Yesterday was an odd day. I’d met up with some of the other people from the Tim Farron campaign at the Taproom in Islington, just over the road from the Assembly Hall where the new leader would make his first speech. We’d been told to expect the result to be announced online at some time after 4pm, but that came with just an announcement that the result would be arriving at 5pm.
So, we sat around outside the bar having a pint or two (and I definitely recommend the Taproom as a place for a drink) waiting for 5pm. I was idly checking Twitter on my phone when I noticed a Tweet saying ‘Tim Farron elected as new leader of the Liberal Democrats’. Unsure if it was a hoax or not, I clicked on the link, which took me to the party’s website (I know because I checked the address a few times to be sure) which had the news. Tim had won, and I got to be the one that told everyone around that table (including at least one senior party figure) that he had won. So that’s my tiny little footnote in the annals of important moments in Lib Dem history.
For me, and others, it was the first time I’d been on the winning side in a leadership election, so we weren’t quite sure how to react in this strange new land. To be honest, it didn’t feel entirely real until we went over the road, wound our way through the long queue to get in and finally got to hear Sal Brinton say ‘the new leader of the Liberal Democrats, Tim Farron.’
It’s a great speech and a great way to launch his leadership, but also makes the point that this isn’t the end, just one early punctuation point on a longer journey. As a party we only narrowly missed a full extinction level event in May, and we still can’t assume that survival – let alone recovery – is guaranteed. There’s a lot of work to be done to make that happen, and lots of internal debate that still needs to be had about the party’s direction.
However, Tim has had one stroke of luck in the timing of his election. The Tories are showing their true colours now they’re in power on their own, and Labour have completely dropped the ball on opposing them and look likely to be indulging in increasingly bitter feuding as their leadership election stretches on until September. I’ve seen several jealous comments from Labour activists about both the pace of our leadership election, the quality of the candidates and the quality of the debate within it.
There’s a window of opportunity from now until early September for the party to get out there and grab space in the national consciousness. Tim needs to be at the forefront of that, but the other MPs, MSPs, AMs, councillors and others all have a role to play. There’s an opportunity to set out a liberal vision and make clear that the Liberal Democrats still have an important role to play in British politics. It’s not just about building support for next year’s elections, but building a wider liberal movement across the country and letting people know what we stand for.
I’m reminded of the message Kurt Vonnegut said many people need to hear:
I feel and think much as you do, care about many of the things you care about, although most people do not care about them. You are not alone.
We’re in a time when politics has become a field of despair, a battle to see who can demonise and belittle the most people while promoting visions of the future that seem only a few steps away from dystopia. Even amongst this, there are people out there who want better, who want to see some hope, to feel that the future is going to be better than the past and that we can make it that way. We need to reach out to those people and let them know that they’re not alone, and we’ve now got the perfect opportunity to do that. Let’s take it.