The Liberal Democrats’ autumn conference rolls to a close today with Tim Farron’s keynote address. In light of the party’s humiliating performance in May’s general election, the overwhelming theme of the Bournemouth gathering has been one of comfort and reconciliation. Unlike Labour’s conference next week, which is likely to have more self-loathing overtones, Farron is focusing on the positive side of the Lib Dem years in government and Nick Clegg’s leadership. In his speech today, the new Lib Dem leader will deny it was all a mistake:
We are proud of what we did in Government. Proud of our record and proud of our party. You know, there are those that would like me to take this opportunity to distance myself from the past five years, to say it was all some dreadful mistake, to say: “I disagree with Nick.” But I don’t and I won’t.
And while Labour appears to be concentrating on sticking to its principles over winning elections, Farron will say in a very Blairite manner that the Lib Dems must focus on the latter:
‘There is nothing grubby or unprincipled about wanting to win. Nothing noble about defeat – losing sucks, losing robs you of your chance to make people’s lives better. What’s the point in being right if you never get to put your policies into action? So I am proud of what we did in government and I am determined that we will return to government.’
As well as announcing that the Lib Dems will become the ‘voice of small business’ under his leadership, Farron’s ‘number one’ issue this week has been housing. In his first party political broadcast as leader (watch above), he promises that his party would build 300,000 new houses and will fight the government’s extension of Right to Buy to housing associations in the House of Lords. It’s optimistic, if nothing else.
The Lib Dems have little choice but to show they are fighting for the underdog, given that they are now the underdogs of British politics. Either you have to admire the gumption of a party which has just suffered a defeat talking about returning to government in the next five years, or it looks a bit pathetic — as Rachel Sylvester suggests in the Times. But there’s no denying the Lib Dems appear to have found themselves a dynamic leader in Farron. If he can carve out the party a new home on the centre left in a space vacated by Labour — which he appears to be doing — his efforts might not be entirely wasted.