As the political term comes to an end, how has he done in the role so far? What has he done well, and where is there room for improvement?
It’s five months since Tim Farron’s first full day as leader. Be warned, this is a long one. You might want to get a cup of tea and a biscuit.
First, let’s look at the highlights:
Those amazing speeches
That first one, just after his election. Have you embraced your diagnosis yet?
And then that emotional debut Conference speech with that impassioned section where he called out David Cameron for his failure to help refugees:
One of the reasons I supported him for leader was because of the heartfelt way he articulated our values:
We have a hell of a mountain to climb at the moment. It’s going to take a lot of work. It’s going to take a leader who’s zingy, persistent, gutsy, noisy and awkward who can articulate a liberalism that’s relevant, practical, optimistic and joyful. Tim Farron fits that bill as close to perfectly as it gets.
He has the vision, the charisma and the energy to take us forward to a time when we can be involved in running councils, cities, states and the whole UK again.
He has certainly delivered on this point. The challenge is to get his voice heard more and more on the important issues of the day when we aren’t getting as much media attention as before. However, his speech in the Syria debate was in the Guardian’s top ten and he’s been getting in stories like fracking, climate change and flooding recently. He needs to keep being bold and being creative to get noticed.
His next steps are to make some major keynote speeches on Europe. The latest polls in the EU Referendum are grim. Our biggest challenge over the next wee while is to make sure that we stay in the EU. If we leave the EU, the UK is as good as over, too.
Leading on the refugee crisis
While our Prime Minister brought shame on us by describing vulnerable human beings in desperate conditions as a “swarm,” our Tim took himself off to Calais and then Lesbos to see the situation for himself. These experiences have clearly deeply affected him and he has thrown himself into doing all he can to help those people and make the case for us to welcome many more refugees, including the 3000 unaccompanied children that Save the Children are campaigning for the UK to take.
Making housing an issue
I’ve always said that the people who could sort housing out would really deserve the trust of the people. This is Tim’s issue. It’s what brought him into politics. He knows the issue inside out and he’s been talking about it all the time.
Any MP or MSP will tell you that so much casework is housing related – people generally can’t get affordable social housing or can’t get a much needed bigger property. If you have four children in a two bedroomed house, you are really going to be struggling and the effect overcrowding has on children’s ability to learn and do well at school is clear, too.
Getting out there
When Liberal Democrats have been crowded out of the media spotlight, Tim is getting coverage in all sorts of different ways. He’s even featured in Wetherspoons’ newsletter this month, for goodness sake.
He’s shown himself to be a normal human being like the rest of us in the Telegraph’s “celebrity travel” feature, he’s got through an episode of Have I Got News for you without incident, and, by far the best is his funny, relevant, down-to-earth appearance on Russell Howard’s Good News.
His challenge for the next few months is getting out there in the Scottish, Welsh and London media in particular ahead of crucial elections there. Let’s get him everywhere from Holyrood magazine to Lorraine to Call Kaye or to the Daily Record.
Not only does Farron’s team of spokespeople have a majority of women on it, but women have been given jobs like the economy, defence and climate change. Top marks for that and a gold star.
Tim said during his leadership campaign that if his diary was full of meetings with white straight blokes, he’d rip his diary up. He’s doing that. I wondered how the Commons parliamentary party made its mind up about stuff – was it just the 8 straight white blokes in a room? Apparently not. All the policy staff, a majority of whom are female, attend and so do the MPs’ researchers too.
But, although Tim has been bold and radical, we still have a long way to go. I would like to see him do what Willie Rennie has done and drive the agenda. If that means he has to get involved in the process as well, so be it. Willie appointed a commission to come up with a 5 year plan to make Scottish parliamentarians more diverse which will involve some level of affirmative action. Tim needs to do similar. His position is slightly more complicated as he’s the federal leader and this is a state responsibility but we need to see diversity at every level from local parties right up to federal committees and parliamentary candidates. And that to me means 50/50 everywhere.
The immediate challenge is to make sure that our Police and crime commissioner candidates aren’t all the usual male suspects. Willie has in the past spent some time phoning women and asking them to stand for stuff. Perhaps some targeted intervention from Tim might ensure that we have a more diverse set of candidates.
He needs to be much more proactive on ensuring diversity for the future. The Women’s Equality Party is making a massive pitch for our members and is standing candidates in next year’s elections. We need to show women that we have sorted ourselves out – and fast. By showing he understands issues around violence against women, writing a post on domestic violence recently, for example, he can show that we have and will deliver for women and that we understand the structural unfairness that women face.
Taking a principled stand – and being unafraid to be controversial
Way back in 2010, Tim came to Scottish Conference looking for votes in his first presidential election. I gave him a very hard time because I wasn’t sure whether to back him or Susan Kramer. He won me over. This was partly due to how he used his speaking opportunity. Each candidate was told they could speak for a short while in any debate, or they could have a slot to talk about their campaign. Farron wades headlong into the most controversial issue of the day and probably wins the day.
Fast forward to early December 2015 and he has to make his mind up on whether to back the Government on airstrikes in Syria. He had been enjoying an extended honeymoon and whatever he did risked bringing that to a close because whichever way he went, he would upset people.
