Tim Farron’s election as leader of the Liberal Democrats is the first piece of positive news for the party since its disastrous election result on May 7. The MP for Westmorland and Lonsdale celebrated his victory over Norman Lamb at the Islington Assembly Hall last night. I want along to find out how the Lib Dems are feeling on the eve of what could be the party’s rebirth — or a further slide into the wilderness.
A cheery crowd of 471 Liberal Democrat activists turned out to celebrate Farron’s victory right in the heart of the metropolitan liberal elite. For a party that wants to rebuild itself from the grassroots up, Islington was a curious choice of venue. The ubiquitous ‘Winning here!’ placards were present, despite the area being deep red Jeremy Corbyn territory. The bar was doing a roaring trade with a selection of beers, as was a food stall dishing out hotdogs and a ‘Charcuterie Platter’ for £7.
Given that the rally was held in central London, the Lib Dems present were not of the weirdy beardy variety. They were mostly professionals, dropping in for a quick pint and cold meat platter on their way home from work. Not all of those present backed Farron in the leadership contest but everyone Coffee House spoke to was in high sprits.
Andrew Hallett, who stood in Putney for the Lib Dems at the general election, said he was ‘cautiously optimistic’ about the party’s future. ‘I think we’re going to do pretty well under Tim,’ he said. ‘We’ve reached rock bottom and I think he’s got charisma and he’s the kind of person who can bring people back to us — if anyone can.’
Dara O’Connell, a civil engineer who joined the Lib Dems just after the election, hopes Farron will shift the party leftwards. ‘I think he will bring the liberal, the left-leaning side back to the party — they’ve gone too right wing in the past couple of years,’ he said.
Mo Saqib, who works for Greg Mullholland MP in Parliament, said Farron has a ‘fantastic ability to engage with the members’, pointing out ‘he’s travelled up and down the country over the last few weeks and he’s a solid campaigner.’ ‘He ended 95 years of Tory hold to win his constituency, won over half the vote even in this difficult election. He’s a solid campaigner, that’s what we need at this time,’ he said.
Nicholas da Costa, an events manager who backed Norman Lamb in the leadership contest, said the party is entering ‘a very exciting time’. ‘I may not have voted for Tim himself,’ he said. ‘But I believe he is going to be an excellent leader — to lead us, bring us forward and engage the new members’.
— Sebastian Payne (@SebastianEPayne) July 17, 2015
As well as the hundreds of activists, stars from the party’s glory days flocked to Islington to celebrate Farron’s win. Outgoing leader Nick Clegg watched from the sidelines (and declined to speak to any press), while Lynne Featherstone and Alistair Carmichael mingled in the crowd. The party’s former deputy leader Simon Hughes was positioned right behind Farron for the speech but found time to speak to Coffee House about the party’s future.
The former MP for Bermondsey and Old Southwark, described the party’s new leader as ‘one of the greatest campaigners in British politics’ and ‘clearly an anti-establishment figure’. He compared the Lib Dems’ position to Labour, arguing that while the other opposition is ‘trying to work out what it is’, ‘the Liberal Democrats know what we are, we know liberalism is needed and Tim will lead the fight back to make sure the country understands why liberals are needed to.’
Measuring success over the next few years is going to be tricky as the party is starting for such a low base and anything might seem like a positive step. Hughes said ‘we’ve got to accept we got a punching, we got a kicking, we got knocked down but we’re not knocked out’. The answer in his view is to continue building the party’s membership, pointing out that it’s gone up by over 15,000 since the election. ‘Tim wants it to get it up to 100,000,’ he said. ‘He’s the person to enthuse the faithful, but also to enthuse those who aren’t really interested in politics at all.’
And what about his own career? Hughes has been a major figure in the party for over 30 years but he says ‘there is more energy and activity left in Simon Hughes’ in the years ahead, even if he hasn’t quite decided what to do:
‘I’ve been a liberal since I was a teenager, I’m not stopping, I’ve never been anything else. I’m in one of the periods actors would call resting. The electorate decided I was going to have a break. I’m enjoying the break. I’m not going to the House of Lords because I don’t believe an unelected second chamber is where I should be.’
Tim Farron’s victory speech was what you would expect: fiery, full of catnip for the activists and magnanimous praise for his predecessors and rival in the leadership race. Norman Lamb spoke briefly before Farron, acknowledging he is ‘totally knackered’ after traveling the country for the 27 hustings but appeared genuinely pleased to report that ‘liberalism is alive and kicking’. Then, to a rapturous response, Farron entered stage left and whipped the activists into a total frenzy.
‘Do you remember the morning of 8 May?’ he said. ‘I never want to feel like that again.’ He reminded the Lib Dems that politics is about getting stuff done and ‘we got stuff done’. Awkwardly, given that Clegg was just behind him, Farron said the party was ‘a bit terrible at telling people what we were for’ during the election and described the result as ‘overwhelming, desperate, heartbreaking’. ‘We can’t change lives from the top down right at the moment — but we can from the bottom up,’ he said.
Half way through, there was an unfortunate moment when an activist passed out and fell off the stage behind Farron. The Islington Assembly Hall was rather warm but you have to admire Farron’s efforts to keep the momentum going as the poor fellow was helped up and given a glass of water. He finished by assuring the crowd ‘ward by ward, seat by seat, council by council, we will fight back.’
And exiting to the Style Council’s Shout to the Top!, the Tim Farron era of the Liberal Democrats has begun.