Mark Argent
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Politics:: articles since 2015 General Election
Why I am supporting Norman Lamb for leader

8 June 2015, first published in Liberal Democrat Voice

At the Spring Conference I went to a fringe event by the Social Liberal Forum entitled Mental Health: equality of esteem? which was addressed by Norman Lamb with Ian Brodie Brown (of Imagine Mental Health) and a mental health services user.

This could easily have been just a health minister supporting health things, but there was a great deal more to it than that. Mental health is stigmatised. It took courage to make a stand and put this on the agenda before it became clear that it would not cost us votes.

One of the Sunday papers ran a story about Norman’s son’s mental health problems that weekend. That was a nasty attack which Norman took with dignity. He came across as a person of wisdom, dignity and depth, sufficiently well-rooted to withstand a nasty personal assault, and sufficient visionary not to be thrown off course by it. All party leaders need a layer of public relations, but good leaders have depth beneath that.

For now, the bruising of the General Election is still raw. It could be tempting to look for a candidate “untainted” by the coalition, but we shouldn’t walk away from our achievements so quickly.

Top of the list is the fact that the coalition was stable. People argued against electoral reform because it makes coalitions more likely and they assumed these would be unstable. We’ve dispatched that argument. When electoral reform does happen and people get used to coalitions, they will look back on the recent one and praise the Liberal Democrats in government for making it work.

On the doorsteps some people were critical of the coalition. Some of those would never have voted for us. Others had misunderstood why we went with the Tories and why there were compromises: these were easy enough to win back. Others had voted Liberal Democrat in the past as a protest against the big parties, and took their protest vote elsewhere. They are no great loss: it is a little too easy to sit on the sidelines and grumble, but it takes more gumption to get involved in the messy realities of government and make a real change. There’s much to be proud of in the the contribution of Liberal Democrat ministers in the last parliament and I am glad that, in Norman, we have someone standing for the leadership who stepped up to the mark and made a difference in government.

The future is looking unclear. Where will Labour go as they recoil from defeat into a turbulent leadership campaign? What will happen to the Tories if the back bench awkward squad throws its weight around as happened under John Major? What waves will the SNP’s antics create? Might a few defections and some by-election defeats mean an early General Election? What effect will the EU referendum have — both in terms of the result and the alliances that form to campaign on both sides?

Tim Farron starts as someone who can distance himself from the coalition and appeal to those wounded by recent experience, but the danger is that we over-react. Our re-building is about much more than numbers: it is about being the effective voice of Liberal Democracy. We need a leader who has the depth to help us face the challenges and opportunities of a rapidly-changing situation and gain credibility by doing it well. I believe Norman is the person to do this.