Mention “Tim Farron” to most people and they’ll probably look at you blankly. Even within SW1, the Lib Dem leader remains something of an unknown entity, still yet to make a real mark on the national stage. His conference speech, in Brighton next week, is his first real opportunity to introduce himself to the public and to demonstrate that whatever hangups voters might have about the Lib Dems time in coalition, here is a man leading a party that speaks to a divided post-referendum Britain and the unique set of challenges we face.
Addressing the cheering, flag-waving party faithful is undoubtedly a morale boost for any party leader. But Tim will need to speak to the country, not the hall, if he is to change the political fortunes of a party with just eight seats and single digit support in the polls.
People feel let down by politics. The Conservative Government – with baiting and encouragement from Ukip – has triggered a historic exit from the EU and in so doing has lost the support and confidence of many moderate voters. The Labour party, disastrously divided, lacks a clear voice on issues that matter to people and is taking retrograde steps (renationalisation, unilateral disarmament) badly out of step with modern thinking. Many also remain chastened by the Lib Dem’s time in office – coalition partnerships often do leave the smaller party with a serious electoral hangover. Tim’s tonic is his ability to show that he is not part of the establishment, not part of the 2010-15 legacy, but that he brings a fresh perspective to the fresh challenges we now all face.
In fact, despite the widespread political disillusionment, the referendum has also energised many millions to become politically active, more vocal and engaged about the politics they want. Lib Dem party membership has been growing steadily over the last 12 months. That’s why Tim’s speech should be unashamedly pro-European. In fact despite the party’s historic pro-Europeanism, it’s an issue that over recent years has been somewhat hidden under a bushel by the party’s leadership. “Being pro-European won’t win votes,” went the thinking.
But the 48 per cent are looking for leadership, a way to make sure Brexit is moderate and doesn’t close Britain off to our continental partners. Tim must say that he will not accept an exit strategy that cuts us off from the single market, that restricts the movement of workers and visitors, that reduces our influence on the institutions which will continue to shape the continent and assist it to cooperate. He should tell his audience that this vote ignores a shared history and the shared struggles that have intertwined the peoples of Europe for millennia. He needs to make the case that we have a shared future too, even outside the EU.
There are also very immediate and economic reasons why remaining in the EU is good for UK households. Tim could surprise his detractors and talk about the importance of passporting for banks and other financial services headquartered in the UK, and clearly demonstrate that he is on the side of businesses and the City of London which employ many thousands of EU nationals who contribute millions every year to the Exchequer.
His speech must also get across who he is – Tim Farron the man – and his values. He is Christian, he’s a family man and he’s a Blackburn Rovers supporter. Expect to hear some of this. He is also a natural anti-establishmentarian. He can be a little unpolished at times, speaking off the cuff and not always from his aides’ scripts (much to my frustration at times as his first staff member after his election in 2005). He is a natural orator, a funny, confident, passionate political advocate – old school in many ways. In fact, his natural home is on the stump, rather than the TV studio.
The conference stage is where Tim Farron can really shine – a little unusual in an era where politicians are more likely to be slick media performers, whose skills are honed as special advisers. Tim bucks this trend. He’s not a “House of Commons man”. Instead, he was a student campaigner and a grassroots activist who has a hinterland, and a set of values that have guided him into politics. These are traits many people are looking for in their leaders and he should play up to this. This is what we need to hear about – the authenticity of his journey so far and the journey he would like to take the country on.
If Tim can capture the public mood with his speech, and create clear water between his party and the others by owning the EU issue, he could signal the first steps to what might be a fightback. It would be a fightback not just for his party, but also the 48 per cent being dragged in a direction they never chose. He needs to wear his heart on his sleeve and an EU pin on his lapel.
The Lib Dems aren’t the parliamentary force they were when I worked for the party a decade ago. Under the inimitable “chat show” Charlie, the party commanded nearly 60 MPs, privileges at PMQs and seats on nearly every parliamentary committee. But in many ways, the party today is more aligned with the public than it has ever been. Tim must show that he is in touch with the 48 per cent and begin proving he is the man who can best represent them.
Sam Cunningham is a Partner at Westminster Public Affairs and was Tim Farron’s first Chief of Staff after his election to Parliament in 2005.