Conference challenges for the Liberal Democrats and Tim Farron

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I left home at stupid o’clock this morning to head to Bournemouth. At 8am, as I passed the Sage in Newcastle, scene of a spectacular Conference row over NHS reforms in Spring 2012. I was already I’m wondering if we were nearly there yet.

At the beginning of the week, there was hail and thunder forecast for almost the exact moment I arrive in Bournemouth, but that threat seems to have subsided. This afternoon is about the only chance I have for a wee walk on the beach. Let’s hope I get it.

This is bound to be an emotional conference for us. It’s just four and a half months since that brutal election result. Yes, we have got up, dusted ourselves off and are getting on with that #libdemfightback, but if were honest, few of us have really yet come out the other side of the grieving process. Being with our friends, mulling it all over with laughter, the odd tear and a whole load of gallows humour will undoubtedly help with that. 

You would think that this Conference would be a bit subdued then. Not a bit of it. Ironically, more members are attending than every before, twice as many new members as there have ever been before and three times more first-timers. It’s a pity, then, that the fringe programme is so much smaller with some sessions containing only a third of what they had last year. The only reason the directory is a decent size is because they have put the training programme in the back of it. Despite that, there will be plenty to keep us out of mischief. Nick Clegg and Vince Cable will both be around, and of course, there’s the extremely topical Liberal Democrat Voice fringe meeting (BIC, Bayview 2) on forging a liberal foreign policy in challenging times on Sunday night at 7:45 pm with Lord William Wallace, our Foreign Affairs spokesperson.

Our key challenges this week are threefold:

Being heard

One of the ramifications of our new status is that we aren’t going to get as much tv coverage. BBC Parliament are only doing live coverage on Monday, Tuesday and Wednesday. When Tim was elected leader, the report came 20 minutes into the Ten o’clock news compared to the wall-to-wall rolling coverage given to Jeremy Corbyn. We have to make the most of every interview. Tim has started well. He has a bit of form with saying stuff that gets him into trouble in pre-conference interviews but he seems to have managed to keep the headline writers on a less sensationalist path this time.

Who is Tim Farron?

Tim has been very well known in the party and has had some good coverage as he has provided consistent opposition to the Government’s handling of the Refugee Crisis, but he is not yet widely known in the country. He wowed crowds of Liberal Democrat members at hustings during the leadership campaign and now it’s time to see if he can have the same effect on the British public.

He needs to reassure those who left us for the Conservatives that we ware the grown-ups in the room.In fact, we always have been. I’ve a lot of time for Nick Clegg, but when he bought into that “party of protest” narrative, it really annoyed me. There’s a fiction that before we were in Government, we were a party of protest, reckless and lacking in credibility. This is utter nonsense. Not only were we running councils all over the place, we were always falling over ourselves to be seen as economically credible, often to the extent of ripping the heart out of our manifesto.

If you go back to 1979, you’ll see that the Liberal manifesto was talking about long-term, sustainable solutions, managing our resources wisely. It’s who we are and what we do. It might well be worth looking at that long history of ideas of responsibly delivering social justice.It’s right there in the Preamble to our constitution:

Recognising that the quest for freedom and justice can never end, we promote human rights and open government, a sustainable economy which serves genuine need, public services of the highest quality, international action based on a recognition of the interdependence of all the world’s peoples and responsible stewardship of the earth and its resources.

Tim also needs to give a way back to those who left us because of the coalition. Some of them are coming back by themselves, but Farron will have to show them that he has the answers for their aspirations.  His passion to tackle inequality and lifelong commitment to securing better housing should speak to those people.

Putting flesh on the dry old “centre ground” bones

If there is a phrase that irritates me like no other, it’s that one about Liberal Democrats claiming the “centre ground.” What does that even mean? I can forgive its use.  Thing is, I’m a political geek. Most of the population isn’t. They will see Tories on the right, Labour careering on a revolutionary rollercoaster to the imaginary socialist halcyon days of the past and a great big massive space in the middle where they are. We need to both claim that space and show what that means to people’s lives. We’ve been good at the first and terrible at the second. Tim will have to explain in practical and passionate terms what he and the Liberal Democrats bring to the political smorgasbord. The thirty seconds that people see of him in the news will have to be good. He needs to define us in terms of what we are for: better housing, human rights, internationalist, pro-enterprise and champions of personal freedom.

His aim will be to get more people joining in that #libdemfightback ahead of vital elections in Scotland, Wales and London next year. The more people who join us now, the greater capacity we will have as we campaign to improve our representation in all three parliaments and on councils up and down the country.

