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.


5 thoughts on “Tim Farron comes of age as Lib Dem leader”

  1. The central content of your fourth paragraph sums it up for me. As Margaret Beckett and Hilary Benn explained, where on earth would the UK be if shrugged its shoulders and just ignored pleas by France, the UNO and the other countries involved in the anti-ISIL Coalition and, basically, said “I don’t give a d***”? I have not for one minute believed the spin about “super bombs” which British ingenuity means we alone possess and will “take out” ISIL leaders within days and have no interest whatsoever in supporting the Bargain Basement PM we have currently got in the shape of Cameron (the absolute embodiment of a weak man trying to appear macho (just like Anthony Eden, whom I think he comes to resemble ever more closely!), nor in just stamping my foot (SNP-like) and voting “No!” in a shrill tone just for the sake of it and in order to oppose the Nasty Tories. What I do believe, however, are two things: a) a vote against intervention by the Commons would have provided a huge boost to the “Pull up the drawbridge”/”Let the rest of the world (and Scotland and Wales as well, if needs be) go hang, but just leave me in peace in my little island”/”Dad’s Army” brigade and b) Tim showed real courage in supporting the line he did, even though he knew it would be extremely unpopular with very many in his own party and non-party voters who still associate the party with Charles Kennedy and Iraq (even though the differences between Blair’s lies about “WOMD” and the disgusting reality of ISIL barbarism (surely THE antithesis of every single thing liberalism stands for?) could not be more pronounced. A line has to be drawn and Tim stepped up and answered the calls of conscience and duty even though he must have known full well it was not going to play very well at all with many within and without the Party. All credit to him for that.

  2. Matthew

    I must admit I was disappointed by Tim Farron on this one to be honest and I can’t agree with much of what Charles has said above, esp the Scotland and Wales go hang, wasn’t that long ago I was being told that Scotland matters in this union, the fact that 72% of Scots are against bombing appears to matter little but off topic.

    I don’t give a crap about how we look, when the innocent start dying due to UK bombs how we look will be the last thing on my mind. have we learned nothing, bombing does not work, bombing does not work, bombing does not work. So our answer to the threat from Syria is to bomb.

    We need to cut off their funding, but then if the rumours are true that some of that funding comes from Saudi and Turkey, our friends, nothing will happen there. We need to fight their publicity, we need to stop the right wing bollocks that all Muslims are bad, we have got to stop the rubbish that bombing in Syria makes the UK safer, it does not. If we really wanted to defeat Isil or whatever they are called today as it keeps changing we need the world to commit to thousands of troops n the ground, with the support of the arab nations, and fight them city and town. of course that won’t happen because there is no appitite for it and we don’t care enough.

    This is a mess, start to finish and the Liberal democrats will continue to pay a high price at the ballot box, not that that would bother me if the decision was the correct one but it clearly not. We are adding nothing to this campaign, we only making a bad situation even worse for the innocent on the ground.

    As Charles indicated, this is about how we are viewed, what a stupid way to stay at the so called top table. What do we do when it spreads, what if Pakistan with nuclear weapons gets more involved, what if Iran gets involved and the Israel starts to fear even more for its security, while I accept the world needs to do something, unless we are willing to go to all out war and defeat these people on the ground then all we are doing is compounding the mistakes.

    1. I certainly don’t think that Scots (or Welsh) should go hang! And I doubt it will make much difference to the party’s voter approval ratings – not in England, anyway. I think the point that Charles is trying to make is that the SNP are trying to use the issue to stoke resentment of the UK government. If Scotland were independent, had a decent military capability, and if France asked the Scottish government for assistance, would they take the same view I wonder?
      A lot of what you say is right – especially about how the bombing will affect safety at home.In fact opponents have better a grasp of the facts than supporters of intervention, if you go by public statements. The problem is that order in Syria has already collapsed (unlike Iraq in 2003), and that collapse is destabilising the world beyond, rippling into Europe. Standing back and saying it is all too difficult isn’t helping. The killing just goes on. Intervention has the merit of helping to contain one of the most outrageous of the war’s factions, and preventing them from creating yet more chaos. It also strengthens Europe’s hand in trying to bring the various actors to the negotiating table when that becomes a possibility. A refusal would undermine Franco-British relations for a long time, at a time when we need French help to get through the EU referendum nightmare. But I can easily see why so many people find this line of reasoning unconvincing. There’s no end game in sight. But that’s true of not intervening too.

      1. Matthew

        I haven’t seen any party in Scotland trying to make political capital from the debate and vote, any party doing that should be made to pay at the ballot, these issues are more important and the clapping in patliament was disgraceful and I think the tories have a done a lot of damage.

        I’m not saying we should sit back and do nothing because the situation is too complicated, what I feel is that bombing is the easy politicial option for Cameron because he is not interested in challenging the alleged funding from our so called allies, he is not willing to put pressure on the arab league to do more, he is not willing to put pressure on Turkey to stop buying the oil, he is not willing to accept that the Kurds are a part of the solution, he is not willing to block Turkish membership of the EU. The list goes on with the things we could be doing, things would make us actually look better in the eyes of most, but no Britain drops bombs like we have always done. It is no longer good enough.

        I still also think that Tim Farron has let the party down on this one and Norman Lamb has led, I also think that Benns speach was opportunism of the worst kind gvien that two weeks ago he was shouting for no bombing. I can’t how we do politics in this country, it is so dishonest.


        1. Glad to hear your comments on how the debate is being conducted in Scotland. I have to say that for the most part in England there is respect on both sides, notwithstanding the intemperate fringes. Most of the government’s arguments are specious, and I am appalled at our PM. I didn’t see Benn’s speech, so won’t comment on it. But if he has changed his mind in two weeks, so have I. That isn’t of itself dishonest. I honestly think this is a hard issue. But I don’t think Tim Farron has handled it very skilfully, even if I agree with where he has ended up.

Comments are closed.