Commenting on Tim Farron’s Liberal Democrats on BBC Daily Politics on Monday, Kelvin MacKenzie claimed, “it’s like that line about the Pope. How many divisions has he got?” He meant, “he doesn’t have enough MPs to matter”. But if MacKenzie reflected on the origin of the quotation, he might come to a different conclusion.
While Stalin asked this question of the Pope in 1935, the Catholic Church remains and the Soviet Union does not. If all that mattered were divisions, this would not be so. Ideas matter too. Ultimately, more than divisions. The ideas of the Soviet Union weren’t strong enough for their divisions to sustain it.
During this Liberal Democrat conference week, the question ought to be: Do they have compelling enough ideas to avoid the Soviet Union’s fate?
It’s easy to mock their dearth of divisions – even MacKenzie can do it. It’s harder, yet more important, to assess the force of the ideas that sustain them.
The idea that Farron is selling is “social justice and economic credibility”. Listen to him on TV and radio this week, he keeps coming back to this very New Labour couplet. He’ll do so again – and probably again – in today’s speech.
It ill behoves me to comment on Farron without acknowledging the crushing defeat that he inflicted on me as Labour’s candidate in Westmorland and Lonsdale in 2010. I was road kill on Farron’s ruthlessly efficient transformation of a safe Conservative seat into that now very rare thing, a Liberal Democrat citadel.
“The trouble with Michael is that he had to buy all his furniture”. Michael Jopling may be best remembered on the national political scene for being reported in the Alan Clark diaries as saying this about Michael Heseltine. In Westmorland, he is better remembered for consistently riding on the back of truck at the County Show and making sure that everyone knew he was there. Vehicle aided, this could be quickly accomplished, a good lunch doubtless earned. His successor, Tim Collins, is said to have later spent more time at the show but lingered uncomfortably throughout in the shadows of the Tory tent. Accustomed to Jopling’s routine, voters enquired, “where is our MP?”
They’ve never had cause to ask this of Farron since he defeated Collins in 2005, a campaign in which Collins maintained all shadow ministerial commitments across the country, confident that Westmorland would remain blue. Tireless pavement politics put Farron into parliament and allowed him to spectacularly grow his majority five years later.
It would be churlish to deny that he’s played Lakeland politics well, as he has internal Liberal Democrat politics. It was clear after 2010 that the possibility of ministerial office was not going to distract from his real aim: succeeding Nick Clegg as leader. Voting against tuition fees and the bedroom tax, he sought to preserve his leftist credentials, while election as Liberal Democrat President created a fantastic pretext to meet activists and make them feel better, as seeing Clegg on TV, often sat next to David Cameron, tended to make them feel worse.
Farron won these activists over as he charmed his constituents: in person. He now needs to cut through in a different medium: the broadcast media that Clegg failed to master in government. He needs also to paint in the big ideas of social justice and economic credibility on the big canvass of national politics, not the assiduous detail of small town and party campaigning.
Jeremy Thorpe – the Liberal leader the last time their divisions were as depleted as they are now – may well have campaigned as time efficiently as Jopling but invariably displayed a fluency in big ideas on the big stage. A decade later, David Owen – albeit a former Foreign Secretary – arguably made himself the most important non-Tory politician during the Falklands War, while being among the third parliamentary force.
It is hard to imagine Farron having a comparably outsize influence on Syria. Liberal clout, however, has derived not only from the doorstep campaigning that Farron is accomplished in but by drawing upon the liberal tradition’s ideas to shape major national debates.
That tradition provides rich scope for the Liberal Democrats to reinvent themselves between Cameron’s Tories and Corbyn’s Labour. That political space is vast and widening, as Liberal Democrat speakers have noted this week. But they need to relearn how to define themselves on their own terms. Clegg’s rhetoric came to only take form with reference to how his party was supposedly different from both the Tories and Labour.
Farron must give colour to economic credibility and social justice without the contrast that Liberal Democrats got into the bad habit of thinking they secure through commentary on the other parties. I doubt he’ll approach this so badly that the Soviet Union fate awaits. Nor as well as Thorpe would have done. He seems to lack the extensive hinterland for that, which is a political mercy for Labour and another kind for him.
Jonathan Todd is Deputy Editor of Labour Uncut and was Labour’s candidate in Westmorland and Lonsdale in 2010