Tim Farron writes: Enough doom and gloom, we have the greatest opportunity in the history of our party

I don’t know if you noticed, but the elections on May 5th weren’t all that good for the Liberal Democrats. There was that business of the referendum defeat too. In much of the country we got an absolute pasting.

Journalists and non-political friends keep coming up to me with pained expressions, asking if I’m all right, speaking to me as if I’ve just suffered a bereavement. I smile back and tell them to get stuffed – I’m used to 2 things as a Liberal this last 25 years 1) losing stuff 2) not giving up!

So I for one am not prepared to sit around feeling sorry for myself. Not now, when we have the greatest opportunity in the history of our party before us.

There has never been a more important time to be a Liberal Democrat.

People have understandably spent much of the last year looking at opinion polls and worrying. All the talk has been of the supporters who have left us since the last election.

I’d like to make three observations. The first is that despite everything negative that we have been associated with in the last year, 16% of those who voted put a cross in our box this month. That is 8% fewer than at the General Election. Or put another way, only 8% fewer than after the most high profile and positive campaign in the history of our party.

We all knew this particular set of elections would be the hardest for us. We went into government fully aware we would take a huge hit in the short term and we ended up on 16%. All things considered, that’s… well its certainly not the apocalypse that the media seem to think it is. Rumours of our death have indeed been exaggerated.

And while we’re on polls, let’s dispel this myth that Nick Clegg is now deeply unpopular.

Some people are angry with Nick and the party and they have very loud voices. Let’s not mistake that for the settled view of the wider public.

Just two months ago, Ipsos Mori carried out a poll asking people if they liked the various party leaders. Despite everything he’s been through, 40% said they liked Nick Clegg. Granted, it’s one poll and that’s not 40% of people saying they’ll vote for him, but do not believe the doomsayers and vested interests who go to great lengths to talk Nick down.

By the way, Ed Miliband got 36% in that poll.

The second observation is that our biggest collective failure recently – from the grassroots to the cabinet – has been that too many Lib Dems have drifted from the sort of community politics that we have prided ourselves on in the past, or else been too busy to practice it.

For Liberal Democrats community politics must be both tactic and ideology. Without it, we lose the ability to understand what normal people think.

We all run the risk of spending too much time listening to council officers, Special Advisers and civil servants at the expense of getting our hands dirty out there and talking and listening to the people. That’s why we end up slipping on predictable political banana skins and failing to speak the same language as voters.

That’s not to say we aren’t doing great work in local and national government, we are, but we can clearly do much better. This challenge is something completely fixable. All of us need to become born-again community politicians. That must be our mission as a party now.

Third observation: there has been very little thought of the potential voters we could gain over the next four years.

Every Liberal Democrat who has knocked on doors and canvassed for the party over the years knows the biggest reason that people chose not to vote for us was that we were a wasted vote.

Why even consider voting Lib Dem if we were never going to get into power?

Why even pay attention to our policies if they were never going to happen?

Well, we’ve potentially squashed that one.

There are millions of people who could have added to that 24% last May if only they thought it would make a difference.

We have proved we are a serious party. We have proved we can take difficult decisions and act with authority. And those difficult decisions have earned us the right to get a hearing we have never had before.

That hearing lasts four more years. Let’s spend them making our voice heard – a lot better and more intelligently that we have this last 12 months! Let’s spend them showing people we are more competent than Labour, fairer than the Tories and more radical, green, liberal and progressive than both. That is rich electoral ground – let’s lay claim to it.

So there you are: competence, credibility and community politics. There’s a speech in there somewhere…

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This entry was posted in Op-eds.


  • “One single statement that gives lie to the notion that the coalition era Lib-Dem party is an incipient train-wreck.”


    And they aren’t going to be attracted by us being Labour-Lite.

  • Scotland…? How about some analysis of why you did so badly there considering you’d been in coalition in government and been reasonably competent, certainly by comparison to the Westminster coalition? The Scottish electorate didn’t have strong negative opinions when the Lib Dems were partly in charge there, what changed?

  • Paul Pettinger 24th May '11 - 3:06pm

    The response to our current problems should be regime change Tim, not greater pavement pounding localism from tired activists. We [activists] have done our part; it is the leadership currently letting the cause down.

  • @g has made the point I was going to.

    18.9% share of the vote in 2010, to 7.9% on the constituency seats and 5.2% on the lists in 2011.

    Tim’s normally been quite fair, and I understand his ability to look on the bright side, but here in Scotland there’s not too mcuh to be bright about. Candidates and supporters are reporting back now on the vitriol and abuse received on the doorsteps, mostly verbal but also on the threatening side. There is now increasing feeling among party members and former candidates that the party in England now simply doesn’t give a toss about Scotland – to use a military synonym, we’re seen here as “collateral damage”, in the same way that civilian casualties in a war might be.

