Tim Farron writes: Corbyn is handing the incompetent Tories the next election

The guilty pleasure of my political life is the years I spent involved in student politics. Back in the late 80s and early 90s, I attended no fewer than 10 conferences of the National Union of Students – as a result I accidentally became a connoisseur of the various factions of theLabour party. Even as a Liberal, if one spends much time in student politics you are bound to make friends with folks in Labour. To me, Labour is like a fascinating enemy country. We are at conflict with them, but I am somehow fond of their natives and traditions.

Those who today are running Her Majesty’s Opposition, were – back then- selling newspapers outside the Student Union building. Who’d have thought it?

I don’t know Jeremy Corbyn very well but quite like him on a personal level having had the occasional chat over the years. WhenLabour were in power, he was always in the Lib Dem lobby…

Jeremy and his former newspaper selling mates have a problem. They don’t know how to talk to people who aren’t already converted. Jeremy Corbyn has a 40 year history of talking only to friendly audiences on left-leaning causes. He speaks in favour of Palestine to pro-Palestine meetings, speaking up for Irish Republicanism to pro-Republican audiences, promotes unilateral nuclear disarmament to crowds who already agree with him.

The Labour leader is a master of preaching to the converted. I’m not sure how principled this is, but it is neither brave nor wise. If all you do is to go with the grain of the earnest and like-minded people around you, you will ruffle no feathers, win no converts and never get to test the effectiveness of your arguments.

The Tories used elements of Jeremy’s back story against him in the 2017 election, but like so much in that election, they missed their mark. If you are younger than 45, then Greenham Common and the IRA mean very little to you. The former newspaper sellers now seem to think that those kind of attacks have been fully neutralised. They are wrong.

The Tories won’t be so stupid again. They will use Jeremy Corbyn’s record against him, but this time they will be much more savvy. The focus on the Labour leader’s anti-Semitic links are,frankly, deserved and they are a foretaste of what it likely to come.

Meanwhile, we have the most divided and incompetent Government of any kind in living memory, and yet I reckon they will win the next election. They will win because of Jeremy Corbyn. If you knock on doors as much as I do, you know that Corbyn is much loved by some but anathema to many more. He is a person who inspires negative and positive passions. Despite feeling that the Conservatives are a disaster, the fear of Corbyn will be enough to frighten millions of people into the Tory fold. Last time, no one expected Labour to win – a Tory landslide was deemed to be an inevitability – and so I suspect that many who voted Labour were able to indulge their consciences without having to worry about the possibility of Corbyn entering Number 10.

His party got five times more votes than mine did though. Corbyn’s achievement in 2017 is actually impressive, he managed to connect with a section of voters in ways I never did or could, he deserves credit for that.

But I am confident that this won’t be the case next time. Perversely, the fact that it now seems plausible for Labour to win, is the chief reason why the Tories will.

Indeed, as the embattled Prime Minister manages to make a dreadful situation worse over her botching of Brexit, she still has one killer argument that fends off her opponents in the Conservative Party: the prospect of a Corbyn premiership. The threadbare unity of the Tories exists only because of the effectiveness of the Corbyn bogeyman. I predict that he is a bogeyman who will not just prolong Mrs May’s premiership,but will serve as the factor leading to a Tory majority at the next general election. It will be a bitter pill for Corbyn’s supporters to swallow, but their leader is the last best hope of a Tory government that – in any other circumstances – would be heading for a 1997-style annihilation and exile.

My heartfelt message to Labour members gathering in Liverpool is this: maybe you are ambivalent about Brexit, maybe you can’t get excited about a final say on the deal. But you surely do care about stopping the Tories dividing and wrecking our country? Assuming that you do, you need to know that if you cling onto Corbyn, you will have put the Tories in Government for a generation.

I’d love you to jump ship and join the Liberal Democrats. I’d be happy if you left to form a new party with whom we would work closely. But for the sake of the country, I would settle for you simply reclaiming your party from a leader who is handing the Tories victory on a plate.

