Peter Sloman

As parliament breaks up for its summer recess, Labour activists could be forgiven for questioning the wisdom of a four-month-long leadership contest which has allowed Jeremy Corbyn to gain momentum and left the party in disarray over welfare cuts. By contrast, the Liberal Democrats already have a new leader in place, after the former party president Tim Farron defeated Norman Lamb by 56% to 44% in a ballot of the party’s 61,000 members. Farron was always the bookmakers’ favourite and ran a relentlessly upbeat frontrunner campaign, praising Nick Clegg’s achievements in government whilst stressing the need for the party to recover its distinctive identity. Lamb secured endorsements from much of the party establishment – including Paddy Ashdown, Shirley Williams, and Menzies Campbell – and highlighted his record as a junior minister in seeking equal priority for mental and physical health. Lamb also argued that the party should follow up the achievement of same-sex marriage by calling for the legalisation of cannabis and assisted dying – hot-button issues which conveniently put the spotlight on his opponent’s Christian faith. In the end, Farron’s margin of victory was about as wide as could have been expected, and a good deal more comfortable than the 511-vote margin by which Nick Clegg defeated Chris Huhne in 2007.

After a bruising election result which wiped out forty years of incremental Liberal progress, Farron is under no illusions about the scale of the task facing the party. At least he has the advantage of standing out from the crowd, as a rare front-rank politician from a northern working-class background. As he put it in his barnstorming acceptance speech:

I grew up in a terrace on a main road in Preston. I was brought up by my mum, often struggling to put food on the table… I was an outsider and I wanted a party that spoke for me… I learnt at first hand that nothing robs you of your freedom like poverty and poor housing

By my calculation, Farron is the first Lancastrian to lead a political party since J.R. Clynes in 1922. Michael Crick has pointed out that he is also only the third post-war leader to have served as a local councillor after Clement Attlee and John Major. If Nick Clegg’s leadership reflected the Liberal Democrats’ growing professionalization in the years after the 1997 election, Farron’s election demonstrates the continued vitality of the party’s ‘community politics’ wing.

One of the new leader’s first tasks will be to revive the Liberal Democrats’ once-famous grassroots base. During the leadership election Farron set a target of raising party membership to 100,000 by 2020 and encouraged activists to ‘pick a ward and win it’ in areas where the party has no local councillors. Farron has also stressed the need to rebuild a core vote across the country at large by ‘picking on a few major issues around which to mount campaigns… which fit with our beliefs and tell a story about who we are’:

Thanks to the Tories gaining a majority, there'll be no shortage of candidates: making the case for the European Union, fighting against the sell off of housing association properties, defending the Human Rights Act, standing up against the so-called snoopers' charter, pointing to the damage the Tories will do to the whole of society, not just the poor, by £12 billion of welfare cuts – because an unequal society is a weaker society for everyone.

Liberal Democrat policy is, of course, made by the party conference, and Farron has stated that he doesn’t intend to be the kind of confrontational leader who wants ‘to have that “Clause Four” moment every bloody week’. Even so, there is likely to be a distinct change of tone from the centrist positioning of the coalition years. He has described the current level of income inequality as ‘immoral’ and called for ‘active, ambitious, liberal government’ to deal with the housing crisis, improve rural infrastructure, and tackle climate change. Though he opposes the Conservative government’s welfare cuts, he favours a genuine living wage and is no fan of tax credits. In this respect, his economic instincts are probably closer to Ed Miliband’s than Nick Clegg’s. The party also seems likely to take a more radical line in foreign policy, where the autumn conference is due to debate a motion calling for the non-renewal of Trident.

The Liberal Democrats’ strategic positioning in the longer term is more difficult to judge. One suspects that Farron is most comfortable in the political space which Jo Grimond and Paddy Ashdown made their own, rallying rural and suburban radicals in opposition to Conservative complacency and the Labour Party’s centralizing instincts. This may well be the best place from which to win back the former tactical voters who have deserted to the Greens, Labour, and UKIP. If Labour moves leftwards, however, the Liberal Democrats will be sorely tempted to move into the void created by the disintegration of the Blair-Brown project. After all, ‘realignment of the left’ has been the party’s main strategic objective since the 1950s. Whether the party is capable of exploiting such an opportunity after the setbacks of the coalition years is another matter entirely.

Peter Sloman is a Junior Research Fellow in Modern British History at New College, Oxford and the author of The Liberal Party and the Economy, 1929-1964 (Oxford, 2015).

Image: Liberal Democrats CC BY-NC-ND