POLITICS

The Men Who Want To Lead The Lib Dems Are Taking Lessons From Norwich City And Blackburn Rovers

29/05/2015 11:54 BST | Updated 30/05/2015 23:59 BST

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class="feature-caption">Lib Dem leadership contenders Tim Farron, who says he offers a "fresh start", and Norman Lamb, who contends he can reach beyond his party

An Argentinian writer famously dismissed the Falklands War as two bald men fighting over a comb. To be uncharitable, the same could apply to the battle for the Liberal Democrat leadership after the party was hollowed out at the election.

The two contenders, naturally, see it differently.

Tim Farron, the former party president written up as the front-runner, says widespread “indignation" is fuelling a surge in party membership among people who "now realise they need to be Liberal Democrats".

That the Lib Dems are effectively "dead", as one commentator claimed last week, is the "easy narrative", according to Norman Lamb, the ex-Health Minister, the second man who would-be king.

"Our death warrant has been signed many, many times," he says, recalling the 1980s when the Liberal Party had been reduced to "an asterisk in the polls".

Mr Farron, MP for Westmorland and Lonsdale in Cumbria, and Mr Lamb, who represents North Norfolk, will be the only two having a tilt at the top job, with the result announced in mid-July. The prize? Command of a bruised party reduced to just eight MPs.

Four weeks since the May 7 battering, and the dividing lines between the two are emerging. Mr Farron, the darling of party conference who voted against the “bedroom tax” and trebling tuition fees, is framed as representing a shift to the left away from Clegg-ism. He is, he suggests, a "fresh start".

tim farron

By contrast, Mr Lamb, a one-time parliamentary aide to Nick Clegg, does less to distance himself from the last five years, even if he admits there were errors. But the notion he is an "identikit candidate" is, he says, misplaced.

norman lamb

The fork in the road where their campaigns diverge is arguably over where the party goes from here. Mr Farron underlines the precipitous state of the party, making clear their recovery is not guaranteed. "We will not coast to a revival,” he says.

Mr Lamb is more upbeat. Britain is in a "liberal age", he says, and the party should be more relevant to voters than the Conservatives or Labour.

It’s perhaps best summed up by their respective football teams.

Mr Farron, a Lancastrian, likens the Lib Dem plight to that of his beloved Blackburn Rovers. He bemoans how the one-time Premier League champions were “staying up by the odd point”, and how he thought dropping down a division would be more fun.

He said: “And I got my wish. And does anyone give a stuff about us now? We’re an utter irrelevance in the Championship and no-one is talking about us. We have to be aware of the fact we are not in the Premier League for the time being.”

Mr Lamb, who moved to Norfolk as a teenager, is still hoarse from cheering Norwich City to victory in the Championship play-offs last weekend. He heaps praise on the Canaries' manager Alex Neil, appointed mid-season, for "brilliant leadership".

"You've got to set your values and lead," he says. "He did it brilliantly. Recovering from a position everyone thought was pretty hopeless. We can do the same thing."

The first moment of the race to have grabbed significant attention was when Mr Lamb received an endorsement from pop star Dappy, who is managed by his son. He dismisses a "great Machiavellian plot".

"I walked out of a funeral of a mother of a good friend in Sheffield to get a message from our son saying 'Dappy has endorsed you, you must respond'," he says. "I knew nothing about that at all."

World music-loving Mr Lamb - who flicks through his iPhone playlist to show Dappy brushing up to David Bowie – re-mortgaged his house to help his son launch the career of British rapper Tinchy Strider. He also has the support of boxer Frank Bruno thanks to his campaigning on mental health issues. He says it shows he can "reach beyond our party" and prompt people to "give us another look".

Mr Farron admits he does not have the backing of pop stars, but reveals he has flirted with reviving his own musical ambitions. In the late 1980s he fronted a band "written off as a fourth rate New Order". He refuses to reveal the name of the three-piece as "you can find it on YouTube".

new order

New Order, the band Mr Farron's unnamed outfit was likened to. Any fans of the MP's band please get in touch with Huffington Post UK

“I don’t think the endorsement of either of my mates (in the band) will help," he admits. A “massive” Prefab Sprout fan (or “committed Sprout-ite"), Mr Farron reveals a former band-mate recently sent him some new music and "we began work on new material, shall we say”.

