Tim Farron’s speech at the Liberal Democrat conference rally

So this is the Sheffield Rally. And you know what normally happens when a party holds a Sheffield rally? Well, traditionally, some ginger bloke gets on stage, makes an absolute prat of himself, and completely wrecks his party’s election chances. And I’m a great believer in tradition, so here goes…

Ros has been an outstanding President. A baroness who is also a pavement politician, approachable, effective and one of us. Ros led us internally to an election result and aftermath that was beyond historic. And I am certain that we all want to show our appreciation. On a personal note she has been incredibly helpful to me. Ros gave me what we called an NVQ in being party president, that is until Vince cancelled the funding – only joking! – it’s funded through a progressive repayment system, but I only have to pay it back if I start earning a ministerial salary. So that’s me safe then!

I’m not going to get all pompous on you, but to become President of the party I first joined as a teenager a quarter of a century ago is a massive honour. I’m unbelievably grateful.

I’m also unbelievably grateful to Susan Kramer – the Baroness Susan Kramer – who contested the election with me. Susan was a fantastic candidate, pushed me all the way and the contest was exactly what we needed at exactly the time we needed it. Thanks Susan.

My vision for my time as your President is to give us a voice that is distinctively ours, to give you the belief and passion you need to win hearts, minds, votes, seats and referendums at this challenging time. My focus will be on being a critical friend to the coalition, a champion of Liberal Democrat principles, a voice for our ideals, committed to the coalition but besotted with my party.

Shall we be honest and say that this time last year, we were not all going back to our constituencies to prepare for government? We were in fact digging in for the fight of our lives. I spent just 2 or 3 hours at the last spring conference. Turned up, made a speech, had 2 pints, got the train back up north and was back on the doorsteps in Kendal first thing in the morning. Didn’t do me any harm!

But last March, most pundits were writing us off. Again.

But the media and our opponents made a fatal error.

They underestimated Nick Clegg. I was in Manchester as the first leaders debate took place last April. It was a night I will never forget. Before our eyes, Nick transformed the entire general election. Until that moment, the Conservatives were cruising to a 60 seat majority. Nick completely blew that apart. The Lib Dem cat from Sheffield put right amongst the establishment pigeons.

Nick Clegg was all that stood between Britain and a majority Tory government. And he did not let us down. Nick changed the election, and the election changed everything.

So, a balanced parliament… You should be careful what you wish for!

I caught the early train from Oxenholme on the Saturday after polling day. I was hoping to get some sleep on the journey down. But I’d forgotten that it was FA Trophy final day at Wembley and that Barrow were in the final. Which meant that my train was packed with Barrow fans who were a) having an intensive liquid breakfast and b) extremely keen to share their views with me on what we should do in a hung parliament.

So I got no sleep, but I did get plenty of advice! I remember one particularly good piece of wisdom: “This is your chance Tim, tell Nick not to bottle it!”

I couldn’t have put it better myself.

The arithmetic was clear. Labour plus Lib Dems equalled 11 short of a majority. That option was off.

Next option? We could have sat on our hands, and you know exactly what would have happened then. A second election in October, a Conservative victory, no electoral reform, no tax cuts for the poor, big tax cuts for the rich, no banking levy, no pension increase and billions wasted on replacing Trident. And what about the Liberal Democrats? Would we now be being praised for keeping our hands clean at a time of necessary cuts? Not a flaming chance. We would have been the lilly-livered Lib Dem bottlers, the first time in 40 years when the parliamentary arithmetic had given us the chance to take responsibility, and we walked away from it. Too chicken to go into the big league. Our credibility would be shot to bits. Our electoral standing in tatters. That’s what the parallel universe looks like. It’s not pretty.

So we absolutely did the right thing. But, you might have noticed that its not all been plain sailing!

You know, before the election the Governor of the Bank of England Mervyn King said that whoever came into power would have to make such dreadful decisions that they would be out of power for a generation afterwards. A generation. Mind you, given that we are normally out of power for four generations, that sounds like a pretty good deal.

