Bristol had been my home city for the past two years yet it still had not lost its novelty. I stood on the road outside my apartment near the city centre on a warm, June day. Double-decker buses rolled by blocking out view of contemporary and Tudor architecture the street had to offer. Locals that had come out of hibernation walked by on the way to the park, donning shorts and sunglasses. While others stood outside the pubs having a quick cigarette. It was never too early for a cider on a summer’s day.
A car pulled up to the side of the pavement and a friendly, petite girl stuck her head out of the window. “Are you Ryan?” she enquired.
When I confirmed that I was, she jumped out and vacated the front seat for me. The driver got out and apologised for the amount of leg room in the back as he battled with the infant seat. I jumped in and introduced myself. They were Alex and Lucy, a young couple living in Bristol. Alex had been a councillor for the city before losing his seat a month earlier in the elections. He spoke about the disappointment that followed to the extent of grief of losing a large part of the group. I could tell from the way he spoke that it was something that he cared dearly about and had a passion for. The injustice behind losing his seat was probably no fault of his own but more to do with the party he represented. The Liberal Democrats.
The Liberal Democrats suffered a catastrophic blow in the 2015 UK General Election. Going from having the Deputy Prime Minister, a role in government and 56 MPS to being thrown out of power, 8 remaining MPs but worse still, a loss in faith by the British electorate. In 2010 the Lib Dems made the highly unpopular decision of going into coalition with the Conservatives. Nick Clegg, the party leader at the time, stood firm in his convictions and made a deal with the devil to guarantee economic stability for the country during the dark days of the recession. The price was to break his promise on tuition fees, letting down millions of young people. It was a high price to pay. Now only weeks later of voting for them, I had become a member of the party and was sharing a ride with one of its former councillors. We were off to the leadership hustings to hear what the two leader candidates had to say.
We parked off near the Bristol County Ground where the event was taking place. The day after the election, Nick Clegg announced that he was stepping down as Lib Dem leader. Tim Farron and Norman Lamb were the candidates that threw their hats into the ring, before Paddy Ashdown could eat them. They were two of the surviving MPs but both had impressive experience. Norman was the health minister of care and support for three years in the past government. He was also a strong advocate for mental health. Tim served as the party’s president for roughly the same amount of time and was the only Lib Dem MP to win over 50% of the votes for his constituency. I asked Lucy if she knew who she was voting for.
“I am not sure,” she pondered. “I’ll listen to what each has to say before I make up my mind.”
We entered one of the conference rooms of the cricket ground. It was already packed with hundreds of people and I spotted Tim Farron in the back, looking relaxed. There were others I recognised from the new members social I attended the week before. One of them appeared next to me and said hello. It was Helen, both cheerful and fearless by nature. She asked me if I wanted to take a seat. The place was filling up with party members and the presenter told us that “Norman is running a bit late but he is on his way via Bristol taxi…so he should get here sometime tomorrow”. He passed over to Stephen Williams to start the proceedings.
Stephen Williams was the MP for Bristol West between 2005 and 2015, another casualty of the election. His speech covered all the great aspects of Bristol. Stephen played an important part of me turning to the yellow side (not SNP) as I researched his record in the build up to the vote. He was a mile ahead on his candidate rivals but the public disagreed with me. Back at the new member social I remember introducing myself to an unshaven Stephen, not recognising who he was with his dashing beard. The penny dropped as he walked away as I became a bit starstruck. That was only bloody Stephen Williams. Later in the evening he abruptly came up to me and asked me what I did. He spent about five minutes trying to place my accent before talking about Wales, the place where we both had grown up.
Norman had now arrived and the debate was ready to begin. The rules were explained. Each would have ten minutes to make an opening speech before answering questions from the audience.
Norman Lamb was to go first. Helen perked up, sitting tall in her chair getting ready for Norman to speak. She adjusted the ‘Vote for Lamb’ badge on her jacket. Norman spoke with both warmth and an undeniable authority on many subjects. The one he was most passionate about was mental health and how there was a stigma attached to it in today’s society. “If you are diagnosed with cancer, you will be seen within two weeks. However, if you are diagnosed with early stage psychosis, there is no time limit in which you will be seen in”. He reminded me of one of my uncles when he engaged the audience with an amiable wisdom. His best part for me was when he talked about inequality in Britain, “your chances of success in life, are determined by the circumstances of your birth”. This was a true reflection of the lack of equality in society and something the party had to fight for.
Helen turned to me with one of her trademark grins and said “Tim might be a great speaker but everything Norman says inspires you. He is great, isn’t he?”
