Tim Farron: good speech, but wrong message

Sometimes the toughest speaking gigs for MPs is when they are talking to a friendly audience – but something interesting is happening behind them. So it was a few months ago with Julian Huppert talking to Putney Liberal Democrats. Very thoughtful speech, well received by the members and supporters present – but Julian had to struggle to avoid being upstaged by the cute, preening, attention-seeking cat paddling back and forth behind him.

When Tim Farron came to speak to Haringey Liberal Democrats last night, there was no cat to distract – but instead the minor drama of the stalwart member who had done the cooking finding herself trapped in the kitchen and having to get help to partially disassemble the door. But like Julian, Tim just about won out…

Which left me to ponder the question that’s been gently batting back and forth in blog posts and comments about Tim’s approach to speaking. As Caron Linsday pointed out before praising one of his speeches:

In recent weeks, both Liberal England‘s Jonathan Calder and Mark Pack have criticised Party President Tim Farron for doing too much crowd pleasing stuff and not enough side taking, not being willing to upset people by sticking his neck on the line.

To which I added an extra explanation:

Personally, I’d use the phrase “taking the lead on controversial issues in the party” to describe what I’d like to see Tim do more of.

He’s fab at the motivational stuff, but he’s also chair of the Federal Executive and therefore has a responsibility that covers a wide range of issues where there is debate in the party and decisions have to be made (even if by default in deciding to do nothing).

From what you say, it sounds like in Scotland he’s been doing some of that, which is good to hear.

Tim Farron’s speech to Haringey Liberal Democrats

So how did Tim measure up? Did he challenge the audience by, for example, saying things I disagreed with?

Well, sort of. Tim did what he does well, very well. Positive and motivational but honest and frank. As one member said to me just afterwards, “He’s a great speaker, isn’t he?” Of course the fact that he drew my raffle ticket as one of the winning ones didn’t do any harm.

But he repeated a basic political message which I’ve heard in different forms from others such as Nick Clegg and Danny Alexander. And it’s flawed.

The message is basically this: look at the four polices on the front page of the 2010 Lib Dem manifesto and how they are now being implemented (along with many other Liberal Democrat policies). Then look at what the Conservatives said they would do if given an overall majority and look at the list of things they’ve had to drop. In other words – for a party with far fewer MPs than Labour or the Tories, the Liberal Democrats did a good job getting policies started or dropped in 2010. Then look to the future and admit it will be very tough sorting out the economy, financial system and deficit. Tim even went so far as to say, “The job for now is to stop the world getting worse”.

In this case, conventional wisdom is right

In itself each part of that is reasonable to say. But take a step back. That message is about talking up the past (look what we achieved in 2010) and taking down the future (it’ll be grim).

That turns conventional political messaging wisdom (talk down the past, talk up the future) on its head – and in this case conventional wisdom has it right and the party’s message is wrong.

So it was a good speech from Tim, doing that public facing part of being Party President well.

But there is a big challenge for not only Tim but the whole party to find the right positive message about the sort of fairer, liberal Britain which getting 75% of our manifesto will at least in part achieve. Party conference, though good about at what we are not and what we are against, failed to provide that positive message and it is still very much needed.

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  • Jack Holroyde 27th Oct '11 - 10:54am

    Can’t help but agree with you Mark.
    Policies, Laws and Enforcement of law is not the end game.
    They are a means to an end – we must be measuring the ends and if the means are not successful in achieving the ends we want to see, we must change our outlook and means.

  • I think our lords and masters in Headquarters are a long way from changing messaging strategy.

    It’s all about telling people how difficult it is! And crowing about those 2010 achievements, and yes – talking about how difficult the future is because of those 13 years where absolutely nothing happened.

    Malcolm Bruce said it best in 1998: “Reality is returning to political debate. Critical faculties, long suspended by many in the political class, are re-emerging. The electorate is beginning to hold [ the Coalition ] accountable for its performance. “[ 13 ] years of [ Labour ] neglect” may have been a reasonable rejoinder to every criticism in June, but it wears a little thin after a time.”

