Tim Farron: Lib-Dems should lead the charge against nationalism

Lewis Thomas 6 November 2016

Tim Farron is one of those people who bounce when they enter a room. It’s not just the fact he wears Doc Martens, it’s the fact that he seems constantly buoyed up by an immense sense of his own righteousness and optimism about the future of his party. Following the Brexit result and the Lib-Dems’ second place in Witney, Farron is on a mission. He’s angry, he’s energised, and he’s optimistic. Will those three things be enough to get the Lib-Dems into power? Probably not.

Talking in the Union Chamber, Farron is bullish about the current situation. He recognises the result of the Brexit referendum, and agrees that the Government should respect the wishes of the electorate to leave, but is opposed to those who support the idea of a hard Brexit. Instead, he supports a referendum on the terms of leaving, with the option to go back to the drawing board and get a new settlement if the electorate disagree with those terms.

In particular, he takes issue with the “narrow, fact free nationalism,” which he sees as having poisoned the debate since the referendum, arguing that the Lib-Dems should lead the charge to “escape the narrative which is now being imposed upon us.” He has little patience for Brexit voters themselves, describing them as being led by “the English Nationalist wing” of the Tory party, with the vote being either an anti-immigration statement, or an expression of discontent with the political system. His speech seems suffused with a sense of agitated bitterness, of anger at what he seems to see as the fundamental irrationality of Brexit.

In the Union Library afterwards, he is optimistic about the Lib-Dems’ chances going forward, having compared them to the SNP and Trudeau’s Liberals in his main speech. When asked what his route into Government was, he argues that every election starts nil-all, with the implication that the Lib-Dems have the same chance of winning as any other party.

He hopes that the party will make gains in the South-West (where they held numerous seats before the 2015 election) and other former strongholds, before pushing into Tory and Labour heartlands to mount a serious bid for major party status. To get those heartland seats, he seems to be banking on a major crisis, arguing that there will be a moment of truth for the Government when “petrol rises above £1.50”. To support this, he cites the 2000 fuel protests, which caused the Tories to rise in the polls at Labour’s expense. In the absence of an effective Labour party, he sees the Lib-Dems as the beneficiaries of any such crisis, although he seems to have missed the fact that in spite of that bounce in the polls, Labour still won the election back in 2001.

Farron is an optimistic politician with a real sense of conviction – he is enthusiastic, pleasant to talk to, and articulate. However, it remains to be seen if this optimism about the Lib-Dems’ future is supported by reality. Like David Steele telling the 1981 Alliance conference to “go back to your constituencies and prepare for government”, Farron’s talk of a Lib-Dem fightback may prove to be nothing but hope and faith. Whether voters will reward him with charity in the voting booth is another matter.