Tag Archives: Tim Farron

Tim Farron comes of age as Lib Dem leader

The honeymoon is over. For the last few months Liberal Democrats have been able to project their hopeful expectations onto Tim Farron, their new leader. And he skilfully avoided disappointing them. But his decision to back the government in last night’s vote to involve British forces in attacks on Islamic State in Syria has changed all that. Now, alongside the traumas of the Labour Party, we are asking what political parties are for, and how politics should work.

I was surprised at Tim’s decision. As my last posting shows, I was personally inching towards that view – but I consider myself to be something of an outlier in Lib Dem circles. The party at large is clearly against intervention, as a recent online poll showed. My Facebook timeline showed strong opinions against. And he had given himself plenty of cover. He had set five tests against which to judge any proposal to intervene. This is usually a political tactic to oppose something. And, to put it kindly, it is stretch to say that all five tests have been met – though it is also true that there has been movement in the right direction.

My doubts over intervention were not helped by David Cameron, the Prime Minister in today’s parliamentary debate. First he suggested that the attacks were needed to prevent IS activity in Britain. They will make very little difference; that is just not how these things work. Then he tried to suggest that there were about 70,000 “moderate” fighters who might act as the ground spearhead to defeat IS, without invoking the Syrian government under Bashar al-Assad. Even if the numbers are right, they do not form a coherent fighting force with the military skill to take on the highly effective IS army. And thirdly, it came out that he had smeared some of his opponents as terrorist sympathisers. That was the previous night in a “private” meeting with his party’s MPs – and it alludes to some of the new Labour leadership’s apparent sympathy for “freedom struggles” in the past. He might have graciously apologised, but he did not. As Jeremy Corbyn, Labour’s leader, said, it diminishes the office of Prime Minister. But it is a foretaste of Conservative tactics against the new model Labour party.

Mr Corbyn, on the other hand, was a model of dignity. There was no high-flown rhetoric, but at least what he said was clearly true. And if it was also beside the point, the same can be said of Mr Cameron. The reason why there is a momentum in favour of intervention, at least in parliament, is that there is s strong public mood to “do something” after the Paris attacks, that a gesture of solidarity with France will have diplomatic benefits, and that with Syria creating a massive refugee crisis, it is not a political topic we can turn our back on. Inaction seems to pose just as big problems as action. If it is good enough for the Germans, whose government is planning to commit forces to the same campaign, almost without precedent, that surely it is good enough for the UK? The fact that the proposed British contribution is small scale is actually in its favour – a lot of diplomatic bang for quite a small buck. Iraq this is not.

This is what politics is about. Weighty issues for which there are no obvious solutions, and where messy compromises are needed. It is about politicians from across the country and different political persuasions, working out what the country as a whole should do. The trouble is that there seems to be a new politics about, where political representatives are seen as figureheads for wider movements of like-minded people, for whom compromise is betraying your principles. The Labour Party is being overwhelmed by this conception of politics. Labour activists oppose intervention in Syria, and have turned it into a totem issue. They have been harassing any MPs and their staffs who take a different view. Some talk of rooting them out as “scum”.

Such are the death throws of a party that once aspired to govern. After being hammered for entering coalition, the Lib Dems can safely put such aspirations to one side. The behaviour of their MPs is more of a puzzle – though Tim’s leadership opponent Norman Lamb, and one other of the eight MPs voted against. Many of the party’s members have similar views to those Labour activists, though standards of behaviour and language are infinitely better. There has been much talk of rebuilding a core vote – which seems to be code for ignoring messy compromises and attracting the support of more motivated, middle class liberals.  But Tim Farron and his fellow MPs seem to have an older view of what MPs are for. They seem to have considered the vote on its merits, rather on any wider political impact. (I will say the same for Norman, incidentally. The differences between the two men are a complete reversal of what was said about them in the leadership contest, when Tim was portrayed as being to Norman’s left).

That wider political impact is hard to judge. Coming out in favour of intervention is the sort of thing that will play well with floating voters. But it will be hard for the party to get any credit for it. They famously opposed the Iraq war, so people will expect them to oppose all military interventions. They will just get confused when they do something different. And the party’s members and activists will not be happy. Some could leave, others just drift away.

