Tim Farron MP writes…Vision before vanity

Former leaders probably shouldn’t write articles in the run up to a party conference, but here goes…

Let’s start by turning the clock back eleven years.  In September 2007 we arrived at our conference in Brighton with Ming Campbell as leader, expecting an early election.

Gordon Brown had just succeeded Tony Blair as Prime Minister without a fight.

Actually, there had been quite a fight as the Blair / Brown psycho drama had played out over the course of a fractious decade in Downing Street.  But there had been no electoral contest as Gordon took the top job.  David Miliband had bottled it, and John McDonnell had tried and failed to get enough signatures to get on the ballot paper.

Perhaps this one horse race struck many in Labour as not being terribly healthy and whilst they might not have sympathised with McDonnell’s hard-left views, they felt – on reflection – that it would have been better if he had got enough signatures to ensure that Brown had to experience some democracy before stepping into Tony’s shoes.

I suspect that McDonnell’s experience led to many Labour moderates choosing to sign the nomination forms of Diane Abbott in 2010, and of Jeremy Corbyn in 2015… A word to the wise: never back someone if you don’t want them to win.

Whatever we Liberal Democrats might have said at the time about his lack of democratic legitimacy, there really wasn’t an enormous clamour for Brown to seek his own mandate having taken on the role a few months earlier.  After all in 2005 Blair and Brown had very much been presented as a joint ticket.

Nevertheless, Labour looked good in the polls.  They were ten points ahead of a fairly wobbly looking Cameron and Osborne (who looked like a kind of very wealthy, poor-man’s Blair and Brown, if you see what I mean…).  Brown fancied his chances of crushing the Tories and so the weather was set fair for an October 2007 election.  Westmorland and Lonsdale Liberal Democrats had 40,000 flying start leaflets printed, 25,000 target letters stuffed and a thousand poster boards pasted up ready…

But – two weeks after our conference – on the same day that the England Rugby Union team surprisingly defeated Australia in the 2007 World Cup semi-final, Gordon Brown delivered his own surprise.  He backed down, there would be no early election.  A decision that trashed his reputation and ultimately led to his defeat in 2010… and to the formation of the coalition.

Gordon’s decision to march his troops back down the hill was to make a difference to the Liberal Democrats in 2010, but it also affected us there and then in 2007.

Ming Campbell had taken on the mantle of leading the party in the sad turmoil after Charles Kennedy’s resignation in early 2006. Ming chose to step down following Gordon Brown’s announcement that there was no longer the prospect of an early election. Ming gave immense service to the party by putting his own ambition to one side in the party’s interest.

In the Autumn of 2007, the party needed an Acting Leader to take the helm.  Up danced our Deputy Leader Vince Cable. Having been PPS to Ming, I became Acting PPS to the Acting Leader – I was the lowest of the low!  But I got to see first hand the cross-party respect that Vince built, not only for his deft handling of PMQs (who could forget his observation that Gordon Brown had transformed from Stalin to Mr Bean?) but also for his integrity.

Fast forward eleven years, and as we gather again in Brighton this September, Vince is back at the helm of the party, and has shown the same selfless strength that Ming showed in 2007.    

As we approach the third decade of the 21st century, the structures of all political parties are still locked into the Victorian model.  Reform is greatly needed. Not everyone will agree with the proposals that Vince has put forward for reform, but the fact that he has put the cat among the pigeons and opened up the debate should be seen as visionary and vital.

Vince is calling for a Movement for Moderates. Now, I am a radical liberal rather than a centrist, but I believe in co-operating with others who may not be liberals but do share our desire for a rational civilised politics. People from all sides are shuddering at the thought of a choice at the next election of J. Corbyn vs B. Johnson.  Britain deserves better than that surely?

So if you are looking at the Lib Dem numbers in the opinion polls, and weeping into your muesli, please take this as an affectionate rebuke to put aside any self-indulgence and instead join Vince and the parliamentary party in reaching out to the millions of voters who identify themselves with the rational, civilised centre in British politics.  Those who would have traditionally voted – or even represented – Labour or the Tories, but can no longer bring themselves to do so. Those who are idealistic but not dogmatic, and seek to co-operate with others to prevent a lurch into dangerous nationalism or populism.

Vince’s proposals offer a way to draw in rational folk from across the political divide, and to build on our liberal and democrat tradition to create a positive, yes centrist and internationalist grouping that neither of the two big parties are currently capable of offering.