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

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  • John Marriott 22nd Sep '18 - 9:40am

    Tim Farron is entirely right. I would go further. In my 30 years as a councillor, labour councillors were generally the most difficult to get along with. Tories were generally pleasant, provided they got their own way, which, in Lincolnshire, was usually the case, and, more recently, most UKIP councillors, at least those with whom you could engage in meaningful conversation, seemed to be fully paid up members of the human race (provided you didn’t mention immigration). And the Independents? They were basically in it for themselves.

    But, before Paul Walter accuses me of digression, let me offer a word of warning. Jeremy Corbyn might be in charge at the moment; but who is not to say that, given the kind of people joining Labour in droves, there might be an equally misguided soul waiting in the wings to take over. The parallel with 1983 is worth remembering and that “longest suicide note in history”. The trouble is, as the Liberal/SDP Alliance found out then, under FPTP, a vote of around 25% is no guarantor of a massive number of parliamentary seats. Back then, boosted by the Falklands victory and increasing revenues from North Sea oil, Thatcher was able to soldier on unimpeded with her destruction of a great deal of British industry. The big difference today is that Trades Union militancy is something you only read about in history books (and long may that be the case) and, secondly, we have the Brexit cliff to negotiate. Oh, and, unless we haven’t noticed, we appear, as far as England is concerned, to be back to binary, two party politics.

  • I agree with Tim.

    It was exactly this kind of fear that the Conservatives were able to exploit in 2015 (“Red Ed” in the SNP’s pocket) that mobilised the “anyone but them” voter to vote Conservative – often, sadly, in LD / Tory marginals.

    But, I’m wary of arguments from others suggesting appeasement of the “opposite” side. This should not be seen as an excuse to water down policy so as not to threaten anyone.

    What Labour’s leadership is doing is actively sowing divisions, and creating an Us & Them mindset (even the Slogan: “Not The Few” – It’s funny how populous the “Few” camp is!).

    What the Liberal Democrats should do is remain open as a party, but aim for uniquely, unashamedly, Liberal policy.

    We *can* convince those beyond our base, that… “the future is bright, the future is Orange” (ahem) – but we should do it honestly, without compromising ourselves.

  • I’m surprised (but not too much) that, in the entirety of this article, Tim never once mentioned Corbyn’s policies; just him personally.
    The real reason Corbyn/Labour came so close to removing the Tories was that ‘Corbyn the Man’ was given airtime by the media and, instead of a Stalinist bogeyman the country saw a person passionate in his beliefs rather than a robotic PM who came across as believing in nothing/anything; whether, or not, you agree with his policies is a separate issue.
    A major reason that Corbyn/Labour didn’t win was because of those within his own party who would not support him ( Blair, Mandleson, Cooper, Umunna, Hodge, Smith, et al). Those who would, like many here, rather see any Tory government than one led by Corbyn.
    In the three years since Corbyn became leader of the opposition he has survived more ‘Doom Scenarios’ than corporal Jones and, as for the ‘ruffle no feathers, win no converts and never get to test the effectiveness of your arguments’, bit???.

    BTW, the Tory smear machine doesn’t do ‘savvy’.

  • Paul Pettinger 22nd Sep '18 - 10:23am

    Try to split Labour next year. Our job right now is to STOP BREXIT. That involves pilling pressure on Labour to save the country, not to make them fall apart. If anything your attack on Corbyn will likely only generate greater loyalty among Labour members.

  • Tim start looking at how divided and wrong footed your own part That the Lib Dems would welcome the right wing Labour rebels into open arms is very telling.

  • We spend too much time worrying about our Constitution, other party leaders, and being pedantic over minutia. Let us just champion ourselves, what we do, what we have to say about the big issues of the day, ensure the public hears about us and how we convince people about ourselves. People generally will make their mind up about the other parties without our “guidance”.

