Verdict on Tim Farron, Year One

In the late 80s and most of the 90s, former Royal Marine Paddy Ashdown succeeded in possibly his toughest mission: transforming the Liberal Democrats from a punchline into a party of influence.

Charles Kennedy then made the Lib Dems truly popular, notably through his opposition to the Iraq War. Following revelations of Kennedy’s alcoholism, Menzies Campbell, a statesman if ever there was one, stabilised the party. Finally, Nick Clegg turned the Lib Dems into an electoral force, entering coalition with the Conservatives in 2010.

It was quite a quarter-of-a-century for them.

Now the Lib Dems have to start again.

Tim Farron faces an unenviable task. Farron was prepared for the top job – he had assiduously planned his assault for years.  

He also knew from contemporary examples in other European countries that the minority party of coalition is the one hammered at the polls for compromising its ideals. He knew 2015 would be his chance.

But Farron could never have imagined he would succeed Clegg with a band of just eight MPs, only two more than the Liberal Party’s 1950s nadir. Then it was joked the party could hold its meetings in the back of a taxi; a people carrier would just about do the job today.

The Lib Dems were convinced they would hold on to 23-42 seats last year. The party’s data is always good and they were sure the spread was wide enough to cover both its worst and best possible nights.  

In some ways, the number crunchers were right: the Lib Dems renowned incumbency factor - a happy symptom of its MPs having to work twice as hard locally without the huge machinery behind them that Labour and Conservative politicians enjoy – did exist.  

Where Lib Dems had MPs, the vote held up reasonably well – just not enough to hold. But where they were second or third, the vote collapsed, leaving them with 340 lost deposits from 631 contested seats, costing a party that has never been famous for strong finances £170,000.

Still, Farron was the Duracell bunny candidate, an infectious enthusiasm that can win over the most unlikely of voters when he meets them in person.

He might be a vegetarian, yet farmers love him in his rural constituency of Westmorland and Lonsdale where he won over 50% of the vote even during the Lib Dems epic failure in 2015.

Up against him was Norman Lamb, the respected former mental health minister, who was considered the weightier figure because of his time in Government.

The Lib Dems were, frankly, lucky to have two such quality candidates given their lack of MPs.

But just over a year after Farron’s victory, it is right to ask whether the 46-year-old was the right choice.

The conventional thinking was that Farron would rally demoralised troops and appeal to a core, left-of-centre base who had peeled off to Labour, the Greens, Plaid Cymru or SNP in protest at power sharing with the hated Tories.

By contrast Lamb’s more measured approach and focus on health policy would be more likely to win over middle class professionals whose loyalties swing between parties depending on how fit they looked to lead or influence parliament.

Anyone who saw Farron’s tearful, tear-jerking dedication to Kennedy after his death last year will know his is the more overtly emotional politician. Farron pointed to his former leader’s son in the gallery and said: “Be proud of your daddy.”  

Equally impressive, though, was Lamb’s handling of stories about his son’s mental health struggles, including a blackmail plot, which showed him to be one of parliament’s most dignified figures.

Under Farron, the Lib Dems poll ratings have remained stubbornly low at around 8%, roughly the same level as polling day in 2015 and 15% down on 2010.

One MP told me this was “a source of frustration”, though conceded it was difficult for the party to gain much media traction with so few MPs. Indeed, most policy-related stories in which the Lib Dems have featured refer to their efforts in the House of Lords, where, with more than 100 peers, they can still cause mischief in blocking or amending bills.

What remained of the Parliamentary party was split down the middle in terms of their support of the candidates. One who was always previously critical of Farron now says he is impressed by the way he carries the burden of leadership at such a desperate time and is convinced those Tigger-like qualities are lifting the spirits of activists. 

To assess whether Farron has been successful thus far, it is important to look beyond the national polls and test this last argument.

The Lib Dems hit their highest membership for a decade in July. As the most openly pro-EU party, this surge was a result of Remain voters who were mourning Brexit, but was also built on a number who joined or rejoined the party shortly after the last election out of a sense of ‘buyer’s remorse’: they had punished their favoured party only to get a Tory-majority government.

Both these increases would probably have occurred under a Lamb leadership, while a membership surge in itself is no panacea: just ask Labour.

Similarly, May’s elections can be looked at as a wash. The Lib Dems were stuck on five Scottish Parliament seats, lost one London assembly member and four Welsh assembly members, but gained 45 English councilors and gained control of a local authority. 

More interesting, arguably, are the results in council by-elections since then. The Lib Dems are winning, or at least challenging, in areas that were strongholds until anti-coalition sentiment kicked in.

For example, the party took seats off Ukip and the Conservatives in Newquay, as well as from independents in Cornwall, in July, reasserting itself in the South-west. This is the part of the country where the Lib Dems had become a dominant force, only to be wiped-out by a Conservative electoral sniper attack last year.

Again, those successes could be put down to post-Brexit sentiment, but the Lib Dems defeated Labour in a Sheffield council by-election last week. This is being hailed as a shock because they came from fourth, but, in fact, it was won by the Lib Dems in 2008 and the party has a rich recent history of electoral success in the Steel City.

More stunningly, the Lib Dems gained Tupton in North East Derbyshire on an extraordinary swing from Labour this week. This is an area where the Lib Dems had no right to do well – they hadn’t even stood a candidate there for 13 years.

For now, though, that result must be treated as an outlier, an anomaly, until further examples suggest a trend.

What does appear to be right is the idea that Farron is indeed appealing to former voters and could again challenge in its heartlands, particularly the South-west, come 2020.

Getting that core vote back is what party members demanded in electing Farron.

Some MPs and leading party figures have 20 seats in mind as success at the next general election and the first year would suggest that Farron is well on course to meet that fairly modest target.

 

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