrat leadership

The road to recovery will be a long one. It is Mr Farron who offers the Lib Dems their best hope.

More than any other British political party, the Liberal Democrats face an existential crisis. They have been reduced from 57 MPs in 2010 to just eight – the same number as the Democratic Unionists – and have become a byword for hypocrisy and opportunism following their role in the coalition government. The Scottish National Party, the UK Independence Party and the Greens have all, in different ways, captured the political territory they once occupied. An increasing number of commentators call for them simply to dissolve themselves, or to merge with Labour or the Conservatives.

Next month Liberal Democrat members will elect a leader to inherit what remains of their party. The two candidates, representing a quarter of their number in the Commons, are Tim Farron, the former party president, and Norman Lamb, the former health minister. It is Mr Farron (interviewed in this week's magazine) who offers the Lib Dems their best hope of recovery. Unlike Mr Lamb, he is untainted by service in the Tory-led government and voted against policies such as higher tuition fees and the bedroom tax. He won his constituency of Westmorland and Lonsdale from the Conservatives in 2005, ending nearly a century of rule by a single party, and transformed it into one of the safest Lib Dem seats in Britain through Stakhanovite campaigning. He is devoted to the causes the Lib Dems must embody if they are to survive, let alone flourish: constitutional reform, civil liberties, environmentalism and social justice. Like his late mentor Charles Kennedy, he is a sincere and humane communicator. The revival of the Lib Dems will be the work of many years; Mr Farron is the best man to begin the long journey back across the wasteland.

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Now listen to George, Stephen and Caroline discussing Tim Farron's leadership prospects on the NS podcast:

 

Photo: Martin Whitfield
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Labour MP for East Lothian Martin Whitfield: "I started an argument and ended up winning an election"

The former primary school teacher still misses home. 

Two months ago, Martin Whitfield was a primary school teacher in Prestonpans, a small town along the coast from Edinburgh. Then he got into an argument. It was a Saturday morning shortly after the snap election had been called, and he and other members of the local Labour party began discussing a rumour that the candidate would be an outsider.

“I started an argument that this was ridiculous, we couldn’t have a candidate helicoptered in,” he recalls. He pointed out that one of the main issues with the Scottish National Party incumbent, the economist and journalist George Kerevan, was that he was seen as an outsider.

“I kept arguing for an hour and a half and people started gently moving away,” he jokes. “About two days later I was still going on, and I thought enough’s enough.” 

He called Iain Gray, the Scottish Labour veteran, who interrupted him. “He said, 'Right Martin, are you going to put up or shut up?’ So I filled in the forms.

"Then I had to have a very interesting conversation with my wife.”

One successful election campaign later, he is sitting in the airy, glass-roofed atrium of Westminster’s Portcullis House. Whitfield has silver hair, glasses, and wears a Labour-red tie with his shirt. He looks every bit the approachable primary school teacher, and sometimes he forgets he isn’t anymore. 

I ask how the school reacted to his election bid, and he begins “I have”, and then corrects himself: “There is a primary four class I had the pleasure to teach.” The children wanted to know everything from where parliament was, to his views on education and independence. He took unpaid leave to campaign. 

“Actually not teaching the children was the hardest thing,” he recalls. “During the campaign I kept bumping into them when I was door-knocking.”

Whitfield was born in Newcastle, in 1965, to Labour-supporting parents. “My entire youth was spent with people who were socialists.”

His father was involved in the Theatre Workshop, founded by the left-wing director Joan Littlewood. “We were part of a community which supported each other and found value in that support in art and in theatre,” he says. “That is hugely important to me.” 

He trained as a lawyer, but grew disillusioned with the profession and retrained as a teacher instead. He and his wife eventually settled in Prestonpans, where they started a family and he “fought like mad” to work at the local school. She works as the marketing manager for the local theatre.

He believes he won his seat – one of the first to be touted as a possible Labour win – thanks to a combination of his local profile, the party’s position on independence and its manifesto, which “played brilliantly everywhere we discussed it”. 

It offered hope, he says: “As far as my doorstep discussion in East Lothian went, some people were for and against Jeremy Corbyn, some people were for and against Kezia Dugdale, but I didn’t find anyone who was against the manifesto.”

Whitfield’s new job will mean long commutes on the East Coast line, but he considers representing the constituency a “massive, massive honour”. When I ask him about East Lothian, he can’t stop talking.

“MPs do tend to say ‘my constituency’s a microcosm’, but it really is Scotland in miniature. We have a fishing industry, crabs and lobsters, the agricultural areas – the agricultural soil is second to none.” The area was also historically home to heavy industry. 

After his first week in Westminster, Whitfield caught the train back to Scotland. “That bit when I got back into East Lothian was lovely moment,” he says. “I was home.”

Julia Rampen is the digital news editor of the New Statesman (previously editor of The Staggers, The New Statesman's online rolling politics blog). She has also been deputy editor at Mirror Money Online and has worked as a financial journalist for several trade magazines. 

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