If you’re looking carefully, you’ll occasionally see a small, sandy-haired man with a wavering Lancashire accent make an appearance on the news. He won’t be there very long, but if you stop and listen you’ll usually find him talking about Europe, or about concepts now nebulous and unfamiliar to Labour supporters like opposition and winning. Tim Farron, the leader of the Liberal Democrats has been desperately trying to raise his profile, something that is proving difficult given the relative absence of media coverage. Nonetheless, the signs of recovering are beginning to show: the Lib Dems now have more members than during their height protesting the Iraq War, and are winning local council elections by wide margins. This week, Farron spoke at his party’s conference.
The Liberal Democrats have always struggled to translate their local success to a national level. Historically, their principles and policies have never been totally understood by a large portion of the electorate, and their members and leadership thought of as being somewhat anonymous. However, many others recognised that they stood for sensible, liberal politics, offering the change and reform that this country craves. Their challenge for the next decade is to reestablish that reputation. Tim Farron started this process this week by firmly aligning his party with the pro-European 48%. Although the Lib Dems are unlikely to suddenly find themselves with 16 million new voters, it’s a move in the right direction. They will surely attract some of those occupying tge centre ground of British politics who are disillusioned by the referendum result, and, perhaps more importantly, with the Labour Party.
Farron has reached out to Labour members – and even MPs! – once again. Some have, understandably, started to worry that any influx of disenchanted centre-leftists might turn the party into Labour-lite. It’s a risk, but one that may pay off with Corbyn set to win the leadership election tomorrow, further alienating the sensible centre ground. Nonetheless, the Lib Dems shouldn’t betray their commitment to the liberal centre: they need to continue to fight for the principles upon which they were founded, rather than risk muddying the waters by inviting too many refugees from Labour – as well as those pro-European Tories to whom he has also made overtures.
Farron has so far made all the right noises. He comes across as friendly and principled; he clearly understands, in spite of his somewhat naïve suggestions that the Lib Dems are now the only party of opposition, that this is no time for playing the statesman. As one of the few surviving Lib Dem MPs not to have been involved in the coalition, he is well placed to lead the fightback. They have a steep hill to climb, but as a self-confessed ‘good loser,’ perhaps that makes him more qualified than most.
Picture credit: Tim Farron arriving at Autumn 2016 Conference by Liberal Democrats (CC BY-ND 2.0)