    Right now not much of what Tim says applies here. There are a few who recognise the problems – Ming Campbell and, fortunately, Willie Rennie are two – but too many in the federal party think it’s OK just to carry on regardless.

  • Stephen Jones 24th May '11 - 4:05pm

    To be fair to TIm in regards to Scotland. My friend was a defeated MSP candidate and he recieved a call from Tim last week. Tim was the only Lib Dem to call him by the way and he said Tim was open, honest and caring. He wanted to listen to the situation in Scotland and what could he do to help. My firend kept him on the phone for 30mins and Tim listened and was very repsonsive.
    He is not the only scottish member to have recived a call. So well done tim to be honest.

  • 1: You’re trying to compare the Lib Dems council share with it’s general election share. Meaningless

    The Lib Dem’s last share in council elections, pre coalition (2009 elections), was actually 28%. It’s now 16%. Meaning the Lib Dems have lost close to 50% of it’s vote from 2009.

    2: You’re polling on Nick Clegg is national. Not people who vote Lib Dem. Nick Clegg is actually very popular with Conservative voters in polls. Because he’s propping up their party, I assume.

    Being popular with Conservative voters, isn’t very useful in elections.

  • david thorpe 24th May '11 - 4:44pm

    scotland was about more than the unpopulairty of the coalition..alhtough that was a factor, it was about the meergence of four party politics in a place where three party was the norm.
    the rest of the country has to cathch up and make it three party, thats what the coalition brinbgs us.

    also tim should have written a drop from 24% to 16% is an 8 p[ercentage point drop, not an 8 percent drop

  • david thorpe 24th May '11 - 4:44pm

    @ paul

    tim is part of the leadership

  • Paul Pettinger 24th May '11 - 5:06pm

    David T – Tim is playing a fine game and is showing himself to be the best President we have had. He is also helping to compensate for weaknesses of the Party’s actual leader – he appears to understand our weakness more than most in the Parliamentary Party..

  • @KL @Stephen Jones

    Definite sense that Scotland doesn’t matter. The stupidity of this approach is best illustrated by looking at the Tories. If they bothered to campaign in Scotland, instead of constantly designing policies that damage it, they might have got a majority in 2010. Osborne’s oil tax being a perfect example – destroying Scottish industry for a miserly tax cut.

    Perhaps the leadership don’t care because the Lib Dems in Scotland stood on a centre-left platform, and we all know that the centre-left part of the Lib Dems are being marginalised and that part of the vote told they are not welcome.

  • @david thorpe

    scotland was about more than the unpopulairty of the coalition..alhtough that was a factor, it was about the meergence of four party politics in a place where three party was the norm.
    the rest of the country has to cathch up and make it three party, thats what the coalition brinbgs us.

    Since the start of devolution Scotland has had four party politics. The Lib Dems did reasonably well here until May 2010 when they came to be seen as Tories. You’ll argue that this isn’t true, but nobody in London ever bothered to take that argument to Scotland. You have to understand that Tories have no mandate here, the country has utterly rejected right wing politics. In May 2010 the Tories had 1 Scottish seat, the Lib Dems 11. For those 11 (although to be fair many are uneasy with the Coalition) to support Tory policy is seen as a betrayal.

  • John Barnett 24th May '11 - 5:16pm

    Mid term, as Tim says we were always going to get a pasting. It does strike me though that Nick is carrying the can for the tories decision to cut expenditure. This does not anger the traditional tory voters voters but our voter base seems to be more left iof centre and due to the tory media, everything unpopular from the coialition was going to be blamed on the juniour partner. My message on the doorstep was Labour, increase in Council Tax over the next 4 years and also if it wasn’t for Nick and the Lib Dems then tory cuts would be even more swingeing.

  • David Allen 24th May '11 - 5:23pm

    “Why even consider voting Lib Dem if we were never going to get into power? ….. There are millions of people who could have added to that 24% last May if only they thought it would make a difference. ”

    Yes, that’s what the polls have been saying for many years. Typically, we have polled at around 20% who have said they will vote LD, plus another 20% who have said they would vote LD if only they thought we had a chance of getting into government and making a difference.

    Well, now we’ve been there and done that, we’re up to 40%, right?

    That’s the context against which to view an actual result of 16% in local elections – buoyed up of course by all those local councillors whose local popularity mitigates the effects of national issues.