It may too much to hope that the party will take this as a lesson on what successful politics must look like. Political representatives are responsible to their voters first, and party membership second. It is not “democratic” for a bunch of self selected activists to agree something using voting procedures, and then impose this on people elected in proper, public elections. Getting things done means compromise and lending support to policies that are second best or worse.  This is why we use a system of representative democracy. Political movements not prepared to engage fully with the real business politics ultimately get nowhere. – or if they do get somewhere, end up by forcing their views on others and suffocating political debate.

Unlike what the Labour Party is becoming (and, it has to be said, a lot of what it was of old, for different reasons), the SNP or the Greens I hope the Liberal Democrats will understand this and give their leader some slack. But this will prove a painful coming of age for him.

 

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The Lib Dems start the long journey back

2015-09-23 12.15.44I’m just back from Bournemouth where Britain’s Liberal Democrats have been having their Autumn Conference. This was the first conference after this year’s General Election completed five successive years of rout for the party, and the first under its new leader, Tim Farron. It went as well as the party could have hoped for.

The depth of the party’s defeat in May can barely be described, as it was reduced from 57 seats to just 8. This was most spectacular in the south west of England, which had been the party’s main stronghold, but where the party lost every single seat. The public were fed up with it, which had formed a coalition government with the Conservatives. Both the Conservatives and Labour were more interested in crushing the Lib Dems that in damaging each other, and neither could the party resist the SNP surge in Scotland. Meanwhile, on the ground, in most places, the party had exhausted itself, and could no longer mount the sort of strong grass-roots campaigns that had seen its rise to 63 seats in 2005. What had been a steady decline after this high point turned into a rout after the 2010 election, and the party’s period in coalition. Its base in local councils bled nearly to death; it fared very badly in Scottish Parliament elections in 2011, and a catastrophic near wipeout in the European Parliamentary elections in 2014, before this year’s humiliation. The party has not just suffered a temporary blip; it has been hollowed out.

But something rather strange has happened more recently. After the election the party experienced a surge in its membership – adding 20,000 in four months. My local party went from about 120 in January to nearly 320 now. Some of these new members are returnees, who dropped out in the coalition. But most are drawn from voters, especially younger professionals, drawn to what they understood of the party’s values over the coalition years. These new members signed up in record numbers to attend the conference in Bournemouth, making it one of the most successful ever in terms of membership attendance – though others, from media to advocacy organisations, shunned the party after its loss of influence.

The main task at Bournemouth was to integrate this new blood with the old-timers, and to forge a renewed political movement. These disparate elements need to be inspired with a sense of common purpose and values. This is an inwardly focused business – the party has to sort itself out before it can seriously chase floating voters and win elections. And, my impression was, this went pretty well. The formal business was somewhat insipid, with very little controversial put up for debate. But this no doubt helped forge common purpose. And, of course, there was the training, the fringes and the socialising. The new member I spoke to on my journey home said the experience was inspiring, and much better than she had expected; and that seemed to be the view of others she had talked to.

The new leader played an important part in this. The leader has three big public performances: the rally speech on the first night, a question and answer session, and the closing speech. I saw the first and last of these. The rally speech was a nicely judged affair, where Tim (as I will call him – I will make no pretence of objective distance) showed his flair for public speaking. The effect was rather spoiled for me by an email follow-up that arrived to one of my mail boxes (one where the party’s database didn’t know I was already a member), attacking Labour, accusing them of not being a serious opposition to the Conservatives. This is more of the bubble-talk of which we have had far to much already. Labour are fired up by their hatred of the Conservatives. There are good reasons to think their opposition will fail, but  that failure has not happened yet. The Lib Dems can push Labour to take a stand on liberal issues, claiming to replace it is premature.

But the closing speech was a barnstormer – and the best leader’s speech I have heard for a very long time. It started a little slowly, and I thought it was going to disappoint at first – but that was just pacing. Three things stood out for me. The first was, as Roosevelt said in despair at emulating Churchill’s public speaking: “He rolls his own.” No doubt he was helped by speechwriters, but it sounded authentically his voice, with his characteristic humour and turn of phrase. This helps him sound authentic. The second thing was that the speech was rooted in the concrete. Leftist politicians have a habit of talking about abstract ideas (austerity, neoliberalism, progress, and so on). Tim avoided this; to make his point he concentrated on three issues: housing, refugees and Europe, and rooted these in real experiences, asking his audience to imagine the world from a different perspective. There was thankfully no talk of the abstract “centre ground”, so loved by his predecessor, Nick Clegg. And the third thing about Tim’s speech was its plain rhetorical firepower. He has a full range of gears from light and humorous up to full-blown, earnest passion. That full range was on display.

