Tim Farron talks a good game, but who's listening to us Lib Dems?
Fortuna the Roman goddess of luck is flighty, fickle, and essentially a massive tease. And when it comes to the Lib Dems, this could not be truer.
She loves teasing people like me, giving me hope, then dashing it, then giving me hope again. On the one hand, despite rebuilding the economy and delivering major progressive social change, the goddess Fortuna gave us a ‘centre-squeeze’ election which the Tories (and essentially the SNP) won on fear. This left the Liberal Democrats with a paltry eight MPs and a dilapidated local and national party infrastructure, which needs to be rebuilt despite significant losses of income and staff.
Yet just months later, Fortuna gifts us Jeremy Corbyn and a divided Labour party scared of power; a Tory party that’s back to indulging its nasty side; and the chaos of EU politics that so divides their parties.
The space in the centre ground is vast, fertile, and seemingly being ignored by the major parties. There is clear demand for a strong liberal voice in British politics and the only party with the instincts at its core to deliver this is the Lib Dems.
The opportunity is there but the means by which the Lib Dems capitalise on that opportunity are far from clear – especially when an anecdote about a curious boy and a dead pig gets more coverage in a day than the Lib Dem conference does over a week (having said that, Lib Dem conference delegates did squeal with excitement when they read about it, including myself, when I sent some late night trolling texts to my former Tory SpAd colleagues).
And so the question posed to Tim Farron at his first party conference as leader was: How on earth are you going to capitalise on this huge opportunity with next to no MPs; a dodgy electoral system that discriminates against you; a disengaged public; and a disengaged media who don’t fancy giving you much of a voice?
It’s a lot to ask of any leader and perhaps too much to expect an answer just four months on since the election. But whilst Tim hasn’t done anything game-changing, he does seem to have had a very strong start, laying the right foundations and delivering a cracking speech.
He showed real leadership this week, managing to head off a call to scrap Trident by activists in the face of a resurgent Russia. He firmly nailed his colours to the mast (some would say for the first time in five years), supporting the multitude of successes delivered in coalition government.
But most importantly, he said this: “I came into politics to change things, to make a difference, to make people’s lives better. And to do that, you need the power to bring about change. There is nothing grubby or unprincipled about wanting to win. Nothing noble about defeat – losing sucks, losing robs you of your chance to make people’s lives better. What’s the point in being right if you never get to put your policies into action?”
It’s a message not only important in reassuring backers of the coalition and Nick Clegg, but also in reassuring those liberals still in the Labour party who fear their leader is turning them into a party of protest and dogma.
Tim gave the party focus, purpose and ammunition this week, saying housing, health and a pro-business agenda – ranging from support for SMEs through to backing the EU to ensure British businesses can compete globally – are what we should be talking about on the doorstep.
And he demonstrated his and the party’s values through his response to the refugee crisis – in stark contrast to the dog-whistle rhetoric and inhuman language being used by Tory ministers.
All in all, Tim Farron had a strong start, and has laid the foundations for a genuine fightback.
But the horrible truth is no one is listening. And they won’t start listening until we start winning. By-elections and defections are what the party needs to prove it and so far none are on the horizon.
On May 7th, Fortuna ignored my pleas, but perhaps she’s now starting to listen. And so I ask her for a little bit more luck to be thrown our way. Give the Lib Dems a chance to show they can win, and things may turn around quicker than I ever hoped.