Today the Liberal Democrats announced their new President, Sal Brinton. She wasn’t my first preference, but I’m sure she’ll do a very good job — people who work in equalities stuff tell me that she’s extremely good on that, especially.
She’ll have to work very hard, though, to be as good as the outgoing President, Tim Farron.
Tim got the role at a difficult time for the party, coming into the role in 2010. Anyone who has paid attention to the Lib Dems over the last four years knows there’s been a very interesting split in the behaviours of the Parliamentary party. For the most part, the front bench have been bound by collective responsibility, and so have not only voted for some illiberal measures, but have at times seemed to see it as their duty to make the case that those measures are what we as a party have wanted all along — and recently some have gone further, and seem to be arguing that what we really want is to be even more right-wing than this government has. There have been exceptions — Lynne Featherstone, Norman Baker and Vince Cable, in particular, have all continued to be strong Liberal voices from ministerial posts, but too many have seemed to see their job as making the case for coalition policies to the party and public, rather than making the case for Liberal policies to the coalition.
But then the backbenchers have, for the most part, carried on supporting strong Liberal measures. If you look at the voting records of, say, John Leech, Adrian Sanders, Julian Huppert, or any number of backbench Lib Dems, you’ll see that while they vote for any measures in the coalition agreement, for the budget, and all the other commitments that cause problems, they have frequently rebelled on the issues that have become red flags — tuition fees, the “bedroom tax”, secret courts and so on. The Lib Dem backbenches, unencumbered by collective responsibility, have been far more inclined to push for a strongly Liberal society. But they, of course, tend not to have media profiles, so even when an actual majority of the Parliamentary party votes against or abstains on an illiberal measure, and even when the party’s policy is against that measure, when the front benches vote for it, the media has tended to say “now the Lib Dems support X!” rather than “now the Lib Dem leadership vote for X!”
Tim Farron has been in an interesting position in this regard, being on the back benches, but having a position in the party that gives him some media presence. And he has used that position to argue consistently for a challenge to the Thatcherite consensus, for a liberalism in the tradition of Beveridge, Keynes, Roy Jenkins, and the other great left-Liberal figures. Just read this speech on housing from July, or this on immigration (NB, both those are New Statesman links, and I know a few people who refuse to click on that site). It’s plainly-spoken undiluted Liberalism, a million miles from the standard platitudes of most politicians on all sides at the moment. Tim’s voice has been hugely important over the last few years.
But the job of the President isn’t just to make the public case for Liberalism, it’s also to listen to the membership and the public and be a voice back to the leadership — a role that has never been more important, and that Tim more than anyone has stepped up to. This tweet today summed it up:
Farron has, more than any MP I know of, managed to use the internet well. He listens to people’s concerns, talks more freely than any other politician in any party, discusses policy, and will change his mind on issues after discussions. He uses social media as a space for discussion, not as most politicians do as just somewhere to tweet links to their latest press release.
This post may seem a little hagiographic of Farron, and I don’t want anyone to think I think he’s perfect. I have had several areas of disagreement with him over the last few years, and his record is far from perfect. But I think he has done a remarkably good job of navigating the tricky areas of remaining in coalition while pressing for Liberal policies and of communicating sensibly with the membership and the wider public, and he also seems a genuinely nice man. I’m sure his period as President coming to an end won’t be the end of him taking a high-profile role in the party.
I was very cautious about him when he first became President, and I’m glad to say I was completely wrong to be. Let’s all hope Sal Brinton rises to the challenge as well.