It feels odd to recall that the general election was just two weeks ago. It was a campaign where nothing seemed to happen, and then an election that pulled the rug out from under a lot of us and radically changed British politics. Two weeks ago, I was thinking that we’d be arguing over coalition wrangling right now, not a leadership election. Instead, we find ourselves with the party in the worst position its been in for at least four decades and the question we’re being asked is now a simple one of how do we survive this?
Leadership elections are often focused on issues of policy, tactics and organisation, because they can assume that the fundamental questions of party strategy and survival have been answered. The election has shown that we can’t assume that the Liberal Democrats will remain around just because we always have, but the result has shown that there is a greater need for liberalism in the UK, and if we don’t fight for it, then who will? Other parties may occasionally adopt the odd liberal policy, but that doesn’t make their cores any less authoritarian, and some may adopt liberal rhetoric to argue for illiberal ends, imagining that freedom can be reduced to nothing more than consumer choice but saying nothing about challenging unaccountable power.
The temptation at a time like this is to turn in on ourselves, contemplate our collective navel for the next year or two and then gingerly step back out onto the political stage with a suitably tweaked message and image. We could do that, and find that while we were away the Government has swept away the Human Rights Act, introduced mass surveillance of the entire population, slashed the welfare budget, put Britain on the path to an EU exit, privatised everything that’s not nailed down, and set in place the break up of the country. This is a time that liberalism needs to be bold and out there, defending rights, standing up for a fairer and more equal society and championing internationalism.
Whoever is the new leader of the Liberal Democrats, their main job for the next few years is to lead the fight for liberal values and build a liberal movement (not just a party) that can fight for those values. For me, the person who can do that better than anyone else in the party is Tim Farron. Watch his 2014 speech at party conference where he sets out the importance of liberal values in dealing with the issues we face now:
More than that, Tim understands that liberalism needs to be a proactive force, not just a reactive one. His call to build a new consensus is an important one and an understanding that politics shouldn’t just be about adapting to the current political situation and tacking from side to side within the current consensus, but seeking to redefine the tiny frame British politics is conducted within. If we’re serious about making liberalism relevant, the way forward isn’t to jump into the rapidly narrowing space between the other parties but to be proud and unashamed about making the case for truly liberal values.
Tim fits in with my vision of what liberalism should be and what it needs to be in the 21st century: an idea that stands up for people against unaccountable power in all its forms and an idea that challenges the assumptions of the political consensus, arguing for real change, and a better life for everyone. Liberalism should be out there challenging the status quo, insisting that there’s a better way, and building a wide movement to win that fight. As a party right now we need a leader who can campaign hard and push forward those liberal values.
Tim Farron is the right candidate at the right time for our party, and that’s why I’m supporting him to be the next leader of the Liberal Democrats.