“Give Tim a chance,” I replied. “There is something about him that –“
Tim Farron was the next up and was electric from start to finish. There is a way in the manner Tim speaks that inspires you that you want to put all your energy into helping his cause. He spoke of seeing the BBC show ‘Cathy Come Home’, that was about homelessness in the 1960s, it was his motivation to get involved in politics. His motivation to help people. Being a first time buyer, the issue was of interest to me. After hearing that David Cameron wanted to sell off housing association properties, it would only make it harder for people to get on to the property ladder. Tim wants to support the housing association to build more homes and not sell the ones they already have. He went fluidly from subject to subject. Speaking against the ‘snooper charter’ that the Conservatives want to bring in to make it easier to spy on people. To battle climate change and for the UK to be a leader in renewable energy. He highlighted the importance of the EU. It was a political platform where we “share discussions with ministers from countries where maybe twenty-five years ago had nuclear weapons on their soil pointed right at us. Now, we are just arguing about fishing quotas. That is progress.”
He slammed the Conservatives again quoting the Prime Minster, “people get very frustrated with human rights. So Mr Cameron, which of these do you find especially frustrating? The right to life, the ban on torture, protection against slavery, the right to a fair trial, respect for privacy, freedom of thought and religion, free speech and peaceful protest. These are not frustrations, these are integral to what it is to be British!”* Every point made was met with enthused clapping from the members. Tim remained humble and reminded us that having strong liberal policies would all be for nothing, if we could not win back the seats. “The existence of the Liberal Democrats is necessary but not inevitable” he explained, there was no point fighting for liberalism if the public did not hear our message. His plan is to target grass roots and to “serve people in the communities. The rebirth of community politics, rebuilding from local government back to the top”.
Those in attendance broke into rapturous applause. I turned to smirk at Helen. “Okay, he IS good,” she admitted.
Afterwards the audience had the opportunity to put forward questions to both candidates. Both answered well in an alternating order. It was clear that both would make great leaders but only one could save the party from extinction.
I met up with Lucy after the questions and noticed that she was now wearing a bright orange ‘I’m voting Tim Farron’ sticker. “I see you have made your mind up.”
“I do like them both but there is something about Tim that edges it for me,” she proudly declared.
“Want to be like fan girls and get a photo?” I asked. Very seriously.
We stood behind a queue of people all waiting for a chance to ask Tim another question or get their picture with him. It was taking a while for our moment. A lady had a long shopping list of issues she wanted to discuss with him before she latched on to Norman who was near by. The wait persisted but now I was now in the inner circle that had formed of many listeners. Tim finished his chat with another guy about my age and turned to face me and extended his hand.
“Hi Tim, I’m Ryan. I’m a new member,” I managed to get out as I shook his hand. “Just wanted to tell you, I admired what you had to say.”
“A new member? When did you join?” Tim asked.
“A few weeks ago.”
Everyone around us laughed. He was referring to the epic surge in new members joining. The number was 16,000 newbies and counting. The Lib Dem comeback was real.
“Now let me ask you something, for everyone’s curiosity,” Tim began. “What made you join the Liberal Democrats?”
Everyone who surrounded us diverted their attention from Tim directly to me. This was Tim Farron, the potential future leader of one of Britain’s most historic parties. He had put me on the spot in front of dozens of members. I kept my cool and answered as honestly as I could.
“This was actually my first time voting for the Liberal Democrats,” I admitted. “Though for this election I wanted to seriously research each party. In the end it was the Lib Dem values that resonated in me.”
Tim nodded in agreement. “Yes, people across the country with liberal values are afraid of losing the liberal voice in politics.”
He thanked me and we posed for that photo I wanted. Finally!
I met up with Will, Steve, Andrew and some of the other Bristol Lib Dems. We spoke about the hustings and who we liked best. Someone mentioned a pub and we walked over in the sunshine. I contemplated everything I had heard. I must admit, when I started researching Tim’s speeches on YouTube I was blown away. I was sending links to my father and saying, “Dad, you HAVE to listen to this guy and hear how he TALKS.” Tim has a natural gift on how he engages with people and inspires them to get involved. He used the beautifully morbid analogy of the Liberal Democrats being a torn down building but it was easier to rebuild a demolished building than to repair a breaking one. He has the words, he has the strategy and he has my vote.
There is a quote from L. T. Hobhouse’s Liberalism that symbolises what Tim Farron is. “The heart of Liberalism is the understanding that progress is not a matter of mechanical contrivance, but of the liberation of living spiritual energy. Good mechanism is that which provides the channels wherein such energy can flow unimpeded, unobstructed by its own exuberance of output, vivifying the social structure, expanding and ennobling the life of mind.”
* Possibly not a verbatim quote from the hustings but one of my favourite quotes from Tim.
[Photo credits: Tessa Munt, Thom Oliver & Lucy Woodman]