  • In all fairness Tim, it is some of the policies which the Lib Dems are allowing the Tories to get away with that is letting us down. Why did we ever change the Tuition fee system so that it was market driven and far more expensive for students. Now instead of it being a cost saving we the UK tax payer will have to pay an extra 1 billion pounds a year to prop it up and students will have a debt around them for the rest of their lives which will inevitably affect them ever getting a loan for a buisness or getting a mortgage.
    Secondly we need to be much tougher on ridiculous policies like changing the NHS, privatising our forests or increasing subsidies for factory farms. To show ourselves in government we need to have a strong voice to prove that if you go into a coalition with the Lib Dems we actually do bite at the chance to change things for the good and we don’t become the Tories Poodle and allow them to walk all over us.
    Overall I do support the coalition but the reason why we are getting a bad press and why we did so poorly in the last elections is because we aren’t (except for Chris Huhne) standing strong in government and saying what we believe.

  • Dave Williams 24th May '11 - 6:12pm

    I think this is the best article I have seen on LDVoice for a long time. We need a refounding of community politics within the party.

    Tim is doing a fab job fighting our corner both winthin the party and on the media and yes I don’t like the coalition and wish Tim was our leader but we are where we are.

    My council leader got a call from Tim last week. And then an email. The man is a force of nature! Keep up up the good work Tim

  • Paul Kennedy 24th May '11 - 6:47pm

    Tim’s the main reason I stayed in the party after that Dark Day in December. Willie’s a great choice for Scotland too.

    We are campaigning actively down here in London, and there’s a lot of sympathy for us (the members) on the doorstep. But until the party membership takes control of party policy (especially policy reversals) back from Nick and his fellow Ministers, nobody will know what we stand for. We will be tarred with the Tory brush.

    I appreciate that conference made some changes in March. But to fully demonstrate our independence from the Tories, Nick and his team should be required to present the annual Coalition Programme (in effect a draft Queen’s Speech of new commitments) to conference for approval (or not as the case may be) each September. The public will approve – a democratic party at last!

  • It would be interesting for someone (not me) to do a comparison between sitting councillors and new candidates in existing Lib Dem wards. The latter would surely demonstrate the “real” level of support rather than “hard working local councillor” effect?

  • As a non LibDem I think more positives could be mentioned. 1. Many conservatives in marginal lab/lib areas have much more incentive to vote libdem. 2. The performance of Clegg will have impressed many. He is quite the equal of Cameron/Milliband. Alexander, Huhne and Laws show there are capable MPs in the party. Even if there are some clouds hanging over their personal conduct. the Laws situation many will sympathise with and Huhne’s alleged offence scores low on most people’s ethical scale 3. Many Tories and some Labour voters are political liberals and will see that this wing of the party remains active. (I think they are amazed to see it has survived at all). 4. Much of the prior gains of Libdems were from hard Labour – particuarly those opposing the Iraq war which crystalised a hatred of Blair (sic). They were bound to return home and as they do a more centrist approach will open the party to more gains. 5. Economic turnaround will be crucial but if successful it could provide an amazing platform. What Labour has wrecked Libs helped fix. 6. Labour have some tough decisions and so far no idea how to reposition beyond repudiating the past. The Unions may have got Milliband the job but they look deeply unpopular – not least becasue they are the only ones fighting for wages and whatever they win will be paid for by those who have suffered losses – from inflation, as savers, as tax payers, as child benefit recipients etc.

  • David Sexton 24th May '11 - 8:25pm

    Lib Dem voters, are not traditionally Conservative supporters, so while the Party are in Coalition, great strides at elections is unlikely, which for a third party is unsustainable, but who knows, if the Lib Dems fortunes will pick up. Traditionally the Lib Dems, are generally left of Labour, and this is where elections can be good, when picking up seats from Conservatives / Labour, Liberal policies make a good alternative, to the government of the day. Support could flood back after the coalition, and after the next general election, maybe under a different leader.

  • Dave Warren 24th May '11 - 8:29pm

    Great stuff Tim.

    I supported the party for the first time last May, joined earlier this year and stood
    in the recent Local elections.

    We have never had a prescence in this ward but we do now. I have delivered leaflets,
    canvassed and we have a website.

    I am really enthuastic about the future. I am old enough to remember the Liberal party
    when it had a dozen or so MPs now we are in government.

    The results here in Reading were bad for us but we are starting to hit the campaign trail
    for the next set of battles ahead.

  • Joe – I have one example from here in East Devon, where one new candidate was elected alongside 4 existing Town Councillors. I also have my own example in another – last time exclusively Tory ward – where I fought a campaign largely “from the left” of the party, and achieved a swing of around 11% from the Tories, taking a Town Council seat, and missing one of the three District seats by a mere 50 votes in 1100. Down here the message seemed to go down well, although I often came home feeling battered and bruised after canvassing! I will number crunch the other ward and let you know on that!!

