Norman Lamb addresses Liberal Democrat conference. Photo: Getty Images
Show Hide image

I'm voting for Norman Lamb so we can get the Liberal Democrats back where they belong: in government

We can't just campaign ourselves into the ground. We need to prove we have ideas worth voting for: that's why we need Norman Lamb, says Charlie Kingsbury.

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.

PHOTO: GETTY
Show Hide image

Tackling tuition fees may not be the vote-winner the government is hoping for

In theory, Theresa May is right to try to match Labour’s policy. But could it work?

Part of the art of politics is to increase the importance of the issues you win on and to decrease or neutralise the importance of the issues your opponent wins on. That's part of why Labour will continue to major on police cuts, as a device to make the usually Labour-unfriendly territory of security more perilous for the Tories.

One of the advantages the Conservatives have is that they are in government – I know it doesn't always look like it – and so they can do a lot more to decrease the importance of Labour's issues than the Opposition can do to theirs.

So the theory of Theresa May's big speech today on higher education funding and her announcement of a government review into the future of the university system is sound. Tuition fees are an area that Labour win on, so it makes sense to find a way to neutralise the issue.

Except there are a couple of problems with May's approach. The first is that she has managed to find a way to make a simple political question incredibly difficult for herself. The Labour offer is “no tuition fees”, so the Conservatives essentially either need to match that or move on. But the one option that has been left off the table is abolition, the only policy lever that could match Labour electorally.

The second, even bigger problem is that it it turns out that tuition fees might not have been the big election-moving event that we initially thought they were. The British Electoral Survey caused an earthquake of their own by finding that the “youthquake” – the increase in turn-out among 18-24-year-olds – never happened. Younger voters were decisive, both in how they switched to Labour and in the overall increase in turnout among younger voters, but it was in that slightly older 25-35 bracket (and indeed the 35-45 one as well) that the big action occurred.

There is an astonishingly powerful belief among the Conservative grassroots, such as it is, that Jeremy Corbyn's NME interview in which the he said that existing tuition fee debt would be “dealt with” was decisive. That belief, I'm told, extends all the way up to May's press chief, Robbie Gibb. Gibb is the subject of increasing concern among Tory MPs and ministers, who regularly ask journalists what they make of Robbie, if Robbie is doing alright, before revealing that they find his preoccupations – Venezuela, Corbyn's supposed pledge to abolish tuition fee debt – troublingly marginal.

Because the third problem is that any policy action on tuition fees comes at a huge cost to the Treasury, a cost that could be spent easing the pressures on the NHS, which could neutralise a Labour strength, or the financial strains on schools, another area of Labour strength. Both of which are of far greater concern to the average thirtysomething than what anyone says or does about tuition fees.

Small wonder that Team Corbyn are in an ebullient mood as Parliament returns from recess.

Stephen Bush is special correspondent at the New Statesman and the PSA's Journalist of the Year. His daily briefing, Morning Call, provides a quick and essential guide to domestic and global politics.