With the possible exception of Nigel Farage, the Ukip leader (whom I haven’t heard properly), this might make Tim the best public speaker of all the British party leaders. The contrast with Labour’s Jeremy Corbyn is quite striking. Mr Corbyn oozes authenticity, but he hasn’t got the rhetorical range.

So far, then, so good. The party has to do more inward work before it can really start challenging the other parties, though. That is conspicuous on policy. Tim tried attacking Labour for its irresponsible economics. This is pretty weak, until the party can develop its own distinctive economic narrative, that isn’t just a middle line between Labour and Tory. And the party got a glimpse of how hard this policy thing can be with the only controversial policy debate of the conference: on replacing the Trident nuclear weapons system.

On the one hand was offered a values-based line of getting rid of nuclear weapons altogether. On the other, more mainstream politicians, including the leaders of the Scottish and Welsh parties, wanted something a bit more fudged that would interfere less with fishing for floating voters. And the conference voted narrowly for this less inspiring course.

This blogger will try to make a modest contribution to this policy development, and in particular by suggesting ways forward on economic policy,  public service reform and political reform. More on that another time.

But meanwhile, I am encouraged that the party is gathering strength. I do not expect a major political impact on the wider scene for another year at least, though. The Conservatives, Labour and the SNP all have momentum right now, and it will be near impossible for the Liberal Democrats to break in with a distinctive voice. But the moment will come, and I hope the party will be ready when it does.

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My hopes and fears for the Lib Dems under Tim Farron

A week ago Tim Farron became the new leader of the Liberal Tim_farron_2014Democrats, my political party here in Britain. When such important events occur I am torn between two impulses: to comment straight away, and so be topical, or to pause for reflection; I take the “thinking” bit of my blog’s title seriously after all.

The decision this time was quite easy. I was quite depressed by the news of Tim’s victory, as I had been backing the rival candidate, Norman Lamb. I needed a few days to recover from that low patch so that could be more upbeat about the whole thing. Now I am past that wobble, I feel better able to comment.

My first reflection is that I must try to be be a good loser. It’s no good my hoping that Tim will be anything other that what he promised to be. And to me that sounds like a distinct step in the “Social Liberal” direction, of supporting centralised state interventions using taxpayers’ money. Or, put slightly differently, going back to the “left of Labour” idea that gained traction under Charles Kennedy’s leadership. This will be good for hoovering up protest votes, but not so good for establishing a coherent new foundation for liberal policy – which I happen to think is the party’s most pressing task right now. I will have to bite my tongue and ride with it. I fear for the longer term consequences, but Tim faithfully reflects the way most of the party feels.

What makes this a lot easier is the knowledge that Tim understands community politics. This should make him quite sympathetic to the new thinking when it comes. More so, perhaps, than the previous leadership under Nick Clegg, or even Charles Kennedy was. And Tim is reliably liberal in his attitudes, and with that comes a healthy suspicion of an over-mighty state.

My second reflection is that Tim must play to his strengths. While not exactly having had what most people would recognise as a “real” job (he worked in higher education before becoming an MP in 2005), his career doesn’t follow the standard Westminster model. He wasn’t a researcher, PR person, charity worker or union rep (though he was part of the National Union of Students); nor was he based in the rarefied atmosphere of Westminster or Brussels – he was worked mainly in Lancashire. And neither did he engage in politcal networking at Oxford or Cambridge (he went to Newcastle University). This gives him something of the prized “authentic” flavour, which could be very useful in reaching out to the public. As somebody pointed out on the radio over the weekend, he’s a bit like Nigel Farage, the leader of Ukip.  Mr Farage was for a long time England’s most successful retail politician, as he traded on his “authenticity” – though his career as a financial trader and European MP was hardly “real world” either. Tim’s rather raw quality will allow him to get away with the odd gaffe, as was the case with Mr Farage – indeed that will all be part of his “authenticity”. And Tim has an engaging turn of phrase.

A second strength is that Tim is able to preserve a degree of distance from the Lib Dems period of coalition. He did not serve in the government; he did not even breach the pledge on tuition fees. This will help the party rebrand. He needs to use this distance to his advantage.