    Let’s see a return of ‘critical faculties’ to our central messaging, please.

  • George Kendall, raising tax thresholds is an astonishingly regressive policy as it widens the divide between those on benefits because of low income or unemployment and those not. It also disproportionately benefits the better off, but still poor, as the extra money is greatest the more you earn until you reach the threshold to pay.

  • Matthew Huntbach 27th Oct '11 - 4:38pm

    I disagree deeply with Mark. What people like him think of as us getting out a “good positive message” sounds to the real world out there as “The Liberal Democrats are smug and complacent and out of touch with the worries of the people of Britain”, and even worse this goes on to “They’re smug and complacent because they’ve got power, and just like all the other politicians, that’s all they really wanted”. Such ways of thinking may not be entirely fair, but Labour are pushing out this message about us, and it’s working really well for them on a large proportion of those who have voted for us in the past and those who might have considered voting for us but are now firmly Labour.

    I very much agree with Geoffrey that the 75% figure which seems to be getting repeated again and again and again as some sort of mantra is doing us no good at all. The public interpret this as “This government is 75% Liberal Democrat” (I know, that isn’t correct but it comes out like sounding that), and for those who don’t like what it is doing (most of those who used to vote for us) that doesn’t sound good at all. It’s the same basic mistake as claiming joint responsibility for all government policies at the start of the coalition and giving the impression the two parties had almost merged. That lost us half our support, we have not been able to get that back, and we never will if we continue with this line.

    The incredible thing seems to me that those at the top of our party are listening to what Tories and Tory-inclined commentators are saying we should do, and doing it. Well, I’m sorry, but all my adult life I’ve been a member of the party, and all my adult life Tories and Tory-inclined commentators have been telling it what to do, and it’s always done best when it ignores them and worst when it takes their advice. Is it really hard for those at the top to see that 1) The Tories are not always our friends and 2) The Tories are not always right? Sadly, it does seem to be those at the top think if its words coming from some public schoolboy type (just like them) it must be words of wisdom, whereas if it’s coming from some rough old LibDem activist, well it must be rubbish.

    This 75% came from some survey, I haven’t even seen anyone try and justify it, maybe like Theresa May’s cat, they just repeat what they heard from someone else because it suits their case. My guess is that it comes from picking out lots of minor details or motherhood-and-apple-pie stuff which any sane government would be doing, but ignoring the fact that the main policy direction of the government is purely Tory, and right-wing Tory at that. Sure, some of the old hang’em and flog’em stuff has gone, but that still leaves the right-wing economics stuff, and if our party is now Tory minus hang’em and flog’em, sorry but when did it become that?

    I think there’s a narrative that can eventually be worked on that puts politics in this country as LibDems v. Tories and puts the question “Which do you want more of, them or us?” at the next general election (and Labour as irrelevant), and for this narrative stories of extreme right-wing stuff from the Tories that we’ve stopped are good. But, please, see this: “positive” is being read as “smug” and there’s no room for being smug right now. The old line we were fed a year ago by our leaders and their Tory friends that by 2015 Tory economic policies would work wonders and everyone would be happy and we would share in the credit is not going to work, is it? Tory economic policy is dragging this country down, and we did actually say it would back in the days just before the 2010 election when we were saying that the over-rapid deficit reduction was a mistake because it would do, well, just what it is doing now.

  • Matthew Huntbach 27th Oct '11 - 8:25pm

    Mark, the point is this government doesn’t FEEL like what many who used to be strong supporters of us thought a LibDem government would feel like. So if we then go on and try and say “yes, this really is what a LibDem government is like, we are getting so much of our manifesto in”, it makes things worse for us, because they think “I’ve been fooled – all these years I’ve been voting LibDem, not realising what I was voting for was right-wing Toryism”. So at the very least I think you need to investigate why there is this discordance between the figure and people’s perceptions, rather than just repeat the 75% figure endlessly in a smug way. I ASSURE you, this sort of thing is LOSING US many of our supporters, some of them life-long supporters. I’ve tried to suggest possible reason for the discordance, but I think it does come down to us getting the details in, while the big picture is thoroughly Tory. If this is it, it doesn’t help to use propaganda which suggests we are responsible for the big picture.