Of course its uncomfortable to be in government. Remember Jo Grimond’s famous line at the Scarborough Liberal Assembly in 1965 – when we had 10 seats and about 5% of the vote and to say we were on the fringes was to overstate our position. Jo said, “In times of war, in times of doubt, generals were told to march their troops towards the sound of gunfire.” And he added, “I intend to march my troops towards the sound of gunfire.” Well guess what? We are now in that battle, in the thick of it, amidst the gunfire. And that means that we are sometimes going to get winged or wounded, but far better to be here, in the middle of it than to be an irrelevance, an observer, marching towards that distant sound.

Time to look forward and stop apologising. We are just eight weeks off the most important ballot for our party in living memory. The fairer votes referendum. I do not have enough hyperbole in my vocabulary to express how incomparably essential it is that we win the referendum. This is it. Electoral reform within our grasp – for the first time in our lifetimes… and, if we lose, for the last time in our lifetimes. It looks to me like we are marginally ahead in the referendum. You know, 1-0 up with 5 minutes to go – which is a frightening place to be. You can sit there, hold your breath, pray that the other side don’t scrape a jammy goal, will the ball away from our own net net, panic and feel like a spectator, utterly passionate about the result but utterly powerless to affect it. Or you can realise that you are not a spectator, you are a player.

You want to win the referendum? Then we get out there and score the second goal and put it beyond doubt. So please fill in the form on your seat now and hand it to the stewards as you leave. Because yes, we may be 1-0 up, it’s ours to lose – but make no mistake, we can lose. And Hilary Stephenson and I were talking last week and we decided. We’re not having that.

And for those of you who are still not convinced – and you know who you are, the STV ultras – just look at AV as the semi final.

Indeed as the stars of the Fairer Votes campaign line up Joanna Lumley, Honor Blackman, Colin Firth, Stephen Fry, Helena Bonham Carter, they are achieving the absolute impossible, they are making electoral reform glamorous. Those guys on the DAGGER stand have perfected their own brand of single transferable chic for the last 60 years, but we’ve finally achieved cross over. We no longer need to be ashamed; electoral reform is groovy.

Alternatively – the No campaign are positively Z list. They asked Lembit and he wouldn’t touch them with a bargepole. He said they’d damage his credibility.

We are extremely lucky to be here in Sheffield. Home of the full monty. Home of Nick Clegg…. now then boss, I’ve just had a fantastic idea for a fundraiser…

So Sheffield. Home of the Human League, ABC and Heaven 17. The new romantic capital of the western world! A place where real men wore eye-liner, gold lame and two haircuts at the same time.

At least that’s how it was in the 1980s.

Now, the 1980s was the decade that I grew up in. I am one of Thatcher’s children.

I was raised in Lancashire when unemployment was above four million.

Much of that unemployment was utterly avoidable and unnecessary. Margaret Thatcher pursued a deliberate policy of increasing joblessness in order to keep down inflation and to subdue the trade union movement. Avoidable human misery was created by a government that did not understand the north and cared about it even less.

My Mum, a single mum, spent time out of work. I remember the day when the penny dropped with me and my sister that we were poor, and it was when mum cancelled the Guardian because we couldn’t afford it.

Indeed many Lib Dems today are seriously considering cancelling the Guardian, though for different reasons.

I joined the Liberals out of a desperate desire to see Britain run fairly, to see economic policies that served the interests of the people, especially the poorest. I joined a party that was unmistakeably a radical, social liberal, progressive, internationalist, green party. In the old language, some people might even say that I joined a party of the left.

And that is the party I still belong to.

But outside this conference centre there are people protesting. It’s not good enough to just label them as trots. And even so, is it a crime to be angry at cut backs, to be fearful about austerity to resist the pain that is to come? The kind of people who shrug and say they rather like the cut backs are the kind of people whose families are not personally affected.