  • Not got a comparative swing figure for the new candidate versus the existing Cllrs. He did come fifth, but not that far behind our fourth councillor. He defeated the longstanding ex Councillor (who had defected from us just before the election over a reselection argument and stood for the Tories) quite decisively.

  • Vince Ewell 24th May '11 - 9:32pm

    Yeah, don’t listen to the voters – what do they know?

  • lionsafterslumber 25th May '11 - 12:13am

    Meanwhile Keynes and Beveridge are spinning in their graves.

    This article could have been written by a supporter of the National Liberals in the 1930s.
    Who is going to follow the Tories to the bitter end like the National Liberals?
    Who will refound the Liberal Party and help bring this appalling Thatcherite Government down?

  • Harry Hayfield 25th May '11 - 9:43am

    I am trying to keep as cheery as I can, Tim, but when you see national opinion polls clearly showing that the support we gained from Labour between 2001 and 2010 is now flooding back to Labour (leaving us significantly the worse for wear), it is rather difficult to keep a happy face.

    You might want to watch the BBC Parliament channel on Monday (when they show an archive replay of the 2001 general election) and pay particular attention to the “Who’s Left?” poll numbers (suggesting that in 2001, the Liberal Democrats were seen as more progressive than Labour) which is part of the reason why we made so many gains in 2005 from Labour.

  • @Alex Macfie

    ‘left of labour’ is a mischaracterisation of the Lib Dem’s previously selling themselves as ‘left, but liberal’. This was broadly the line taken in Scotland, which returned almost a quarter of Lib Dem MPs and was previously the site of their only previous experience in coalition and in government.
    There seems to be a deliberate move to exclude left-leaning voters and to sacrifice Scotland for the ‘long term’ gain of the conservative vote. Many people may think this strategy is mad, and based on the catastrophic, and almost certain permanent under the current leadership strategy, collapse of the lib dem vote in Scotland, they would have a point.
    At the next general election, at the very least, the Lib Dems must not lose any more seats. If they lost almost all of their 11 Scottish seats (which by and large would go to Labour) they would have to gain the equivalent number from the Conservatives. Do the polls indicate that this is at all likely?

  • Mr Farron, you seem to accept that your party knew that its actions last May would alienate a percentage of your voters. Therefore you as a party wilfully ‘dumped’ these voters, not the other way around. Mr Clegg seemed delighted last May at the prospect of getting rid of ‘left leaning’ voters. Let me state that I knew last May exactly what I was voting for when I voted LibDem, what I (and many others) got was a party that completely changed its stance on lots of issues overnight (well, over three nights). I did not change my views. I don’t consider that I have a “very loud voice” just because I am disillusioned with what the LibDems have become. I would also respectfully point out that the era of the LibDem “wasted vote” is far from over. My vote for your party last May was indeed a wasted vote on the evidence of the last 12 months.

    Something tells me this will not get past the moderator.

  • Kevin Colwill 25th May '11 - 5:59pm

    If Cameron was Thatcher I could see how the long term future of the L ib Dems could be secured by appealing to Tories who are “economic conservative and socially liberal” in the American use of the terms. As it is I don’t think there are enough gay hating, xenophobic, hangers and floggers left at the top of the modern Tories to hold them up as bogey men.

    In the end it really is “the economy stupid!” If the economy recovers sufficiently (loads of minimum wage shelf stacking jobs) the Tories will take the credit. If it doesn’t ….

  • Mr Harbord. You claim that the LibDems are “the genuine champions of the poor, needy and in fact the whole community” That sounds very impressive, however I don’t think there are many voters who would agree with you in the light of the actions of the LibDems over the last 12 months.

  • Finally an accurate, sober analysis of where we are and where we should be heading!

  • Tim’s analysis misses a crucial issue, policy. i don’t support a political party because they spend there time listening to the people, I support a political party because having done that they make the correct policy choices and use the listening to present the policy.

    The problem the Lib Dems now have, and I can now speak as an ex member, is they have joined the 30 year failed Thatcherite consensus (Tory and New Labour). The people who argue that this is not a Left/Right issue are partially right but it is an issue of realising that the deregulated free market solution doesn’t work. We are in a Government that is squeezing the lower paid (and please no posts about the marginal help around the edges that we trumpet is going to alleviate this) and using the magic mechanism of de-regulated markets to get us out of the crisis, no positive re-balancing here. We know this doesn’t work and creates a divided country between the haves and the have nots and little or no industrial base. It is called the 1980’s.