  • simon wilson 28th Oct '11 - 10:15am

    I agree with Matthew-time and again i come across people who misunderstand the overused 75% mantra to mean that the 75% of Government policy is Liberal Democrat which is particularly unhelpful.

  • Matthew Huntbach seems to exemplify those in our party who would have been comfortable if the electoral arithmetic had allowed us to be in coalition with Labour but view the “right wing Tories” as anathema in terms of coalition partners. I’m afraid it is not as simple as that.
    Last night in Question Time someone called Gloria de Piero – evidently a Labour Shadow Home Office Minister – played completely to the “hangers and floggers” in the audience by virtually saying “Why don’t they lock them all up and throw away the key?” Jo Swinson made a modestly liberal contribution but it wasa left to Tory Iain Duncan Smith to deliver a speech which any of us would applaud – acknowledging the existence of a minority of hardened criminals who were beyond rehabilitation but contrasting that with the great majority of convicts who came from deprived and disfunctional backgrounds and for whom prison was doing nothing to help them become good citizens.
    The sad truth is that society is moving to the right and too many Labourites are moving with them. True liberal attitudes are now found mainly (I’m glad to say) in the Liberal Democrats. Outside our ranks it is a very varied scene and the Labour Party is certainly not a nice cuddly alternative – if it ever was. Nor are all Conservatives the devil incarnate.

  • Dave Eastham 28th Oct '11 - 10:38am

    The whole point of going into coalition was, I thought, to put the brakes on the worst excesses of a blue in tooth and claw Tory right wing government. Sure the coalition agreement had 75%, give or take, policy items derived from the Lib Dem manifesto, some more than others methinks. To keep on wittering on about 75% is, as has been said by several comments to this item, merely results in the general impression that the Lib Dems are directly responsible for all the bad stuff, (and there is sure as rotten eggs, a lot of that), It is not our job to do the Labour Party’s propaganda for them!. Tuition fees not withstanding. Yes we have had some successes, like getting insane stuff like arbitarily cutting benefits after a year, for no better reason than it would “incentivise” in some way the feckless unemployed, quietly dropped.
    It really is time the senior figures in the Party really did a bit more public applying of the brakes, stop wittering about 75% of Lib Dem policy ad nausium and just get on with being an active coalition partner, not just a rubber stamp sleeping partner to a Tory agenda. (Ok that may not be technically totally true – but it is the impression on the streets). After all, it is not as though stuff that is not in the coalition agreement has not been pushed (NHS and Social Care Bill to name but one) and other stuff that is in the Coalition agreement remains firmly on the back burner. The party needs to up it’s game.

  • I suppose its true that 75% of our Manifesto has been implemented but are they the proposals that really matter to our voters and activists, I think not. I wonder did I really expect our Party to concentrate spending cuts on the poor and vulnerable, or accept even part of the proposals to ‘reform’ the health sevice. I suggest ministers take due note of the aspirations of supporters and forget trying to be Mr Cuddly Nice Guy with the Tories. I was hoping we had gone into this coalition to prove that consensual politics can work, at the moment we seem to be doing most of the consenting.

  • Matthew Huntbach 28th Oct '11 - 10:23pm


    Matthew Huntbach seems to exemplify those in our party who would have been comfortable if the electoral arithmetic had allowed us to be in coalition with Labour but view the “right wing Tories” as anathema in terms of coalition partners.

    Oh, there we go – typical lazy thinking, you can’t be bothered to look at what I am really saying you you just fit me into a stereotype of your own making.