All this will help him get noticed. As will his promise to support “spiky” policies – ones that aren’t necessarily popular, but which illustrate liberal values. If he’s brave these will include support for immigration and scepticism over nuclear weapons, especially Trident submarines. There really isn’t much to lose. The Lib Dems must become an insurgent party, making mischief while the Labour Party tries to carve out more conventional positions. This will draw attention to the party. But what will people find when they start to pay it more attention?

Tim needs to rally the party around coherent values and policies and attract the support of the many people who have liberal attitudes but who do not support the party. There is some baggage here that needs to be dealt with. Many in the party sat tight under Nick Clegg’s leadership, and coalition with the Conservatives, and now want to get revenge. However many people also joined the party because they liked and respected Nick’s leadership. Tim understands the nature of the balance that must be struck here, but the party must resist the temptation to tear itself apart, as its predecessor the SDP did in 1987/88, the party’s previous low point.

But this week’s political antics on the Conservative government’s proposed welfare changes shows just how difficult all this will be. Labour struggle to take a nuanced position, opposing some reforms but  accepting others. The Tim’s Lib Dems went for outright opposition. This is a role reversal from the last parliament, where the Lib Dems often defended Conservative changes that they had moderated, while Labour condemned the party as being complicit to an ideological attack on the poor. This reversal makes me feel queasy – though as it happens I think the Lib Dem stand is right one on this occasion. The public may just see rampant opportunism on both sides. Or a  cat fight amongst parties that aren’t serious about the responsibilities of government. But many Lib Dem activists will just love getting back into the politics of protest and paying back the insults that for years they endured from Labour- even if it plays into Conservative hands. They will enjoy this so much that they won’t notice where it is all leading.

What the Lib Dems need is an alternative critique of the government’s economic liberalism, that doesn’t take its inspiration from the way things were before Mrs Thatcher. The last leader to try this was Paddy Ashdown, who stepped down in 1998. Charles Kennedy went for a lazy oppositional-ism. Nick Clegg went for an economic-liberalism-lite. It does not particularly worry me that party turns away from Nick’s path, though I have supported much of it. It does worry me that Tim’s party will take after Kennedy’s rather than Paddy’s.

But the jury is out. Tim has the benefit of the doubt for now. And me? I want to put my main political energy into developing new ideas for the economy, public services and the way politics is conducted. What I won’t do is rallying the troops and knocking on doors for a new protest politics. Somebody else can do that.

 

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Taking community politics to the next level. Who should be the next Lib Dem leader?

2015-06-17 21.20.17Last Wednesday I attended the London hustings for the two candidates to be the next leader of Britain’s Liberal Democrats. It was a well-attended event, with up to 800 people there (not 1,200 as some have reported, though – that was the number that registered in advance). As my life still hasn’t got back to normal after my return from holiday and having the builders in, I have delayed my considered response. But here it is at last!

The two candidates are Tim Farron, MP for Westmoreland and Lonsdale since 2005, and Norman Lamb, MP for North Norfolk since 2001. Their similarities are quite striking. I find it convenient to consider most Lib Dems to be one of three camps – though all three have a strong set of shared attitudes and values, which allows constructive dialogue between them. First there are the Economic Liberals, sometimes referred to as Orange Bookers. They are part of the Westminster mainstream, with an inclination to market-based solutions, or maximising individual choice, as they might put it. This group includes the outgoing leader Nick Clegg, and it dominated the Liberal Democrat presence in the coalition government. Then there are the Social Liberals (not to be confused with social liberals, who are free and easy about other people’s private morality). These are also a mainstream strand, but they have more faith in centralised state-based initiatives, and centrally defined rights to access to state services and benefits. In the current environment this group tends to be quite conservative, objecting to most attempts to reform state spending. The former party leader, the late Charles Kennedy, can be thought of as part of this group. But both Tim and Norman are part of the third group: Community Politicians. These were important to the party’s early growth, but had been swept aside by the party as its presence in Westminster grew. They emphasise localism, and their mantra is empowering local people and communities. They see empowerment as giving people a say in decisions that affect them, rather than promoting market choice or legal rights. It is easy to see why those swept up by Westminster politics feel that this is tedious. Other Lib Dems took up local campaigning with enthusiasm, and spent a lot of time on constituency case work, referring to this as “community politics” – but they never grasped the empowerment part of the philosophy.