And you know what? I’m angry about the cuts. I am angry about the reason we are making these cuts.

Labour’s enduring legacy, far worse even than Iraq, is their decision in 1997 to deregulate the banks, to out-Thatcher Mrs Thatcher. To idolise the markets, to make greed a virtue, to stoke up a fake boom. Then they left office and changed their tune. Labour spent 13 years in power behaving like Tories and now 10 months in opposition behaving like trots. And they deserve to be derided and ridiculed for both.

Talking of Tories. Our valued coalition colleagues. Like us, the Tories have this phenomena of having a party leader who is also running the country as well.

As Conservative party leader David Cameron made speeches recently on what he said was the failure of multi-culturalism; and then another expressing his view that the entire public sector should be opened up to private competition. Lots of people got worked up about those speeches. I didn’t.

As Conservative Party leader he has every right to say those things.

And as Liberal Democrat President I have every right to say that he is wrong!

If you listen to some, then apparently because I am in coalition with the conservatives, or ‘in bed with the Tories’ then I must be a Tory. Are they mad? Look, for flips sake, I share a bed with my wife, it doesn’t make me a woman.

The Tories think that the cuts are long overdue, that the main problem we face is a bloated, overgrown state. I don’t think that at all. Let’s not pretend that anything more than a fraction of the cuts are in waste. No. Lib Dems are not shrinking the state, but shelving the unaffordable – temporarily. Once we have rescued the economy, we should aim to restore investment, to take vital services back off the shelf. That must be our ambition, and we should say so loudly.

We are fuelled by our passion for fairness, and our passion for the communities we serve. We nod politely at the big society, knowing that we’ve been doing community politics since before half the cabinet were born. And we turn and face the May elections in Scotland, Wales and in local government … and the fairer votes referendum knowing that these are the biggest and hardest challenges we have ever faced.

You know I told you last year you had to work your socks off to win at the general election? Well, the good news is that it worked – but guess what? You will have to out fight, out deliver, out canvass, out stakeboard, out spend, out think and out campaign your opponents this next eight weeks even more than before because if we don’t we will not win. We will have to answer for our performance in government, we will have to reconvince many of our supporters, we will have to deal with negative attacks, we will have to sharpen our messages, but we absolutely can and will be successful.

Do you look at the polls, look at the media and curse your luck? Well, don’t. Get out there and make your luck. There may be a trend, but trends are there to be bucked. Go home and buck them!

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This entry was posted in Conference.


  • Stuart Mitchell 11th Mar '11 - 7:17pm

    “some ginger bloke gets on stage, makes an absolute prat of himself,”

    I’m afraid I stopped reading at that point.

  • TheContinentalOp 11th Mar '11 - 7:19pm

    Dreadful speech.

  • Tony Greaves 11th Mar '11 - 8:55pm

    I’m not in Sheffield, decided I couldn’t put up with all the hassle.

    I am very sorry I was not there to hear this brilliant speech from my good mate Tim (who I once upon a time sat next to on Lancashire County Council).

    Tony Greaves

  • Lib Dem Titanic 11th Mar '11 - 9:12pm

    Shockingly bad speech.

    Electoral oblivion is inevitable.

  • Depressed Ex 11th Mar '11 - 9:43pm

    It looks to me like we are marginally ahead in the referendum. You know, 1-0 up with 5 minutes to go – which is a frightening place to be.

    I think this is wishful thinking, really. The latest polling figures are:
    Angus Reid: YES 32% NO 26%
    ComRes: YES 41% NO 41%
    ICM: YES 37% NO 37%
    YouGov: YES 30% NO 47%

    And all the pollsters have shown a strong trend towards the NO camp over the last few months.

    It’s difficult to understand on what objective grounds the YES campaign can be seen as being ahead, even marginally.

  • Depressed Person – do you think the polls are fluctuating perhaps?

  • Depressed Ex 11th Mar '11 - 10:28pm

    Yes, to some extent, though I think there are also quite large persistent differences between the different pollsters.