    I have defended the formation of the coalition forcefully on this website and in letters to the national media since it was formed. I fully accept that the situation following the May 2010 general election meant the coalition that was formed was the only realistic option. If you think you can find anything I have written anywhere that suggests a belief the Conservatives are “anathema as coalition partners”, please quote it. Or find, if you can because I don’t think you will be able, anything which suggests I would have been “comfortable” with a coaltion with Labour.

    My point is NOT against the formation of the coaltion, it is about the way our leaders have presented it. Why don’t you try reading what I wrote rather than jumping to conclusions?

  • Matthew Huntbach 28th Oct '11 - 11:09pm

    Dave Eastham

    The whole point of going into coalition was, I thought, to put the brakes on the worst excesses of a blue in tooth and claw Tory right wing government.

    The whole point of Parliament is to find a consensus viewpoint. Of course this involves accepting that if one’s viewpoin is in a minority one cannot have what one wants. One has a responsibility to accept the view of the country as expressed through its democratic mechanism even if one thinks that view is wrong, and not to hold out unrealistically for it and so cause instability in government.

    In order to avoid the instability that may come from multiple parties attempting to find a compromise, the British people have endorsed an electoral system which tends to give the largest party more seats than its share of vote, and makes it disadvantageous to vote for small parties (apart from those who draw their support concentrated in a small area) and reduces the share of votes, and gives them a smaller share of the seats than their vores even after the discouragement. The British people overwhelmingly opposed even a small change to this system in a referendum just a few months ago.

    On this basis, of course I accept the formation of the Conservative-LibDem coalition, as it was the only government that would have a clear majority. Not having a governmnet wityh a clear majority would be a source of instability, which would be damaging. Given the distortions in representation of the electoral system we have, so enthusiastically endorsed by the British people, of course as a democrat I accept that the LibDems, as the third party, will have only limited influence. I might not LIKE the result, but the point of democracy is that you accept results you don’t like if that’s what the people voted for. As I keep saying, any argument that the current Tory-dominated government lacks a mandate because the Tories do no have majority support in the country was destroyed by the “No” vote in the referendum – after a campaign where the victorious “No” side made as theri main point the idea this distortion was a good thing as it led to more “decisive” government. That many areas which strongly support the Labour Party nevertheless voted heavily “No” in the referendum and therefore endorsed the extreme right-wing government we have now – just as the “No” side said and won by saying, it is better to have an extremist government than one which is more balanced but less dominated by one party – tells me I should shut up, accept it as the view of the people. Which I do.

    All I am asking is that the leaders of the Liberal Democrats be more accurate in what they are saying, instead of giving the impression that the policies of this present government are more or less what they always wanted anyway. They should be saying that this government is not doing at all what they would do were they in the majority, but the coalition situation does enable them to get a little detail in here and there. I think this would go down much better, and it would certainly be more honest, than the present line which grossly exaggerates our influence, and therefore lesves people thinking we support or are in soem way responsible for all this extreme right policy our current government is giving us.

    As for those accusing the Liberal Democrats of “selling out” or “propping up the Tories”, well, what else do they expect? If an alternative coalition were viable it could be offered now and anyone who accuses the Liberal Democrats of being bad people for not accepting it in 2010 should surely just offer it now – if they do not, aren’t they just as bad for refusing it? Otherwise, are they calling for the Liberal Democrats to ignore the views of the people as expressed in the 2010 general election, and even more so in the 2011 referendum which so strongly endorsed the distortion that made this government the only viable one to come from the people’s votes in 2010?

  • Don Lawrence 30th Oct '11 - 11:31am

    75% was always a figure developed (i.e. made up) by “independent academics” based on a whole raft of assumptons as to how to measure a percent of a manifesto. Those who chose to emphasise it fail to address the fundamental point that if 75% of our manifesto has been implemented and (if I remember rightly) they also calculated that a lower percentage of the Conservative manifesto had been implemented, why is are we so unpopular.