  • Philip Knowles 22nd Sep '18 - 10:59am

    All very true.
    At our first campaign meeting before the last General Election I caused mirth in the room when I said Labour might run the Tories close. The Tory spin machine made Jeremy Corbyn look like the anti-Christ before the last General Election but once he started to be seen without the lens of the right-wing press the perceptions changed.
    The Tories are now starting the lies that it is all the EU’s fault that the Brexit negotiations are breaking down – without mentioning, of course, that No Deal will automatically force a hard border in the island of Ireland – one of the red lines.
    They will then frighten people with the spectre of Jeremy Corbyn as Prime Minister to keep their supporters in line.
    I don’t know how we change the position we are in. Perhaps the reason we aren’t moving in the polls is due to the polarisation of left and right and people are afraid a vote for us will let the other lot in.
    The connection with the voters is key. We seem to have that at local level but it doesn’t translate on the constituency/national level. At the 2015 General Election a voter told me that she had voted for me at District but voted tactically (Labour) in the General Election. Perhaps we aren’t doing a good enough job of translating what we are saying nationally at a local level? Or is it that the local stuff we do isn’t coming out nationally?
    Whatever the reason is we need to find out so that we can do something about it.

  • David Westaby 22nd Sep '18 - 11:29am

    This is a very good insight. There is a mindset of Corbyn supporters that one more push and they are in government. I meet more and more people who have toyed with labour who just cannot go that far left. There is a ceiling of support and that has been reached. The fear is the LDs will be squeezed very tightly in this setting. There is a short timescale to get the party on a footing to resist this scenario. Whether the proposed party reforms can do this I do not know. It is certainly a time to expand our appeal. I thought Vince Cables speech at conference was a positive one but as expected ridiculed by the usual suspects in the press. I was surprised so little comment in LDV.

  • The ‘pleasant’ Tories that John Marriott affectionately patronises are the reason that the Lib Dems are almost destroyed. They always got their own way in Coalition..as long as they are polite never mind hey..

  • William Fowler 22nd Sep '18 - 12:12pm

    Corbyn has in many ways stepped up to the job and has somehow gone beyond being a career politician. Many of the policies aren’t that bad (in theory) except that you can’t fillet out any more money from an almost bankrupt country that is going to suffer post-Brexit. Lib Dems have the same problem of not accepting a post-Brexit cut in spending of 50-100bn whilst the Tories will rejoice in it whilst blaming the EU for all the woes and might even secretly be happy to hand on the resulting mess to a Labour govn so that they can ride to the rescue next time around. Corbyn’s weakest points are his own wealth (relative to rough sleepers et al) and immigration, the latter might yet undo him.

  • It is an insightful analysis by Tim, but I am not so sure that Labour’s return to a focus on their socialist roots is either a bad thing or necessarily a bonus for the Conservative party. Politics is ultimately about a battle of ideas and in that battle Liberal Democracy has been the dominant force shaping the modern world and post-war Britain.

    Political philosophies have to keep regenerating and hold out the promise of a better future. Liberalism contends that society can change gradually for the better from the bottom-up. Liberalism rejects the concept of socialist revolution that would coerce uniformity of thought and the concept of conservatism that holds to the preservation of a concentration of power in a self-selecting hierarchy.

    A polity that can accommodate competing political philosophies is a healthy one. Having a clear-cut differences of philosophy between Britain’s three main parties offers clarity of choice. The ideas that prevail will be those that can demonstrably spread freedom and prosperity over the longer term.