But it was clear from the hustings, and their track record, that both Tim and Norman are not amongst these superficial community politicians. That will make the next period of the party’s existence more interesting. But the philosophy has its limits. It isn’t well understood by the Westminster crowd of civil servants and media types – who keep trying to bring things back to nationally run services or nationally defined rights – things that leave Westminster in control. It is very hard to drive through national reforms to facilitate local empowerment. The party has not developed clear templates for doing so, nor for communicating its ideas, even to its own membership.

Also in many places Community Politics no longer provides an adequate way forward for the party electorally, if it ever did. That includes my part of London, where there is no meaningful local community to work with – or the communities that exist do not conform to electoral boundaries (i.e. people have a more dispersed and mobile circle of friends and colleagues).  Besides the party now has a bit of a credibility problem – it is seen as just another political party, out to get an advantage over its opponents rather than actually help people.

But there is a crying need for new approaches to economic management, to public services and to the conduct of politics. And I believe that Community Politics is the best to start in the search for these new ideas – its distance from standard Westminster thinking is a help. That makes the party well paced to lead the battle of ideas,  while Conservatives, Labour and Greens flog their respective dead horses. This is, after all, what the party has done before from a position of political weakness: think of Beveridge and Keynes in 1945 (much good that did the party electorally).  Also, it was the approach taken by former leader Jo Grimond to lift the party from an even deeper hole than its current one in the 1960s. At the hustings, both Tim and Norman called for the development of just such new thinking.

So how to tell them apart? Tim is younger and, I would say, more energetic. The strain on the campaign trail seemed to be telling a bit on Norman – he clutched a can of Red Bull. Tim is also a good performer; he is more rhetorical, and often comes up with a telling turn of phrase and a quick joke. At a time when the party needs to energise its grassroots, he looks more up for the job. It is no wonder that he is usually considered the favourite. And he has been working for much longer to build his profile across the party membership, as party President, and at Conference.

And yet I have my doubts. It may just be a sign of being in the party too long, but I find the rhetoric grates. I don’t want to be pumped for yet another futile charge at the barricades. I want hope. I want the confidence that we are not heading up the same old garden path. And here I worry. Tim seems to respond to his audience rather than thinking things through – somebody whose words will run ahead of his achievements. Indeed, he seems more interested in the quantity of new ideas, rather than their quality and consistency – he fizzes with them. I fear that he will drop into easy protest politics, rather than taking the much harder road of developing community politics into a convincing national narrative. He seems more interested in ideas as a means to achieve engagement, rather than actually changing the way we do things.

I have much more confidence in Norman on that score. He is much more considered and willing to think things through. As an effective health minister he has experience of ministerial office in the most challenging of public services. There he championed mental health and personal budgets – two themes that will be important in future public service reform. His policy of getting the police and mental health professionals to work together to deal with people that have mental health problems shows exactly the right approach to public policy – getting multiple public services to organise solutions based on the needs of actual people, rather than abstract symptoms. But will he be as good as Tim in the outreach to and energising of the membership?

There are two red herrings in the chatter about leadership. First, which was a theme in the hustings, is that Norman was a loyal member of the  coalition government, voting for policies that Liberal Democrats disagreed with. This compares with Tim Farron’s more rebellious record, which included voting against the increase in tuition fees (which I respect him for, incidentally). I don’t think this says anything useful about either candidate. Some say that Norman is tainted by the coalition – especially when you add that Norman was Nick Clegg’s Parliamentary Private Secretary at one point. And yet Tim is quick to praise the party’s achievements in coalition and Nick’s moving speech defending his record on the day after the election. You can’t have it both ways.

The second red herring is some rather nasty chattering about the fact that Tim is a practising Christian, and that this has given him some awkwardness on such iconic social liberal issues as gay marriage and abortion. I really am worried about this secular puritanism that is present in the membership. The party must embrace cosmopolitanism – and that means taking a more understanding attitude over such dilemmas. You don’t have to be a bigot to have doubts about gay marriage – even if it helps. Tim is a liberal to his core and he will not impose his rather different perspectives on social liberal issues on the rest of us. End of story.

At the moment I am backing Norman. I think he has a better chance of promoting the new thinking on public policy that is the party’s most important task. But I would please ask his activists to back off from emphasizing his record on issues of personal conscience. This is not the right way to improve the party’s diversity.

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