* Caron Lindsay is Editor of Liberal Democrat Voice and blogs at Caron's Musings

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7 Comments

  • Paul Pettinger 18th Sep '15 - 1:58pm

    “One of the ramifications of our new status is that we aren’t going to get as much tv coverage.”
    This is one of the reasons some called for change last summer – to try and avoid such a catastrophic election, which would make rebuilding all that much harder.

    “If there is a phrase that irritates me like no other, it’s that one about Liberal Democrats claiming the “centre ground.”
    Three weeks ago you wrote (at https://www.libdemvoice.org/willie-rennie-lib-dems-are-for-aspirational-scots-with-a-social-conscience-47262.html) ‘we have always been a radical centre ground party’.

  • Eddie Sammon 18th Sep '15 - 2:45pm

    Caron is right that there needs to be a lot of “flesh” on the centre-ground bones. I’m a centrist, but it’s nowhere near a complete political strategy. It’s not just accepting what the public think either.

    I’m also concerned that just embracing business and enterprise a bit more will not be enough. There’s a massive vote on Syria coming and the Lib Dems need to show that they still take defence and security matters seriously.

    In terms of radicalism I think progress can be made championing the most vulnerable in society.

    Finally, I won’t be at conference (not a member (don’t ask)), but I wish you all a great time. We are some of the luckiest people in the world and that should be appreciated with plans for how to help those who aren’t so lucky.

  • Dave Orbison 18th Sep '15 - 2:56pm

    @ Caron you say “He[Farron] needs to reassure those who left us for the Conservatives that we ware the grown-ups in the room. In fact, we always have been.” and “They [public] will see Tories on the right, Labour careering on a revolutionary rollercoaster to the imaginary socialist halcyon days of the past”

    Wasn’t this the essence of the LibDem election campaign – ‘we’re the sensible ones in the middle’? The very language you used (on behalf of the public re Corbyn) seems more reflect of the Press campaign rather than what the public necessarily think. I do think the LibDems will tie themselves in knots if you focus primarily on positioning yourselves relative to other political parties and I credit the electorate at seeing through that. I think the LibDems should focus on what their policies should be on issues such as austerity, growth, Trident, NHS privatisation etc and in the year prior to the next election figure out where that leaves them relative to other parties.

  • Caron Lindsay Caron Lindsay 18th Sep '15 - 3:40pm

    @paul pettinger – I’m glad you are keeping me on my toes. At least Willie actually articulated what it meant and as I said in this article I do get the rationale behind the strategy to claim the centre ground. I just don’t like that we don’t say what it is in terms of what we believe. Tim and Willie and Kirsty are actually starting to articulate a decent vision.

  • Willie. He seems to have no impact in Scotland at all, indeed results go from appalling bad to even worse, see this week.
    Perhaps a leadership change as well as policy approach is required there. In the meantime the local results this week south of the border are encouraging , second places and the Greens and UKIP in almost all cases relegated reasonably well behind us. This is a solid start BUT Scotland gosh , something different really does seem to be required there. Going back to the conference best keep Clerggie in the background and Ashdown, could he stay away for once?

  • “If there is a phrase that irritates me like no other, it’s that one about Liberal Democrats claiming the “centre ground.” What does that even mean?”

    Me too! What it means is, of course, that the party is focussed on finding space for itself on the political spectrum which is obviously of great interest to politicians but is of very little interest to the average voter. Why should they support a party obsessed mainly with it’s own success? They want a party that has plans to run the country better and offer them and their families more opportunity etc. That’s a wholly different proposition and one moreover where there’s lots of low-hanging fruit thanks to years of the Tories’ ceaseless work to enrich the rich via bad economics, dodgy finance, crony capitalism and the rest.

    I’ve long thought that the electorate is like a vast electrically-charged cloud wanting to discharge to earth and looking for a suitable lightening conductor to run down. So I’m not at all surprised either by the success of Corbyn who appears to offer such (although I suspect he starts from the wrong position and that his project will eventually blow a fuse). If the Lib Dems would desist from thinking about themselves and start thinking about how to serve the nation they would be pleasantly surprised.

  • “If there is a phrase that irritates me like no other, it’s that one about Liberal Democrats claiming the “centre ground.” What does that even mean?”

    It means the party have no coherent ideology and believe in everything, which is the same as believing in nothing.

    It means the party cannot take a position one way or the other on most things, just like they couldn’t make up their mind about the assisted dying bill.

    The Lib Dems have always defined themselves and anti-tory or anti-labour depending upon where they were “it’s a two horse race etc…”. A term in national government means the public now know why they always defined themselves by what they were against rather than what they were for, because the party themselves never managed to work that bit out…

    They’re “moderate radicals” don’t you know… They’re the “party of the radical centre” I.e. radically on the sitting on the fence! 😀

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