  • Sue Sutherland 22nd Sep '18 - 1:03pm

    I agree with Tim’s analysis, that a lot of people are voting in fear in case the other lot get in. Likewise why vote for us if the only thing we can do is support one of the two main parties and they don’t know which one we’d choose. Much better to vote for the one you dislike least.
    What we need is a cause, like Iraq, for which to fight, that clearly defines us against the other two parties. Hang on a minute, oh yes, we’ve got one and it’s Brexit. As the full horrors of Brexit become clearer we have to make sure that every voter knows we have always been against it, because an awful lot of them don’t.
    Then we need to persuade soft Leavers that we have policies which spread the wealth brought by EU membership more fairly. I think we are beginning to develop those policies but they need to be packaged up into a single sentence. This shows we have listened.
    Another persuasive argument would be to acknowledge that a lot of Leavers were correct and the EU does need reform. We can do that better than the other two parties because we are passionate about the EU’s benefits and want to enhance them.
    Last of all we need to emphasise the experience of government that we have even amongst our depleted number of MPs. We have learnt difficult lessons and if people vote for us our sole purpose will be to stop Brexit, share out the country’s wealth much more fairly and campaign in the EU for reform in how it operates. If we have to prop up another party these policies need to be agreed on or there will have to be another election.
    My hero David Penhaligon once told us to write our ideas down on a piece of paper and put it through everyone’s letterbox. We have been brilliant at doing this. Unfortunately the party seems to have forgotten the other half of his message. You have 8 seconds to grab their attention so they pick it up and read it. Letterboxes now come in all shapes and sizes both in reality and online. There are all kinds of opportunities to get our message across that David could only have dreamed of.
    So 8 seconds rule, 4messages.
    No Brexit
    Spread our wealth more fairly
    Fight to improve the EU
    We have the experience to put our policies into practice
    Vote for us

  • Here’s a question for the Lib Dems. I am the sort of voter who may be amenable to voting for the party, as certain things I would agree with you – for example Land Value Tax, PR, 1 penny on the pound for the NHS. I voted for the party under Kennedy.

    However I voted Brexit in 2016 and Labour in 2017 on the basis of their manifesto. I support the renationalisation of the railways and utilities. I support paying higher tax for better public services. I am anti zero hour contracts and anti foreign wars. I despite outsourcing and the corporatist scammers doing it. I do not like our relationships with countries like Saudi Arabia and I largely sympathise with the Palestinians. I find the Windrush situation scandalous and racist no less.

    Equally I support being tougher on crime, large scale police recruitment, beefing up the armed forces, broadly support our nuclear deterrent and support proper immigration controls. I am against toxic identity politics – just a fair crack for people no matter who they are. I voted for Brexit and would strongly support a half way house solution – e.g. EFTA. I would vehemently oppose both opposing the democratic referendum or worse becoming full on Euro federalist (e.g. adopting the Euro, TTIP and other nasties). Equally I oppose becoming a vassal state of the US.

    I side both with the various trade unions currently on strike (rail, cleaners, prison officers), and those in the armed forces marching on parliament to defend themselves against vexatious lawsuits and prosecutions, and British taxi drivers against Uber. I am sceptical of globalisation and automation and corporate influence. I believe the nation state to be a good thing, although a certain amount of international co-operation on some issues is the only way forward – e.g. climate change.

    It seems to me that based on the policies I support, I would be demonised as “far left” or “far right”, when in fact much of what I support would be considered fairly mainstream amongst people of my background and social life – i.e. working class / lower middle class. Certainly I see little disagreement amongst my family, friends and work colleagues for the positions I have stated.

    What would you say to someone like me?

  • Matthew Taylor 22nd Sep '18 - 1:52pm

    Andrew George earne warned similarly in response to a question some time ago. He said something like – if you want Labour to be a party of protest and opposition then there could be no better leader than Corbyn. If not…

    He supports many honourable causes, many of which also intersect with Lib Dem goals. His inability to really reach out beyond these or change his views when circumstances change is a big sticking point though.

  • Barry Lofty 22nd Sep '18 - 2:44pm

    I was not going to give my two pennyworth to this discussion, but just had to say that Sue Sutherlands comments said everything I would have liked to have contributed but she put it so much better than I could!

  • Why did Tim submit this article here? While Labour List might be ruled out, it would have made more sense to submit to Labour Uncut so Labour members and supporters might read it.