 A Liberal Democrat recovery is no longer just something that we want to see, it has now become a national duty…. to offer the opposite of all that Johnson and Corbyn stand for.   I am not going to descend into personal jibes and comment on their qualities as individuals. One of them writes good books; the other makes good jam.  I don’t want either of them as Prime Minister.

Whether you agree with Vince’s reforms or not, please back the man who is making them. Because in the face of ideological obsessives who do not care how their ideology affects people’s actual lives, it is refreshing to be led by someone principled and modest and unselfish.  His desire to make the Liberal Democrats the movement that can provide a credible alternative to the horrors presented by the red and blue teams has surely earned him our backing.

In the coming year, Vince offers something unique; something that Britain desperately needs.  So as Strictly gets underway, let’s get behind our own Dancing Master.

* Tim Farron is Liberal Democrat Spokesperson on Agriculture and MP for Westmorland and Lonsdale.

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  • Seeing the entire parliamentary party in lockstep over something which is definitely going to see the party get taken over from within if implemented as suggested is actually quite scary.

    What are you lot not telling us? What is it that’s got you so convinced that this is the only right course of action?

  • Is LibDemVoice going to beat the drum daily for Vince’s scheme with articles from senior people (who never engage in the comments or reply to members’ concerns)?

    What’s going on here? It’s clear that the high-ups are uniting around a scheme that – to the rest of us – makes no sense. Something is up beyond that which we are told.

    Too much is clearly going on that we don’t know about. Some of that is reasonable – some things have to remain secret. But as a liberal I get scared when people with power start saying things like: “Just do this thing, it will be fine” – especially when the reasons given don’t add up.

    My advice: pick some people who are well known but who, crucially, are also respected, independent members within the party. Maybe Federal Board, or Federal People Development Committee. People with an independent mandate to members. Brief those people properly and then let them say whether they think what is happening is reasonable. That might go down better than daily articles from another MP calling for us to back Vince’s scheme.

  • Zoe O'connell 13th Sep '18 - 1:41pm

    I know we’re a united party, far more so than the other big two UK-wide ones.

    But this much unanimity and enthusiasm from our MPs for a proposal is unusual and is starting to feel desperate. Do our parliamentarians know something we don’t, or is this a hurried rearguard attempt to defend something that has generated an awful lot of disquiet amongst LibDems?

    If the leadership had instead channelled all this effort into properly briefing and consulting with the existing democratically-elected committees before announcing it with a huge fanfare, some of the rough edges would already have been sorted out. Perhaps then it might not be getting quite such a rough ride.

  • Adam Bernard 13th Sep '18 - 1:49pm

    Jennie: My guess is “Labour right-wing will start their own New Centrist Party™ in competition with us unless Vince guarantees Chuka (or some other centrist-but-not-necessarily-liberal figure?) can be Lib Dem Leader.”

  • Matt (Bristol) 13th Sep '18 - 2:19pm

    I have to say, that I am being wavered from my initial sceptical acceptance of these proposals, to outright stubborn kicking-back against authority.

    The main thing for me, is that we are being asked to consult on proposals that are not yet being presented to conference, there is no clear constitutionally valid process in place for these proposals being accepted, yet we are seeing ads and websites pre-enrolling people into the scheme and saying you can join in now, for free. (And the ‘for free’ is one of the specific things I would want to counter).

    I’m more up for this than some, and it seems tactically pretty astute, actually. But the detail needs to be right. Members are being aske to devalue their membership via a method that seems to be being cynically managed to push past their role in the process as quickly as possible.

    I want to be part of a cross party movement for change. I want to see my party at the head of the charge to re-shape British politics. I’m prepared to adjust and wriggle to achieve that.

    But I was promised member-led, localist, grass-roots campaigning politics. I was promised one member one vote. I was promised a party that was different to the top-down autocracy of the others. The spirit of this consultation is beginning to wash over that commitment with acid. I hope very much someone is not preparing to write something else in its place.

  • Peter Watson 13th Sep '18 - 2:37pm

    “Vince’s proposals …”
    Given that the party’s website opens with a massive invitation to “Help us build a movement. Pre-register as a supporter today:” with a form to fill in, is that aspect of the proposals already a done deal? What about the other proposals?

