Friday, 12 November 2010

Is this the future of the Liberal Democrats?

Tomorrow the results will be announced for the Liberal Democrat Presidential election. Normally a rather innocuous affair the job of the President, as I understand it, is to represent activists and to run the internal party machinery. The fight is between Susan Kramer and Tim Farron. Kramer, is the former MP for Richmond Park who was replaced by Zac Goldsmith, whereas Farron is the current MP for Westmorland and Lonsdale I will make no bones about this: as far as I can tell Farron is a shoe-in. Let us be clear about this: Kramer is not a bad candidate. She does not beam with charisma by any means but she is competent, and intelligent, but unfortunately for her she is running against Tim Farron.

I have always had a soft spot for Tim Farron, but it is nothing compared to the soft spot held by the Liberal Democrat grassroots. I have never spoken to a Lib Dem activist, of any description, who did not gush at the very mention of his name. Words and phrases like ‘charismatic’, ‘principled’, ‘boundless energy’ and ‘fantastic campaigner’ are sure to follow, and looking over the facts you can see what they mean. Farron first stood as Lib Dem candidate for Westmorland and Lonsdale in 2001. Since then he has almost doubled the Lib Dem vote taking a seat that had been Conservative held since its creation in 1983 in 2005, ‘decapitating’ Shadow Education Secretary Tim Collins and turning it into a Lib Dem fortress, winning 60% of the vote this year on an impressive 11.1% swing against his Conservative opponent. Farron is known for his fiercely independent, principled streak. He resigned from the Lib Dem frontbench in 2008 to vote for a referendum on the Lisbon Treaty, and has pledged to rebel against tuition fee rises. He tends to be identified closer with the party’s left than the party’s right, he is a member of the Beveridge Group of centre-left Lib Dem MPs (which perhaps suggests why he is not in the government), but he is not divisive or as stridently left-wing as someone like Simon Hughes. In short it is clear that he is a highly skilled politician, and incredibly popular amongst the Lib Dem grassroots and as it is they who will elect the Lib Dem President he is almost certain to win.

Farron’s pledge for President is essentially to push a distinctive Lib Dem voice and identity in these times of coalition. Anyone who is paying even the slightest attention to politics has noticed that Nick Clegg today does not sound like Nick Clegg of April. The reason is simple: Nick Clegg is no longer just Lib Dem party leader, he is Deputy Prime Minister and by the principle of Collective Cabinet Responsibility he is bound to speak for the government, not his party. Therefore when the priorities of the coalition and the priorities of the Lib Dems clash it is the coalition that always wins and as the coalition is majority Conservative he sounds more like a Conservative than a Lib Dem a lot of the time. Farron is therefore aiming to be in a similar position to Simon Hughes, who as Lib Dem Deputy Leader has been running around disagreeing with the coalition left, right and centre – Hughes exists as the voice of those Lib Dems who are disaffected by the coalition, and Farron hopes to do the same. In doing so he will also raise his media profile, and establish a reputation as a voice for the Liberal Democrats; it’s almost as if he is running for the position of a shadow leader, ready to take over when the coalition ends, and when Clegg goes (it is likely that these two events will be connected).

Already he is spoken of as the next Lib Dem leader, both by Lib Dem activists but also by those in the know. A recent poll of Lib Dem ‘insiders’ clearly backed him as favourite – with 32% backing Farron as most likely to be the next leader, twice those who thought the next leader would be David Laws. Whereas Ladbrokes makes him favourite, albeit at 5/1. It is worth noting that if the much predicted Lib Dem meltdown occurs and the party is ruined by coalition Farron is one of the most likely to hold on nonetheless – holding as he is an obviously high personal vote, in a thinned Lib Dem bench he may be the only reasonable choice. Of course who knows what the future will bring, but I will say this much: if you’re interested in the future of the Liberal Democrats, keep an eye out for Tim Farron. And tomorrow’s Lib Dem President election? I’d bet on Farron to win by landslide.


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