    In essence what is ultimately important when you are working in government isn’t how you measure the implementation of a manifesto, but the judgement you show in making your decisions. Here we have failed. Danny has always made the nasty announcements, Conservatives the nice ones. We let Pickes totally shaft local authorities (where we are strong) through front loading the cuts, and other parts of government have been let off more lightly. LAs we control have suffered more than most in loss of grant, and Andrew Stunnell portrays the latest grant proposals, which will do nothing to put this right, as a good idea.

  • Tony Dawson 30th Oct '11 - 4:49pm

    @George Kendall

    “I don’t think we should waste time in our 10 seconds on soundbite using the 75% figure. ”

    Nobody gives a monkeys about what percent that was. Most people did not give a monkeys about what was on the manifesto – or, indeed ,had a clue what was in it. Or about the difference between the ‘top four’ points and anything else in the manifesto. Or the fine tuning about what is and isn’t a ‘promise’ on tuition fees. Arguing about this sort of thing appears nerdy and snake-oil salesman at the same time. Also, most people don’t do percentages anyway. 75 or 17….. or 62…. drone……. Presenting this sort of argument is an introspective approach, appearing to put self-justification above real things which matter, which could hardly be better-constructed if your intention is to get people to glaze over.

    The only way to land punches on the Labour Party at the moment, with things going to get seriously worse, is to point out (with facts – they are there) how appallingly Tory they were at the same time as pouring our money down the drain – and that we are stopping the REAL Tories from being even more Tory than they were (which is a hard thing to do but they did want to do it). But do get real. Going on about small tax an pension rises is all well and good but to families with kids, many are going to lose far more in Tax Credit changes than they will gain from tax threshold matters.

    Representative government is about TRUST. End of. Which is why certain MPs have a glass ceiling of effectiveness – and it isn’t that high, either. Others bring a cleaner sheet.

    As Dan Lawrence says about the Pickles front-loaded cuts to local government, we are actually allowing Tories to do all sorts of nasty things which were not in the Coalition – in some cases this involves throwing money around like John Prescott on a bad day when we are meant to be in ‘tough times’. If we do not dig in against this sort of nonsense (starting with elected Police Kommisars) then we deserve everything we get.

  • Matthew Huntbach 31st Oct '11 - 3:44pm

    Don Lawrence

    75% was always a figure developed (i.e. made up) by “independent academics” based on a whole raft of assumptions as to how to measure a percent of a manifesto.

    Yes, that’s my point. I don’t know what the assumptions were, and I hazard a guess that many of those repeating this figure don’t know either. I appreciate it probably would be possible to find the original survey, but if I am to have this “75%” figure endlessly thrown at me by people who suppose that ends any argument I have about the party’s current tactics, I should like a little more explanation that a repetition of that figure.

    The constant repetition of that figure without qualification by senior members of the party, in the material the party sends to me supposedly to rally me, and in material intended for the general public is a clear indication that our party is currently led by people who are complacent, incompetent, as well as innumerate. If one of the undergraduate students I teach were to submit an essay where a figure like this was used in this way, I’d be severely critical of that student, s/he would not get a very good mark.

    If it does not work for me, a longstanding member who at least understands why the coalition was formed and really wants to view the party in a positive light, how is it going down with people who have supported is in the past but aren’t so committed and don’t like the coalition? I.e. most of our former voters? I appreciate they may not have the objections I have to it as a scientist, but I am pretty sure their gut reaction is one of disgust because it makes it appear the current government is at its heart Liberal Democrat, when it isn’t, it’s extreme right-wing Tory.

  • Mark, turning to the main thrust of article, what I’m about to say is not meant to be seen as a dig at Tim Farron, just a statement of how I saw things when I watched him work close up.

    I go far enough back together to remember when Tim was active in the Youth and Student movement. I remember him being a good alliance builder, managing the “cool kids” (for want of a better description -let’s face it we were at Lib Dem conferences… not the epitome of cool) to ensure the group coalesced around something “sensible.” I never remember him making a stand on anything, even things he could say were the “ideas of youth” later.

    Given that, is it any wonder then that he’s a moulder of opinion now? Let’s face it leopards don’t change their spots, and he’s got a lot more in play now.

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