  • * applause for Matt (Bristol) *

  • Mick Taylor 13th Sep '18 - 3:38pm

    What is it in the Westminster bubble that makes seemingly normal Liberal politicians put forward as a solution to our problems something that clearly isn’t?
    Jennie, I don’t worry about our party being taken over from within but from without, by people who are not Liberals but are using the proposed new ‘supporters’ mechanism as a means of pushing their own ‘centrist’ or ‘moderate’ agenda.
    Many people on this thread and others of similar ilk have made the valid point that future progress is dependant on putting forward an agenda that is radically different from the current status quo. This obsession with mechanisms, rather than a party programme will not help.
    Many people have misquoted the Canadian experience in support of their case. The truth is that Justin Trudeau and the Canadian Liberals put forward a programme for government that inspired people to vote for them. Sure they got lots of people to come on board in support of their programme. The problem that Tim and others have got is that think the mechanistic changes they propose are a substitute for a political programme or a short cut out of the hole we find ourselves in.
    Equally naive are those who think a grovelling apology for having dared to go into government will provide the answer.
    We don’t lack radical solutions to the very real problems of the UK, but somehow we have got ourselves to believe that we can’t put forward policies that might offend anyone. Hence the ludicrous immigration motion at conference that wants us to pander to the racists rather than calling them out and challenging their beliefs.
    You don’t win people’s support and votes by being mealy mouthed, but by being clear, radical and offering believable solutions to the problems voters perceive themselves to have. That means challenging the status quo, not aping it.
    Once we set out a clear programme and articulate it to the electorate then we can devise mechanisms to bring others in to support our plans and build the party.
    To do as many in our parliamentary team seem to want is to put the cart before the horse and risk wrecking our party in a foolhardy attempt to save it.

  • Linda Dickins 13th Sep '18 - 4:18pm

    Well said Tim. Politics has got to change and the Lib Dems can appeal to those who want to join a movement for change. I’ m behind the supporyet’s register.

  • Sean Hyland 13th Sep '18 - 4:38pm

    I’m not a party member but have been in the past. I would agree with the other comments about the “pressure” campaign coming from the top. I have not been on LDV long but don’t recall this many MPs and “names” making posts at the same time. Am I wrong to think this is part of a move to increased central decision making and a reduction in the role of conference and members in decision/policy making?

  • Matt (Bristol) 13th Sep '18 - 5:20pm

    Thanks Jennie, I’m probably more stodgy and centrist than yourself on a lot of details of a lot of policies … I need to be clear that I am open to a supporters’ scheme, and have begun to feel that Vince’s instincts may be right and we should do this now.

    The phrase ‘movement of moderates’ seems to be a direct pitch to Labour members and MPs. We know that’s where Vince’s history was, in the 70s. I don’t think ‘moderate’ would be being used if the pitch was to Remainer Tories.

    I can see that if Labour splits up – either piecemeal or decisively

    I just don’t like the details of the model being proposed, and I really, really, really don’t like the proposal it should happen now, now, now, in a way that seems to remove the room for adjustment of those details by members. I hope this is not the result of a back-room deal with other persons / bodies, in which this precise model was put forward as a guaranteed thing that certain persons in our party would deliver.

  • Peter Watson 13th Sep '18 - 5:42pm

    @Matt (Bristol) “The phrase ‘movement of moderates’ seems to be a direct pitch to Labour members and MPs. … I don’t think ‘moderate’ would be being used if the pitch was to Remainer Tories.”
    There’s been much speculation in recent weeks about plotting for both Tory (e.g. Anna Soubry) and Labour (e.g. Chuka Umunna) remainers resigning their parties’ whips and forming parliamentary groups alongside the Lib Dems. But that would not require Project Ozark or whatever it’s called by the Lib Dems which seems more about facilitating such MPs joining the party.

  • Lorenzo Cherin 13th Sep '18 - 6:46pm

    Jennie makes a sensible point, but she didn’t mind if everyone is lockstep in favour of one view on immigration, or Brexit, those of us sharing many of her views but asking for, yes moderation, in tone and consideration, indeed, of views, were dismissed as …pandering…you know it’s true.

