The Liberal Democrats took an absolute pounding on May 7. After years of putting substantial differences aside and working towards a stable and functioning economy, there was a reckoning for mistakes made early during the coalition. The biggest mistake, I would argue, is that of tuition fees. It is no surprise that the tuition fees overshadowed our election campaign, especially for students: despite negotiating the best deal we could in the face of overwhelming pressure from Labour and the Tories who wanted unlimited fees, and despite making the repayment system more progressive, the headline figures had gone up and we were held accountable for that. It wasn’t bad policy, but it was clearly bad politics.
A recent New Statesman article claimed that this was our “Iraq War moment”. No doubt, we were punished for our decision, but to compare it to a decision that led to the deaths of hundreds of thousands is as crass as it is misleading. The impact of the Iraq war on Tony Blair’s popularity should be the last thing we consider when analysing its consequences. The significance of the tuition fees compromise pales in comparison, and – crucially – was partly done in order to pass further liberal policies elsewhere. It may have been a mistake, but we managed to make the best of a bad situation
I’m tremendously grateful for the progressive changes made to the repayment system that fellow students will experience thanks to our involvement in government. I’m also grateful for our work elsewhere, whether it’s in education where our pupil premium makes an important difference for the least advantaged pupils, or in work where some of the lowest paid were lifted out of paying any income tax altogether. All of this was thanks to ministers in government like Norman Lamb, fighting for liberal values in very challenging circumstances.
I’m not going to pretend that it has been easy for the party, but I didn’t sign up for ‘easy’ when I became a Liberal Democrat. Tim Farron is fond of reminding us in his speeches that joining this party has never been a sound career move; we certainly don’t benefit from having safe seats like our opponents do. This is precisely why we ought to avoid electing a leader who will just make us feel good about ourselves, and instead elect someone who has a proven record of delivering genuine liberal reforms on a national stage. It is why I think liberals ought to be voting for Norman to become the next leader of the Liberal Democrats.
Adam Bennett is right that we have no god-given right to exist. This is why we need to prove that not only are we an ardently liberal party which fights for individual freedoms and choices such the legalisation of marijuana, but we’re also a responsible party which can be trusted to fight for things often ignored by Tories and the Labour party. Norman Lamb is an intellectual powerhouse in his own right, and this has inspired countless young people who want to see us fight for a genuinely liberal party of social and economic freedoms. It’s his vision for the party that I point towards when explaining to people why I am a Liberal Democrat. It is through his vision that we can reclaim our credibility as a political party.
Ultimately, if we are not in politics to change things, what is the point of the Liberal Democrats as a party? There’s only so much that we can achieve by standing on the side-lines, watching and shouting as politics happens in front of us. We’ve got to be able to articulate a vision for the future that places us as the natural choice for those who think that power ought to be with people, not with vested interests or the state. For that, Norman is undoubtedly our man.
Being proud of our many successes in government, including Norman’s work in mental health, means acknowledging to the bad decisions as well as the good. It is utterly naïve to think that all would be forgiven if we elect a leader who didn’t vote for the increase in tuition fees, and every attempt to highlight this undermines our numerous achievements. I don’t want us to be shouting on the sidelines for the next half century, especially given what we’re now seeing from a majority Conservative government. I want Liberal Democrats in government, delivering Liberal policies. Norman Lamb is the man to take us there.
Charlie Kingsbury is a Welsh Liberal Democrat member and Vice Chair of Liberal Youth. He is a board member of Liberal Reform.