    Has nobody noticed that there are more successful economic models, please look at Germany , Holland and Scandinavia, and yes to get there will be hard and take a long time but let us make a start and this won’t be done in coalition with the Tories,

  • Always look on the bright side of life ! (Come on everybody whistle) The views are lovely from up here !


    A great song to sing beloved of football fans when they are being relegated . Also, perfect for Tim Farron and those Liberal Democrats insisting that everything is going fine with the LD party and current position in government and the impending electoral disasters.

    Saying that 16% is not too bad, given that a lot of that section held up due to the lack of anyone to vote for particularly in the South West. The only x3 way vote that held up seemed to be in Watford but that may be completely different at the election where it is much closer. The general election vote may be closer to 11 or 12% with barely double figure MPs.

    I think that Robert makes some very good points.

    I was pleased to hear of the NHS Bill going back to committee stage. This may help slow the haemorraging of the vote.

  • I just get the feeling from what you have written, Tim, that you (and I am sure other Lib Dem MPs ) are happier whistling in the wind that people are STILL not voting for us because they are unsure that we can win, and if we do whether we can change anything. You do not wish to examine the idea, put forward many times here, by all sorts of people, that people in May 2011 deserted the party in massive numbers precisely because we ARE making a difference, and in a direction they don’t like. Many of the same people had been predicting disaster prior to May, so it wasn’t the gift of hindsight.

    I can’t remember exactly, but our 2007 vote, which is directly comparable to this year, would have been somewhere between 26 – 29%, so we lost somewhere between 35 – 45% of our vote. You just cannot say it is 8% vote loss – that is either highly disingenuous, or betrays a lack of mathematical understanding.

    I can see that the Parliamentary Party IS on the move – we wouldn’t be getting the approach to the Lansley NHS Bill without that having happened. But we are not going to get significant numbers of voters back without real change of ideology at the top. What is happening here is that a few crumbs are being thrown, in the hope that enough people believe, that it will save MPs’ seats next time round. If you are looking to economic growth or similar, I should forget it, even if growth resumes technically, too many former supporters will still feel hard done by as it won’t impact sufficiently, or fast enough, for them to believe the “Government’s perceptive and prudent – sorry, wrong word – approach in 2010 and 2011” brought us this economic utopia!

  • Agree 100% Tim.

    I worry some Lib Dems are believing the negative hype and are afraid at the sight of a yellow rosette the voters will set the dogs on them.

    I can’t speak for other areas but here in Kew (south west London) we were out on our monthly street stall the Saturday after the AV referendum and got the usual great response for our petitions and free cotton re-useable bags (emblazoned with Keep Kew Plastic Bag Free, Kew Liberal Democrats, the party logo and names of local campaigners).

    I’m not saying everything in the garden is rosy. Some members and supporters were unhappy about us going into coalition, others are unhappy with aspects of what the government is doing. But for the vast majority of non-aligned people (ie not members of any of the parties) I speak to the jury is still out and by our actions over the next four years we can still win them round.

  • Yes, we did get a pasting and no, it really wasn’t much fun, especially for those of us who lost their seats and lost them because voters voted on national issues not local records. It won’t be worth it if the Parliamentary Party do not start to listen to the rest of the party and stop not just slipping on political banana skins but actually throwing them down on the path.

    It is important to move on and look to how to regain trust, but we will not do it by simply saying sorry you didn’t get what good guys we are really and repeating the same things in a loud and slow voice. There are a few things that have to change from the top down, and why not start by saying no in government far more often and on more than a few flagship areas. How about starting with the awful legislation coming out of DCLG and DoE – hard to see where we are making a difference there.

    And it wasn’t you that lost Tim – it was hundreds of hardworking councillors up and down the land who lost because of national decisions including setting the AV date on the same date as the local elections.

    I didn;t vote for a cheerleader as party president but a realist so let’s all – including MPs – take a step back, be realistic about a pretty awful set of results and the reasons for them and then move on and do better for everyone.

  • Don Lawrence 28th May '11 - 10:55pm

    “Let’s spend them making our voice heard – a lot better and more intelligently that we have this last 12 months! Let’s spend them showing people we are more competent than Labour, fairer than the Tories and more radical, green, liberal and progressive than both. That is rich electoral ground – let’s lay claim to it.”

    I will if the leadership start to, but when are we going to get a leadership that is up to it? Currently we are having rings run around us by the Tories and the leadership pretend it’s inevitable. It’s only inevitable if you’re incompetent. Sadly most of the current mob are hopeless.

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