    I am ex Labour but when in that party in my youth I was a social democratic liberal, not real true socialist , now I am a Liberal Democrat of a decade an a half, and consider myself to be a one third classical Liberal, one third social liberal, one third social democrat, yet come up with an idea here unlike elsewhere, and get called right wing!!! There a few as ideological as those on the left, even centre left, hence all this objecting to moderate. I understand, I am a radical moderate, but not left wing . Centre left is fine and why not open up to those who are. We are in no danger of entryism if we do it carefully, but , those concerned must be heard.

    I welcome the suggestions, the jargon, the direction, and the future these reforms could create, set forward by Sir Vince.

    With knowledge and experience, of US and Italian politics, we in our country pale into insignificance compared to other countries, for stick in the mud intransigence.

    How do you think Bernie S became a Democrat overnight , he opposed them in previous elections, ran as an independent, as a socialist of no fixed abode?!

    We do not need a momentum disaster, little chance if we encourage moderates and the radical variety of same….

  • Christopher Curtis 13th Sep '18 - 8:06pm

    I hope that there is something concrete and fairly specific behind these proposals. I hope our MPs have been in detailed conversation with Labour and Conservative MPs who are alienated and horrified by their Parties (as they should be) and who share our core values and I really, really hope there is a full-blooded Parliamentary conspiracy to defeat the Conservative and Labour leaderships over Brexit and force a realignment of our broken and desperate politics.
    I get that those kinds of conversations can’t be public and that Parliamentary realignment has to be a kind of “fait accompli”. I even get that some of the particular proposals Vince has made may have to be pushed through without being able to explain the detail of why yet, in order to achieve something amazing.
    Even so, and this is really important, the parts that can be put into the Party’s public, open decision-making process and discussed openly, absolutely must be. The aims, overall purpose, implementation and safeguards need to be worked on by everyone: we really believe they’ll be better that way. All this should have come through committees and conference. I’m very uncomfortable with the Parliamentarians making decisions on our behalf and then bouncing us into accepting them. Apart from anything else, they should know now that we won’t take it and it’s the best way to guarantee that something will fail.

  • ,Whether you agree with Vince’s reforms or not, please back the man who is making them.

    This is utterly backwards. I’m a social democrat and Labour voter currently utterly disgusted with the Labour party, clinging on to my membership day by day in hopes of a chance to vote out the current leader and seeing it slip away. I have a LibDem MP (Moran) who though it is early days seems to be fairly decent. I voted her at the last election to vote out the extreme and incompetent Tory incumbent. I am, vain as it may sound to say it, probably the type of person you would like to encourage to dip a toe in the waters as a supporter. And you’re going completely the wrong way about it, because I’ll tell you what is NOT going to encourage me to look more at the LibDems: seeing senior party figures tell me to forget the policy, forget the details, vote for the Noble Leader who has the Right Ideas. Without telling me any of what those ideas are.

    You are not going to get voters to switch to the LibDems by being nice and “rational” and not being ideological. Especially when a lot of people who you are aiming for are to going to risk voting for you without your feet being nailed to the carpet in terms of real policy commitment.

  • The Progressive Alliance is a better Idea to get elected, should it be possible. If carried out effectively including Labour, Greens and Plaid, beating the Tories would be almost assured.

    Priorities to bring all sides together would be at least 1 & 2:

    1) beating or fixing Brexit
    2) an end to austerity
    3) retain 650 MP’s, Lords Reform and an end to FPTP in favour of PR ( not AV).

  • Toby Keynes 14th Sep '18 - 8:48am

    “Whether you agree with Vince’s reforms or not, please back the man who is making them.”
    I back Vince.
    I do not back the proposals he is making.
    Supporter register? Absolutely, definitely, positively.
    Supporter register with voting rights? Absolutely, definitely negatively.

  • Sarah Brown 14th Sep '18 - 9:38am

    I agree with Tim’s opening remarks

    “Former leaders probably shouldn’t write articles in the run up to a party conference”

    Didn’t read the rest on that basis. *drops mic*

  • This is a truly fascinating discussion. I am a member of the Liberal Democrat’s (my iPad has decided I have to put the comma in), having joined the Liberal Party in 1959. I firmly believe in decisions being taking at the lowest possible level, devolution and so on. I recognise that this is not the dominant view in our society. The dominant view is a top down one with – often illusory – checks and balances. I respect those who have this sort of view but do not agree with them.
    That is why I do not agree with the the events at present in the Party.
    However my fascination comes from linking together the theories put forward which enable me to contstruct a possible time line.
    1. To date there have been discussions between our MPs and MPs in other parties about the process for a new party. Of course further evidence for this is the press reports over recent months,
    2. Discussions have taken place on a process within the parts of the party able to exert control.
    3. Changing the means of getting a leader is key to this. If there was a decision by the powerful to support someone who is presently in another party, this would be facilitated if they could bring supporters with them without initially leaving their present party.

