Tim Farron was elected Liberal Democrat leader in the pre-Corbyn era. At that time it appeared likely that there would be ample space to the left of Labour’s next head (who almost no one expected to be the Islington North MP). Farron appeared well-placed to claim it. As Labour abstained on the welfare bill and flirted with supporting military action in Syria, the left-leaning leader resisted both. And then Corbyn became the frontrunner. At a stroke, in the absence of staging a military insurrection against Buckingham Palace, any space to the left of Labour evaporated.
Farron’s first conference speech as leader bore the traces of a hasty strategic realignment. There was no mention of the welfare bill, Syria, or the mansion tax. Instead, Farron lovebombed business, reaffirmed his support for abolishing the structural deficit by 2017-18 and delivered a lengthy and passionate defence of his party’s record in government. The Lib Dem leader has rightly calculated that most of those voters attracted by his left-wing stances will be claimed by Corbyn. He is pitching at the same group that Nick Clegg did: those who don’t trust Labour to deliver a strong economy or the Tories to deliver a fair society. “If others wish to abandon serious politics, serious economics, that’s their lookout,” he declared in reference to Corbyn, framing his party as both compassionate and credible. Just as the SDP-Liberal Alliance flourished in 1983 as Labour turned left and the Tories turned right, so Farron hopes that the political stars will similarly align for the Lib Dems this time. It is the right strategic move, though some in the party doubt that Farron is the man to pull it off (they would have preferred the more right-leaning Norman Lamb).
Far more dubious was his lavish praise for Nick Clegg. Farron could hardly disown the party’s former leader, who remains one of the Lib Dems’ eight MPs and received a standing ovation from activists on Monday. But he went far futher than he needed to. “You know, there are those that would like me to take this opportunity to distance myself from the past five years, to say it was all some dreadful mistake, to say: “I disagree with Nick. But I don’t … so I won’t,” he said. In fact, Farron frequently did disagree with Clegg – on tuition fees, on the bedroom tax, on Secret Courts, on the NHS bill. If he believes that the time for differentation has passed, he is wrong to do so. As the election result of a few months ago showed, Clegg is, and remains, a toxic figure. By declaring that he does not “disagree with Nick” he risks contamination.
The speech was a fine showcase for Farron’s talents. In lengthy, moving sections on housing and the refugee crisis, he spoke with a passion and emotion rare in British politics. At a time when the Lib Dems have few reasons to be cheerful, he performed the essential task of making the party feel good about itself again. The working class northerner framed himself as an “outsider” far more adeptly than Andy Burnham. “I have never felt so common as the day I entered the House of Commons. I have never met so many well-spoken, expensively educated people. It doesn’t make them bad people. But it does make me feel like an outsider. But that’s fine, because Liberal Democrats are outsiders. Even when we are on the inside, we are outsiders: taking the side of the outsider… are you with me?”
For far too long, Farron’s speech lacked a unifying theme or a truly distinctive policy. In his closing peroration, he denounced opposing parties for offering only “words of division and separation, spite and displacement. It’s all the fault of Brussels, or the English, or the Scots, or the immigrants, or the idle poor, or the idle rich or business people, or the young, or the old, or foreigners or anybody else… If you think that is wrong, if you reject the politics of blame and separation, if you say Britain is best when Britain is together, if you say Britain is best when it is outward looking, modern and inclusive. Then guess what. You’re a liberal. Embrace that diagnosis. It is an utterly decent and British condition.”
There is much sense in Farron’s words. But to convince liberals that they should become Lib Dems he will need a far pithier slogan or policy. More than Corbyn, Farron’s biggest problem is the belief that his party is simply irrelevant. To convince voters that he deserves a hearing, he will need to offer a more radical vision than he did today. And he must not give up on detoxification.