Tim Farron can learn from Paddy Ashdown... and Nigel Farage

Written by Stephen Tall on 17 July 2015 in Opinion
There's an open question about how far the new leader's stated priorities will resonate with the wider public

Tim Farron's done the easy bit. He's won the Lib Dem leadership, edging Norman Lamb by a 57-43% margin. Now comes the hard part - rebuilding a party devastated by its worst general election result since... well, since records began.

His first challenge is simply to get noticed. It was hard enough for the Lib Dems to achieve cut-through, either with the media or the public, when we were indisputably the third party in British politics.

Now we've been over-taken in votes by Ukip and in seats by the SNP it's going to be tougher still. The Times's Danny Finkelstein recently obituarised the party away - 'RIP Liberal Democrats. It’s all over for you' - a pithily morbid headline which, though premature, captured the reality of the party's irrelevance right now.

Just 29% of the public, according to a YouGov poll, think the Lib Dems are "here to stay and will be important for at least 10 years".

But if anyone can get the party's voice heard again, it's the irrepressibly chipper Tim Farron.

A proud Prestonian brought up in single-parent home, his ascent hasn't been along the familiar gilded path of Oxbridge to think-tank to special advisor to safe-seat MP. Instead, he's a grassroots campaigner -- the first party leader since John Major to have begun his political life as a councillor -- who narrowly won the former Tory seat of Westmoreland and Lonsdale, and set about turning it into a bastion of liberalism.

Farron was the only Lib Dem elected with more than 50 per cent of the vote last month. Perhaps even more impressively, his area was the only one where the Lib Dems topped the poll in both the European and even the Police and Crime Commissioner elections. His electoral success isn't just about building a personal vote: he's converted his patch to liberalism.

Scaling that local success nationally will take more than his abundance of tiggerish enthusiasm, though. Farron will have to carve out his own distinctive niche in the crowded political market-place if he wants to stand a chance of a securing another 8.10 am Today Programme slot (don't underestimate such a measure of success).

There are two party leaders he can learn from: one expected, one more surprising. The former is Paddy Ashdown, who inherited in 1988 a party in perhaps even a worse state than Farron does today.

The post-merger Lib Dems were a broke irrelevance, desperately fending off David Owen's rump SDP, trounced by the Greens in the Euro elections. The ex-SAS man took the party by the scruff of its neck and within a decade had led it to our best ever post-war election result. He did it, in part, by staking out liberal ground on seemingly fringe issues -- such as allowing Hong Kong nationals with British passports to relocate to the UK after the Chinese handover -- and making the running, forcing the Lib Dems centre-stage.

The other party leader Farron can learn from is - wait for it - Nigel Farage, the man he impersonated to help Nick Clegg prepare for his televised Euro-joust with the Ukip leader last year: "I don’t know what Ukip’s position is on local government reform, or on land value taxation, [or] on transport, but I’ve got a pretty clear idea what they think about immigration. ... Now, I want us to be a lot more intellectually credible than that, but I think that we’re in a position that we’re going to be known for no more than three things." 

Farron has said the three issues he wants to own are housing, civil liberties and climate change -- touchstone issues for Lib Dem activists, but there's an open question about how far they will resonate with the wider public, especially an ageing electorate, with over-55s expected to comprise a majority of voters by 2020.

However hard Farron tries, though, much of his success as Lib Dem leader will be decided by factors beyond his control. Will the Conservatives tear themselves apart over the forthcoming in/out EU referendum, or will Cameron accomplish the seemingly impossible and achieve closure for his party on this issue? Will Labour continue to retreat to its hand-wringing leftist comfort zone under the leadership of Andy Burnham or Yvette Cooper, or could a new leader re-invigorate Labour and mop-up the progressive vote?

The ideal for Farron is a split Tory party and a listless Labour party. In that scenario, the Lib Dem bounce-back could be swifter than currently seems possible.

But there will be a mountain to climb first. The Lib Dem local government base has shrunk, down from over 5,000 in 1996 to just 1,810 today. The party's representation in the Scottish parliament and Welsh and London assemblies has shrunk. We have just one lone MEP. And the wipeout of 48 of our 57 MPs hasn't just hit our parliamentary strength, but scythed a whole level of crucial policy and research staffing support.

The party's 20,000 new members -- mostly political first-timers wanting to show solidarity with a party at rock bottom -- offer fresh hope. Their energy and enthusiasm now needs to be harnessed for a fightback like no other the Lib Dems have had to mount.

It isn't just Tim Farron for whom the hard work now starts in earnest - it's the rest of the party, too.


Stephen Tall was editor of Liberal Democrat Voice from May 2007 to January 2015.


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