Farron must avoid rushing to define the Lib Dems
With the Labour Party seemingly willing to gift the Tories half a year to do whatever they want with the country, the Liberal Democrats have a shorter path to electing a new leader and getting on with the business of rebuilding.
Thursday afternoon saw the election of Tim Farron, announced exclusively via social media for the first time. It’s a result that many expected, and finally gives the party the clarity and focus needed to get on with the fightback.
Tim faces some serious challenges ahead – many more than could ever have been anticipated.
He’s succeeding the first Lib Dem leader who ever took the party into government. A leader who took tough choices at great personal expense, and transformed conference hall policy ideas into real, enacted government policy. A leader that has delivered a legacy of change in the country – ranging from education and mental health support for children through to a better work-life balance for parents. Those are tough shoes to fill by anyone’s standards.
The previous leadership fell foul largely because the party are victims of a cyclical electoral squeeze. When people don’t know who will be the next prime minister, when the two large parties are so diametrically opposed, voters unsurprisingly think about national consequences, not local issues, electoral tactics, or specific policies. When the economy is perceived to hang in the balance there is too much at stake in the eyes of the public, and the smaller parties get squeezed.
Secondly, and more importantly when it comes to the future of the party, we had spent decades building up a very local base of electoral support, from council to parliamentary levels, on the basis of populist, or indeed protest, issues that played well with disgruntled voters, but almost impossible to deliver in government.
Whilst this strategy clearly bore fruit locally, election cycle after election cycle, this foundation of support was not enough to sustain us when we found ourselves in Government. By defining ourselves as a brand around specific policies, rather than on an overarching model of core values and ideology, we ultimately (and some would say inevitably) suffered near fatal electoral wounds after entering the Government. The electorate failed to see the values and instincts we lived by in Government, and instead remembered us through the prism of what we had to give up.
Tim will have to both define again who the Lib Dems are, why the party plays such a crucial role in the future of this country, and what its core values and instincts are, with policy being a proof point rather than the only definition of the brand. All political parties encompass a broad spectrum of ideas within them and Tim and Norman straddle each end of this respectively.
As leader, Tim must unite this spectrum in the eyes of the electorate, with a clear coherent message about our values, even if it means occasionally being counterintuitive to his own views and having to go against the grain of populism.
Defining our offering to the electorate through our traditional values of personal liberty, social progression, meritocracy and a radical shakeup of the establishment - all of which I believe are at the core of Tim’s beliefs - will help to make sure the public have a strong instinct of what the party stands for, why it’s not a ‘split-the-difference’ party, and why it plays a crucial role in British politics.
Of course Tim will have to finely balance this both with a strong political nous for identifying and mobilising the party on popular issues that cuts through with the media and grasps the attention of the British public and, as a former colleague wrote recently, a hefty dose of luck. The Conservatives could tear themselves apart over Europe once more, and Labour could continue to fight with each other about the future of their economic offering to the public. Making political capital out of these splits, whilst healing the division within our own ranks, will prove no small challenge for Tim.
Tim will also have to use the party’s diminished resources with maximum impact – a skill used to great effect in the past but somewhat lost in recent years. In the immediate term, he will have to ensure local party infrastructures do not disintegrate whilst capitalising on the 60,000-odd revitalised membership and our strong presence in the House of Lords. He’ll need to inspire new members with the feeling that they are part of a movement rather than a political party.
With only 56% of the party membership taking part in the leadership election, the need to energise the grass roots has never been a higher priority. He’ll need to empower them with expertise learnt from the past, but combine this with giving them the freedom to bring in fresh thinking and innovation.
The first 100 days of Tim’s new leadership must reflect the need to revitalise the party, whilst recognising the need to take time to reflect and rebuild. The road to 2020 is a long one and the road to longevity longer still.
Tim must, at all costs, avoid the temptation to define the party in his first 100 days. Rather he and his team will need to think very carefully about how to make our party survive and thrive for generations to come, as a permanent force in British politics with a strong ideological foundation that’s built to last.
is a former No 10 special adviser to Nick Clegg. He currently chairs Kingston Liberal Democrats and is a director at Quiller Consultants.