Mr Farron, the only Lib Dem to secure over 50% of the vote, says the Lib Dems should be “proud” of policies driven through in Government including cutting income tax, and that a "repudiation" of the last five years would be wrong. He thinks “history will be kind” to former leader Nick Clegg.

But he signals there should be break from the recent past, acknowledging the party was “clearly tarnished by being in power" and "people stopped listening to us". "We need a fresh start,” adding the party now has to "earn the right to get a hearing".

He suggests his resistance to the coalition has been useful. “When I’ve spoken in public places and to student audiences of the benefits of the tuition fees system over the one it replaced, I find I get a hearing. I get a hearing because I was able to say ‘I voted against this, it’s important to keep your word’.”

One flashpoint between the two has been over same-sex marriage. Mr Farron, an evangelical Christian, last week expressed regret that he abstained from the vote that legalised same-sex marriage on the basis of needing to protect religious minorities and others who opposed it. He added he is not "lukewarm" to the law. Mr Lamb, though, said there would be "differences" between them.

On the wider issue, Mr Farron said it was perfectly possible to have faith and be a liberal, adding it also underpins his belief that "career isn’t everything".

He went on: "This is – for all of us in the party, whatever we believe – a mission. This is a vocation about how you can make people’s lives better. If you see this as a career structure then you’ve already lost track and lost touch with people you are meant to serve.”

Mr Farron thinks 130,000 people are “attractable to some sort of involvement” with the party since “maybe millions of people” are small "l" liberals. Reports suggest he would ditch "Democrat" from the party's moniker but he argues re-building means you "fix your product first before you start the marketing".

He suggests the party has to act as if a "guerrilla outfit". “There are some scenarios where other people might be better at the job. I think I should be leader now – he says humbly - my limited skills set includes an ability to communicate beyond Westminster in a way that gets people to think about the Liberal Democrats in a new light. We are going to have to pick simple message, oft repeated message, be a guerrilla outfit in many ways.”

Mr Lamb strikes a more optimistic tone. "We did the right thing. We made mistakes. Fundamentally we lost trust and people, and they stopped listening to us. Trust is of central importance. I did that with my work with mental health."

He reckons there is "a massive space" for a party to fill among people "uncomfortable" with surveillance culture or existing drugs laws.

He compares the possibilities to that of a "start-ups that catch fire and become the latest thing". "Look how quickly the SNP emerged," he says. "Look how quickly Nigel Farage connected with people. This is not about the self-preservation of a party. It’s about the fact there's a whole load of people in this country who have very strong views about the importance of liberal values. That's the paradox."

He says assisted dying, which he claims is ignored in Westminster, is a "core liberal value". "Should it be you, or the state that decides?," he says. "We should be out there leading the case for it and that way you start to connect with people again."

But, "of course", he accepts the party has been "massively damaged". His personal championing of mental health care to be held in the same esteem as physical injuries "didn’t cut through to the wider public because the brand was so damaged".

He also hints that his leadership rival doesn’t have the monopoly on being a "grassroots campaigner". "When Tim arrived here in 2005 I was his mentor," he notes. "I gave him all the top tips for how you build your support in your seat."

His defence of seizing power could also be read as a swipe at those who prefer the Lib Dems to sit on the sidelines. "What is the purpose of politics? Is it to commentate, to build support and achieve nothing? Or is to achieve an advance for your values in positions of power? It must be the latter."

His call for reform involves a "fundamental overhaul" of the party, warning it lacks diversity and has an issue with "treating people properly", perhaps an allusion to the Lord Rennard affair.

"We can't tolerate a party that does not reflect modern Britain," he says, pointing to the fact in Westminster its presence is "eight white middle-aged men".

The lack of women and ethnic minority MPs was apparent before the election, however. "We were the least representative, really," he concedes. "It's now even worse."

He reckons the party is suffering a "near death experience" partly because of losing tactical voters drawn to the Tories thanks to the first-past-the-post voting system.

He says: "Any condition of a future government, in my view, you've got to change a completely discredited system. One in four people voted Ukip, Green or Lib Dem – disparate views, granted - but all of those people end up with ten MPs our of 650. That's outrageous."