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  1. Politics
22 June 2015updated 26 Jul 2021 5:43am

Norman Lamb: “It’s important and central to my liberalism“ for the Lib Dem leader to have voted for gay marriage

The Lib Dem leadership contender on his experience of government, what separates him from his rival Tim Farron, and his unlikely involvement in London’s grime scene.

By Anoosh Chakelian

“Dappy’s endorsed you – you’ve got to respond.”

This could be the most incongruous political instruction any wannabe Lib Dem leader has ever received. But Norman Lamb isn’t just any wannabe Lib Dem leader. He’s a big deal on the London grime scene. Kind of.

With his cropped white hair, pale blue checked shirt and sensible glasses, you’d never guess, but aside from being Norfolk North’s Lib Dem MP since 2001, Lamb has also been doing his bit for emerging young hip hop stars in recent years.

He and his wife put their full support, and quite a bit of money, behind their oldest son Archie’s career as a music producer.

“We ended up remortgaging our house to help fund Tinchy Stryder’s first album,” he recalls.

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It wasn’t long after Star in the Hood was released in 2007 that Tinchy became a mainstay of the UK singles chart. So Lamb’s investment worked out quite well then?

“It did, yeah. He ended up a lot wealthier than us!” laughs Lamb.

Aside from pursuing his “very catholic music tastes”, and his self-confessed tendency to be found in music venues “with lots of people half my age where you’d never expect to find an MP”, Lamb has been busy running his leadership campaign.

After his party tumbled from 57 to eight seats in its bloodiest election night yet, there were only two likely successors to Nick Clegg: Tim Farron – the lively darling of the grassroots who had long been waiting in the wings as party president – and Lamb, the capable, well-respected former coalition Care Minister and architect of the party’s headline mental health reforms.

Lamb is a mild-mannered man. He politely joshes with me for the NS endorsing his rival. He clearly doesn’t want to run a negative campaign openly attacking his opponent.

But over the weekend, it emerged that his leadership campaign is under investigation for the data it used allegedly to poll party members about Farron’s voting record.

I spoke to Lamb before this investigation.

We discuss the differences between his politics and those of Farron, who did not vote in favour of same-sex marriage, and also voted against the Equality Act regulations to prevent discrimination based on sexual orientation in the provision of goods and services – the gay couple snubbed by bed and breakfast owners is a high-profile example.

Is it important for the leader of the Liberal Democrats to have supported gay marriage?

“Well, it’s central to my liberalism, so therefore I think it’s quite important,” Lamb replies. “There is a distinction there between us.”

Perhaps in spite of his past reticence about gay rights, Farron is popular with the leftwing activist base of the party, and is often characterised as the great campaigner. Lamb is perceived as more cerebral, but less able to rally the troops. Is this fair?

“The interesting thing is there is this assertion that Tim’s the campaigner, and I’m not,” says Lamb. “But look at what I did. Look at my record. I won a seat on Norwich City Council through campaigning, coming from third place in my ward to finally break through . . . all with me leading from the front, doing the community politics . . .

“Then I took on this massive Tory majority [in Norfolk North] and defeated them. I did that through campaigning, nothing else. Building up your reputation, house by house, family by family, winning people over.”

Ironically, when Farron arrived in the Commons four years later, Lamb was his mentor, giving him advice about how to build on his majority. “He says he still has the checklist in his office of the tips I gave him,” grins Lamb, whose majority ballooned from 483 in 2001 to 10,606 in 2005.

“And then he did the same,” says Lamb. “But we’ve come through the same route. It’s the campaigning route. Winning the hard way, as it were.”

But Lamb asserts that there is more to leading the Lib Dems than doorknocking. “We all campaigned as hard as we possibly could; we campaigned ourselves into the ground. We can’t campaign any harder. There is a limit to human endurance!” he laughs.

“You have to get the ideas right,” he says. “You have to get back to those values. And sometimes challenge the party, and sometimes challenge the establishment. But be clear and consistent in liberal values that inspire a new generation, young people who share our liberal values.

“But also inspire the activists who want to go out there on a dark November evening, because they’re fighting for something they really believe in. So I think it’s the combination of ideas and effective campaigning that will win us back our support.”

Lamb was a minister in the Tory-Lib Dem coalition, which has put him on the backfoot in this leadership contest. For example, he voted for tuition fees, whereas Farron voted against. But Lamb insists that the Lib Dems need a leader who was willing to make difficult decisions.

“If you’re on the backbenches, of course you could pick and choose what you support and don’t support,” Lamb sighs. “But if you’re in government, you can’t pick and choose.

“And I don’t think we should’ve supported what’s become known as the Bedroom Tax. I think it was a significant mistake,” he admits. “But should I have resigned on any of these issues?

“Thinking about the fact that in the two years I was there we reduced by half the number of people who ended up in a police cell in a mental health crisis, I don’t regret that [not resigning] one bit.”

He adds: “It’s much tougher if you’re on the inside, doing things. But that’s what I’m about. I don’t think there’s much point in this job unless you actually get your hands dirty and try and make a difference to people’s lives, implementing the liberal values you believe in.”

Lamb’s legacy in government is the significant progress he and his party made on approaching mental health like physical health – introducing the first ever waiting time standards in the NHS for mental health patients, for example, plus a flurry of spending commitments regarding treatment.

Lamb’s own son, who still works in the music business – he manages Dappy, Lamb’s unlikely celebrity backer – has suffered from mental ill health. He was diagnosed with obsessive compulsive disorder at 15, and experienced some “very dark periods” (in his father’s words) involving alcohol and drug use.

“Your family experience inevitably shapes your views and understanding,” Lamb reflects. “It meant that when I was dealing with all sorts of families who were telling me horror stories about their experiences, I just had a total affinity with where they were at.

“I just know the impact of mental ill health and the way the system fails. We’ve been let down by the NHS on mental health. But it is fundamentally a liberal principle that everyone should be treated equally,” he adds.

In spite of his son’s drug problems in the past, Lamb has an unswervingly liberal position on drugs. He “would immediately” decriminalise drug abuse, making it a “health issue, not a criminal justice issue”, and would legalise the use of cannabis for medicinal purposes.

Although accepting that it would depend on UN treaty changes, Lamb would also push for the UK “to legalise cannabis” if he were Lib Dem leader.

He describes it as “a drug that is less dangerous than the two particular drugs that are legal: smoking kills 100,000 people a year; alcohol causes untold damage to families. We’ve lost our ex-leader [Charles Kennedy] through alcohol addiction,” he adds, sombrely. “And yet we criminalise people who smoke a joint.”

Lamb is angriest when discussing drug law. “We’ve got a government, probably half of which have smoked illicit drugs, taken illicit drugs at a young age, and put it down as a youthful indiscretion – that’s what the middle classes call it.

“Meanwhile, many of their fellow citizens have criminal records that blight their careers. Now you can’t tolerate that. We need to be clear and upfront, and actually the public are ahead of the politicians on this.

 “I’m someone who is really fearful of the risks of drug-taking, legal or illegal. As a father, I don’t want our sons to take drugs,” he adds, leaning forward. “But should they get a criminal record for doing that? That’s not a liberal thing to do.”

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