    Of course there are other factors like no present MP wants to be leader after Vince, as all feel vulnerable in their own seats, and of course other personal reasons. So the leader from outside the commons might be seen as the only possible alternative. Of course it would be if there were no Liberal Democrat’s in Parliament.

    There are of course other possibilities, but I can’t think of any that fit the facts.

    Thank you to the LDV team for all their work. I feel that at least I am able to think rationally about a set of events which would otherwise have been a complete mystery. I look forward to future contributions to LDV.

  • Matt (Bristol) 14th Sep '18 - 10:21am

    Lorenzo — ‘we do not need a momentum disaster … little chance if we encourage moderates’.

    I’m sure Ed Miliband was hoping for moderates, too. He probably thought ex-LibDems and moderate trade unionists would sign up to his registered supporters scheme, as well as or instead of the Hard Left.

    You don’t create safeguards by hoping. You do it by rules that are clear and allow – as much as you can – for unintended consequences.

    I say, and I will say to the consultation, that we need rules that establish:
    – a cap on the number of registered supporters so it cannot exceed a certain proportion of the membership
    – registered supporters to fund the cost of the new electoral process
    – a system that increases the chance of an MP getting on the ballot paper for elections (unless we have less than, say, 3 or 4 MPs)
    – a system that allows for a ‘first round’ of membership-only voting where the number of candidates exceeds a certain level
    – rather than online-only enrolment, a process whereby a paper form has to be signed and returned before the enrolment is active, decreasing the chances of fraud.

    These are not wrecking amendments. I’m not opposed in principle to such a scheme. (Although I would note that our party is the cheapest and easiest of all the major parties to join, already).

    But when the scheme is being advertised on our website as active and open already, I’m sceptical that the consultation is a genuine consultation — that’s what I’m beefing about.

    Imagine a future in which there are several centre parties, we are one of the smaller ones, but their members are all signed up as registered supporters of our party. In fact they outnumber the core membership. Let’s say – for eg – that there is a major disagreement between the parties forming the alliance of centre parties over electoral reform. A candidate is persuaded to stand for Lib Dem leadership who supports removing the party’s historic commitment to STV, in favour of something else….

  • Sue Sutherland 14th Sep '18 - 12:02pm

    I totally agree with Tom Harney’s first two paragraphs. That is what I believe too and what I thought our party was all about, in fact I feel very passionate about this so I may have used intemperate language.
    Tom has apparently been waiting since 1959 for the party to put its beliefs into practice within its own organisation. I’ve only been a member since 1985 so I guess I need to be a tad more patient.

  • Richard Underhill 14th Sep '18 - 3:09pm

    Boris Johnson’s perceived incompetence may be party caused by his obvious laziness and ‘willingness to delegate’ shown when Mayor of Greater London. This could be humorous, unless you are in prison in Iran.

    On the housing issue, Dragons’ Den missed a trick last week when they had an application for funds from a business which builds small houses in natural materials. (Straw has been used for centuries, as demonstrated by many programmes of Grand Designs). The applicants were dependent on the developers, but nobody suggested that if the land belonged to a layer of government the developers are only middlemen, potentially subject to pressure from both sides, ideally acting together.

  • Nigel Hardy 14th Sep '18 - 3:29pm

    These supporter proposals really do need be clearly thought out if we are not to be taken over from within. You don’t have to look far to see what this could mean for us… Labour’s setting fine example in allowing itself to be taken over. Look hard and carefully before copying that model. Yes we need to embrace the future, but not at all costs.

    However, we need to give the electorate a good reason to vote for them. Let’s follow the examples of Blair, Obama, Trudeau and Macron: inspire them with strong bold centre ground policies, which include a proud unashamed pro-EU message. Ones that help fix the inequality in society (hence the Brexit vote), our public services, a bold modern economic proposal, and above all full democratic reform. Scrap our failed FPTP system for full PR, re-invest in our local democratic structures and HoL reform.

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