There has been some complaint that he didn’t consult widely enough in the party, particularly with the Federal committees. Maybe that’s the case, and I think that’s been taken on board. However, as a member of the Federal Executive, I am bound to say that we didn’t demand that he listen to our opinions, so we have to suck that one up ourselves. It’s not all Tim’s fault. Whatever our own positions, and I am not persuaded of the case for airstrikes, most of us can see that Tim made his decision for the best of liberal, humanitarian and internationalist reasons.
The communications around the decision could definitely have been better. Nick Clegg’s inadvertent foray into Sky News while the parliamentary party meeting was still going on looked like undermining Tim, but from what I hear it was, as is mostly the case, cock-up rather than conspiracy.
The fact that a delegation from Liberal Youth were able to meet with the Party President and the Leaders’ Chief of Staff the next afternoon was a massive step forward from the way things used to be, which brings me to my next point.
The Leader’s Bunker is no more
There were times when Nick Clegg didn’t really seem to like the party that much. When he mocked the party for its cultural of delivering leaflets, he really didn’t help, as I wrote in some words of entirely unsolicited advice to him in 2012. Certainly, even before he was Deputy Prime Minister, there was a bit of a disconnect between him and party members and activists. Despite some mostly superficial attempts to deal with that, it didn’t really work. It could have been a lot better.
As a member of a federal committee, I get frustrated when we are sometimes denied the information we need to make decisions in case we leak it. Actually, there are very few leaks or unattributed briefings from federal committee meetings across the party. Most of the nasty stuff actually came from the leader’s inner circle, which drove me absolutely wild with fury.
These are things that we don’t have to worry about any more. Tim has always worked hard at having a real connection with path members and he has remained as accessible as ever. I always had a notification set up to tell me when Nick Clegg tweeted. It didn’t trouble me much. Keeping an eye on Tim’s tweets takes up much more time. He maybe needs to do some more proactive stuff, as most of his tweets are replies to people, but he is still making the point of staying in touch with voters and activists.
It’s not just on social media either. He has had a ridiculous schedule that took in virtually every regional and state party conference. He’s getting out there and keeping his finger on the pulse of the party, as you would expect. Rebuilding a party from as devastating a defeat as it had in May needs a skilful combination of reassurance and motivation. He needs a growing legion of activists out there telling the party’s story or we will not recover.
What could have gone better?
A slow start
We had an opportunity to really hit the ground running after the leadership election. We had six weeks before the Labour leader was elected and we could have been much more aggressive and proactive about setting our agenda. Now, there were reasons for that. We were all knackered. We’d been through a devastating election and had gone straight into a leadership campaign. We needed a rest. I’m not going to labour this point too much, but we could have scored a few more hits in the Summer.
We can’t change that now, but we can be confident that Farron’s office is in good hands. His appointment of Ben Williams as his Chief of Staff is a good one. I have so far been very impressed by what I have seen of him at Federal Executive meetings and I have yet to find anyone who has a bad word to say about him, which, for someone who was a Coalition Special Adviser for 5 years, is pretty impressive. People generally think that he is someone who very calmly and quietly Gets Stuff Done and he has admirers across that broad liberal church.
Not only does Ben have that knowledge and experience of how Government works, his 14 years’ service as a councillor has given him an understanding of the importance of local government in the Liberal Democrat fightback. He totally gets how having councillors can really invigorate a local party which will be important when it comes to influencing the changes to the party’s campaigning that need to happen if we are going to succeed.
During his first month in post, he had to deal with two very different crises with the party’s reaction to the appointment of Chris Rennard to the Federal Executive and the Syria vote and its aftermath. The first could have been a lot more messy and could still be unresolved. As I said above, there’s an impressive willingness to take on board feedback regarding the communication and consultation on the second.
Tim wants 100,000 members by the next General Election. That’s 40,000 in 52 months, which kind of makes you want to reach for the smelling salts. He needs to lead on this and help us cut that elephant into achievable chunks. Membership has been steady in the last few months, but needs to start to climb more rapidly.
We are not going to get anywhere if we keep on with the same old campaigning strategy. We do need to make sure we hold our parliamentary seats, but we need a good news story out of every election between now and 2020. That means taking every election seriously and investing heavily in local government elections as well as parliamentary seats. It can’t all be about the strategic seats any more. Held parliamentary seats should not be relying on the party to help them out with their campaigns. They need to sort themselves out. The party’s scarce resources need to be wisely invested in encouraging the #libdemfightback at every level.
We also have to change our campaigning techniques, which have, to be honest, got a bit stale. We need to be having more meaningful interactions with people and build relationships with them. That means conversations.
All in all, Tim’s done pretty well. There are signs that people outside the party like him, hence today’s good news that he’s the most popular (or at least least unpopular). If people were expecting him to get us back to pre 2010 levels of support in 5 months, they were being unrealistic. That’s going to take much longer. Tim’s passion, energy, authenticity and likeability give us the best chance of breaking through. He’s been willing to challenge the established order of things by ripping up the Salisbury Convention on Lords voting. He’s talked about challenging entrenched power in exactly the way a liberal leader should. A very impressive start to build on during the many critical challenges 2016 is going to throw up in our faces.
On a lighter note, there is one thing he really needs to do. Urgently. There is a hideous plant in his office that seems to get its way into all his videos. Let’s hope he finds something more tasteful to fill that space soon.
* Caron Lindsay is Editor of Liberal Democrat Voice and blogs at Caron's Musings