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Tuition fees were the Liberal Democrat Iraq. Only Tim Farron can turn the page

I don't want just to be right - I want to win again. That's why Tim Farron is the man for me, says Adam Bennett. 

What are the Liberal Democrats for in 2015? This is a question that probably hasn’t been discussed quite as much over the course of our party’s leadership election campaign as it perhaps should have been. We’ve had plenty of defiance and pride concerning our record in government (and rightly so), but that key existential question that any defeated political party must confront still hangs over us. Why did we all sign up to this party in the first place? What is it about the Liberal Democrats that makes our survival so essential to the good of British politics? As a relatively young political party, we know perhaps better than most that we do not have a god-given right to exist, and frankly the next five years are shaping up to be exactly that: a fight for our political existence.

Apologies if that all sounds rather downbeat to any liberals reading this. For what it’s worth, I have every faith that no matter who is elected out of Tim Farron or Norman Lamb our party will continue fighting for the liberal values that have defined us for years. However, the uncomfortable question that we cannot afford to leave unanswered is this: “How can we make people believe in us again?” If we do not answer this question, our message will not be heard.

So, how do we stand out in an increasingly crowded political marketplace? The one thing we cannot do now is be seen to simply go through the motions as a party, appearing on Andrew Marr or Question Time to deflect questions, which we were perhaps guilty of during the Coalition years. Ultimately, we cannot be seen to be a standard, ‘professional’ political party. We can no longer be part of the ‘Westminster Elite’ that Ukip, the SNP and the Greens have vilified to such an effective extent. This is because our credibility as a political party has been totally destroyed thanks to tuition fees. It doesn’t matter what we say, it can always be shut down by our opponents with a glib comment along the lines of “well we all know how far we can trust a Lib Dem, eh students?”

For what it’s worth, I think this situation is disastrously unfair. Not only is the current fees system better than the one we inherited, it’s also far fairer than what we would have got had we not entered Coalition. Thanks to the Lib Dems, fees are paid back at a more reasonable rate, only after you earn £21,000 and there are no up-front fees. But nobody wants to hear that, because the tuition fees story isn’t about tuition fees at all. It’s about trust, and we need to elect a leader who recognises that.

Our reluctance to face up to the tuition-fee-shaped elephant in the room during the last election was summed up for me by a chance conversation I had with Nick Clegg. As a student at the time, I had been talking to a lot of people who said they had no idea the Lib Dems made the changes I mentioned in the previous paragraph, and that having learned this they felt much more positive about the party and would consider voting for them (I even managed to persuade two of them to volunteer). When I saw Nick Clegg, I thought I would never forgive myself if I didn’t share my winning formula with him. Upon hearing my advice, he listened politely but said twelve words that I still remember to this day: “thanks, but I don’t want to make this election about tuition fees”. 

Now, Nick Clegg may not have wanted to make the Lib Dem campaign about tuition fees, but it WAS about tuition fees. In fact, it was all anyone I spoke to seemed to want to talk about. As preposterous as this sounds, it really was our Iraq. It was the moment at which we were seen to sell our political souls to the devil. It was so frustrating to me that this obstacle could be overcome but our leadership seemed to think that there was no obstacle worth overcoming. 

Turning now to our leadership election, I see one candidate who unfortunately perhaps had no choice but to vote in favour of tuition fees in order to keep his ministerial position, from which he did much good. However, I see another who was brave enough to defy the party whip to vote against tuition fees, and the bedroom tax to boot. Tim Farron’s record is one of firm liberal principles, and rightly or wrongly that is what we need in order to rebuild the public’s trust. Norman Lamb’s work in government, particularly on mental health, cannot be understated and as a former employee, party member and volunteer I am hugely proud of his record. But people like Norman will never be able to affect that kind of change again if we don’t win enough seats.

I don’t want to just be right, I want to be right and win. 

So what are the Liberal Democrats for in 2015? Well for me it’s simple. We are the party of progressive change. We are the party who would change the voting system to make it fairer. We are the party who would never allow £12bn to be cut from those who cannot afford to pay it when such a sum could easily be recouped from tax avoidance. We are the party who would rebalance our economy to make it greener and less exploitative. We are the party who would bring power back to the people through further devolution. We are the party who would commit to building the houses we so desperately need.

That is a message worth shouting about. We have no choice but to elect a leader who has the political credibility to shout it. 

Adam Bennett worked as correspondence assistant to Nick Clegg and worked for the Liberal Democrats until the election. 

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Rarely has it mattered so little if Manchester United won; rarely has it been so special they did

Team's Europa League victory offers chance for sorely needed celebration of a city's spirit.

Carlo Ancelotti, the Bayern Munich manager, memorably once said that football is “the most important of the least important things”, but he was only partly right. While it is absolutely the case that a bunch of people chasing around a field is insignificant, a bunch of people chasing around a field is not really what football is about.

At a football match can you set aside the strictures that govern real life and freely scream, shout and cuddle strangers. Football tracks life with such unfailing omnipresence, garnishing the mundane with regular doses of drama and suspense; football is amazing, and even when it isn’t there’s always the possibility that it’s about to be.

Football bestows primal paroxysms of intense, transcendent ecstasy, shared both with people who mean everything and people who mean nothing. Football carves out time for people it's important to see and delivers people it becomes important to see. Football is a structure with folklore, mythology, language and symbols; being part of football is being part of something big, special, and eternal. Football is the best thing in the world when things go well, and still the best thing in the world when they don’t. There is nothing remotely like it. Nothing.

Football is about community and identity, friends and family; football is about expression and abandon, laughter and song; football is about love and pride. Football is about all the beauty in the world.

And the world is a beautiful place, even though it doesn’t always seem that way – now especially. But in the horror of terror we’ve seen amazing kindness, uplifting unity and awesome dignity which is the absolute point of everything.

In Stockholm last night, 50,000 or so people gathered for a football match, trying to find a way of celebrating all of these things. Around town before the game the atmosphere was not as boisterous as usual, but in the ground the old conviction gradually returned. The PA played Bob Marley’s Three Little Birds, an Ajax staple with lyrics not entirely appropriate: there is plenty about which to worry, and for some every little thing is never going to be alright.

But somehow the sentiment felt right and the Mancunian contingent joined in with gusto, following it up with “We’ll never die,” – a song of defiance born from the ashes of the Munich air disaster and generally aired at the end of games, often when defeat is imminent. Last night it was needed from the outset, though this time its final line – “we’ll keep the red flag flying high, coz Man United will never die" – was not about a football team but a city, a spirit, and a way of life. 

Over the course of the night, every burst of song and even the minute's silence chorused with that theme: “Manchester, Manchester, Manchester”; “Manchester la la la”; “Oh Manchester is wonderful”. Sparse and simple words, layered and complex meanings.

The match itself was a curious affair. Rarely has it mattered so little whether or not United won; rarely has it been so special that they did. Manchester United do not represent or appeal to everyone in Manchester but they epitomise a similar brilliance to Manchester, brilliance which they take to the world. Brilliance like youthfulness, toughness, swagger and zest; brilliance which has been to the fore these last three days, despite it all.

Last night they drew upon their most prosaic aspects, outfighting and outrunning a willing but callow opponent to win the only trophy to have eluded them. They did not make things better, but they did bring happiness and positivity at a time when happiness and positivity needed to be brought; football is not “the most important of the least important things,” it is the least important of the most important things.

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