    I’m not saying I think there will definitely be a “NO” vote, just that it’s very difficult to see objective grounds for putting the “YES” campaign ahead at the moment.

  • Actually, I think it’s a very good speech. It explains – yet again – that Lib Dems had no real choice about who we went into coalition with and that in an ideal world we would never be making such substantial cuts. But right now we have no choice but to sort out the economy.

  • At last a speech from a senior Liberal Democrat that actually puts distance between them and their coalition partners AND Labour. There may just be hope…

  • Farron is probably going to be the next leader.

  • David Evans 12th Mar '11 - 9:34am

    Superb speech. Well worth listening to again and again. The sooner it’s on the Website the better.

  • Well he seems to have a decent sense of humour, which is good to see. I’m not sure how he can talk about Labour trying to out Tory the Tories with a straight face whilst the Lib Dems are enabling the Tories to be Tories.

  • Andy Harrison 12th Mar '11 - 12:27pm

    Not too shabby a speech that Tim. That’ll do, pig, that’ll do.

  • And why tgen is your precious referendum linked to reduction of mps and a reshaping of boundaries? Shameful speech to hark back to a time when the Tories stayed in power? Let’s face it their will be no shelf in 5 years time once it’s gone it’s gone did you learn nothing growing up during the thatcher era?

  • daft ha'p'orth 12th Mar '11 - 7:09pm

    If you listen to some, then apparently because I am in coalition with the conservatives, or ‘in bed with the Tories’ then I must be a Tory. Are they mad? Look, for flips sake, I share a bed with my wife, it doesn’t make me a woman.

    I’m sure it got a laugh – but this is a wilful misunderstanding of the ‘in bed’ metaphor, which is actually quite apposite. If marriage didn’t imply joint responsibilities, then divorce law would be much simpler and cheaper than it is. In coalition as in marriage, unless you can clearly demonstrate that a debt/commitment was entered into individually, then you’ll end up sharing responsibility for it. Like any married couple, Coalition partners are constantly making decisions and commitments without clearly delineating which of them takes responsibility (although they both do in almost all cases; no single group has the numbers to act alone).

    Spending time in bed with someone is neither here nor there – until you make joint decisions within that relationship. Mr. Average cannot escape a level of responsibility for the family’s mortgage or child support, even if he explains that he’s always hated kids and the whole thing was his wife’s idea. Kissing a Tory is neither here nor there. But if you let those kisses turn your head, talked like a Tory and voted like a Tory, then you don’t get to escape responsibility by claiming that you were just doing what your partner wanted.

    On another note, Mr Farron is presumably aware that most people who call Lib Dems ‘Tories’ mean the term as an insult. Equating gender with a widely loathed political stance conveys an ill-judged message.

  • Depressed Ex 13th Mar '11 - 12:22am

    It’s difficult to understand on what objective grounds the YES campaign can be seen as being ahead, even marginally.

    More mixed messages from the polls tonight.

    On the one hand, ComRes continues its trend against a “YES” vote by showing the “NO” side ahead for the first time:
    YES 34% NO 37%

    On the other, YouGov has a poll using the bare referendum question (rather than the explanatory one it normally uses) which shows the “YES” side ahead:
    YES 37% NO 32%

  • Ed The Snapper 13th Mar '11 - 12:36pm

    “some ginger bloke gets on stage”
    This is racist language and has no place on LDV nor in any serious political article. Would you have published, “some black bloke gets on stage” or “some yellow bloke gets on stage”? Dreadful speech, anyway.

  • Colin Green 13th Mar '11 - 9:47pm

    Ed The Snapper

    “some ginger bloke gets on stage” This is racist language and has no place on LDV nor in any serious political article. Would you have published, “some black bloke gets on stage” or “some yellow bloke gets on stage”? Dreadful speech, anyway.

    Tim was pulling his own hair whilst saying “some ginger bloke”

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