    Expats makes a good point, Tim doesn’t mention policies. This article could have been a critique of our policies; it could have been a call for substantial increases to Universal Credit to set it at the poverty level; it could have been a call for Regional Living Wages set by the government at 70% of median regional earnings by 2025; it could have been a call for full employment; it could have been a call for 400,000 new homes a year; it could have been a call to have policies which reverse austerity and ensure no one is left behind in Britain; it could have been a call for us to have better policies than the Labour Party to help those who feel left behind. But it wasn’t!

  • John Marriott 22nd Sep '18 - 3:09pm

    ‘Speak as you find’ is my motto. You obviously don’t like ‘Tories’ and, equally, you have failed to spot the irony in my description of them. That’s your problem. When you get elected, as kept happening to me, you have to learn to get along with people. Now, Lincolnshire may be different from other areas, but that’s my experience, for what it’s worth. From your ‘nom de plume’ it’s well nigh impossible to work out what your personal experience is. Rather than condemn out of hand I would rather adopt what I would like to think is a more mature approach to human relations.

  • Tim has usefully inspired a reasonably sober series of reflections on Corbyn’s Labour Party. I too learned Labour faction watching at Tim’s old University where the nice lady from the Comminist Society (well, she was it) donated a third of her table to enable me to re-start Newcastle University Lib Soc. I struck up
    a good friendship with Attlee’s nephew from the Labour Club but after all these years I would still say beware the dead hand of the Labour right and be ultra cautious with any ex-Labour right faction.

  • Katharine Pindar 22nd Sep '18 - 7:24pm

    @ Michael BG. Since you think Tim should have written a piece pointing out that our policies on jobs, welfare, wages, housing and generally reversing austerity and helping the poorest need further development, for us to be able better to serve ‘the left behind’ than Labour can, please write it yourself, Michael. You are well qualified to do so. Meantime Sue Sutherland’s comment has excellent suggestions, as ever, Sue!

    Philip Knowles: you may like to know that there is some discussion of the difficulty of persuading voters to vote for us nationally as well as locally in comments on the piece, Extremist Moderates… posted here on Thursday.

  • Jayne Mansfield 23rd Sep '18 - 12:38am

    The Labour membership should decide whether the party pushes for a second referendum. Given Jeremy Corbyn’s view that party members should be empowered , not managed, it will be interesting to see the outcome of any argument on the matter at the Labour conference.

  • Helen Dudden 23rd Sep '18 - 11:49am

    There are some excellent Labour MP’s Ivan Lewis is one, and Stephen Timms another. Corbyn, no comments.
    I have met both of these JO’s on a visit to the House, they have contributed much on Family Issue’s.

  • marcstevens 25th Sep '18 - 2:46pm

    What really concerns me about Corbyn is the anti-semitism within their party and how it is not being dealt with in a robust way by the leader. So people who have made anti-semitic remarks quite openly still remain in post.

  • While I agree with most of Tim’s points he overlooks one significant point. Both wings of the Tory party detest one another as much as the Labour wings do. Yes, Corbyn is making a dogs breakfast of leading his party (if that is what he’s doing), but the Tories are no better; Brexit shall destroy them. Whatever the outcome of Brexit, who really thinks the Tories will restore their unity to win another GE? The ERG faction will double down on the moderates if it’s not to their desire. On the other hand, if they do get their way, the Tory party will be paying the heaviest price for Brexit.

    In the coming months we’re probably in for some interesting movements. One or two household names in the Tory party may well jump, which may take other followers with them. Equally, the moderate pro-European Labour MP’s facing de-selection could easily breakaway. If those aforementioned Tory MP’s join us that could encourage many traditional (middle of the road) Conservative voters to give us their vote as the Tories have become too extreme for their liking. Defections from Labour would probably spell the end of Labour as the main opposition party.

    So while Tim’s theory is highly credible, MP’s are prepared to break ranks to defeat a hard Brexit, which will cost them their allegiance. Times are a-changing.

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