Published in Cherwell 5/4/2017
“Who will speak for liberal Britain?” It’s the question which is shaping our politics, and which the provocative front page of this week’s New Statesman posed. The collapse of the Labour Party as an effective opposition, it posited, is spoken of as a self-evident fact. The SNP speak only for Scotland’s interests. The debate which will define British politics in years to come is to be had within the Conservative party. With Theresa May triggering Article 50 last week to usher in a hard Brexit, an effective, scrutinising opposition has never been so necessary—and so absent.
So, one may ask, what of the only party with the word “liberal” in its name? The Liberal Democrats may have just nine MPs, but when I spoke to an energetic Tim Farron a few weeks ago, he was clear on their ambitions to fill the opposition-shaped void.
Does he believe the Lib Dems can speak for the progressive centre of UK politics? “Yes, absolutely. On a personal level I like Jeremy Corbyn, he’s a good guy and sticks to his principles. But his catastrophic leadership of the Labour party means that they are currently providing no opposition whatsoever to this nationalist government’s desire to force a hard-Brexit on this country.
“The Labour leadership wrote a blank cheque to the Conservative government on Brexit when they forced the vast majority of their MPs to vote with the Government (to trigger Article 50 in February). I believe that history will judge them harshly for their failure to stand firm in defence of future generations of Britons who will suffer as a result.
“This is the very moment that the country needed a bold and competent opposition.”
Can the Lib Dems provide it? Faced with the weakness of Her Majesty’s Official Opposition, many have called for a “progressive alliance” to take on the Conservatives. In fact Farron, despite previously labelling Jeremy Corbyn as “spineless”, “incompetent” and “toxic”, has called for a new consensus of “progressives working together”.
“During the referendum, I really enjoyed spending time campaigning with progressives in other parties,” Farron tells me. “There are many of us with much more in common than what divides us.” He cites the Green Party leader Caroline Lucas’ decision to endorse Sarah Olney, the Lib Dem candidate, in the Richmond Park by-election. Olney went on to overturn Zac Goldsmith’s 23,000 Conservative majority.
For Farron, finding new alliances is one of his imminent priorities. He says how he is “deeply concerned that as things stand, with the situation in the Labour Party, that we could now be landed with a Conservative government for a generation unless an attractive, strong and united progressive alternative can be presented.”
He says he is aware of “conversations happening in constituencies between different groups.” And beyond this, reports are surfacing of talks between Lib Dem staff and Conservative and Labour moderates. Last week, Anna Soubry said she would consider joining a new “moderate, sensible, forward thinking” party.
Farron says he plans to “work alongside people who share many of our values, who are progressives, who want a Britain that is both successful and fair, who want the UK to be at the heart of Europe. The form of any cooperation is yet to be clear, but I am determined that there should be cross-party conversations that could lead to this kind of cooperation and hopefully prevent a conservative hegemony in this country lasting many, many years.”
Yet if opinion polls are to be believed, such a progressive pact of Labour, Liberals and Greens would do little to shift the debate which is currently taking place between the centre-right and far-right. A recent poll showed the combined total of the UK’s centre-left and left comes to little over 40%, while the Tories and UKIP would gain 57% of the vote.
It is perhaps for this reason that Farron sees the grassroots mobilisation of a new movement as his other main objective. “My contribution to this must be to build the Liberal Democrats so that we can ensure that this movement comes about.” He thinks they are making “good progress” on this front. Indeed, a post-Brexit bounce may be fuelling projections which suggest the Lib Dems will win 100 council seats in local elections next month.
Galvanizing the Liberal Democrats’ brand—still bruised and hollowed-out from their years in coalition—must surely be an essential priority for any electoral success. Amongst students, the issue of tuition fees (which Farron himself voted against), continues to fracture the potential for any broad-based support.
Does Farron believe it is possible to win back their support? “Yes, and it’s already happening. Our party membership has grown by over 33,000 since last June, and many of these new members are young people and students.”
He believes that Europe has changed everything, and sees it providing the possibility for a revival. “As you know 18 to 24 year olds voted overwhelmingly in favour of Remain last June. It is you, the youth of Britain, who will have to live with the fateful consequences of this Government’s choice to pursue a hard Brexit more than anybody in Parliament or the Government front bench.
“Students understand that the Lib Dems won’t accept the damage that this course of action will do to the future of young people in this country.”
But Farron is wary of becoming defined as a solely pro-EU party. “Students like our progressive stance on other issues important to them, such as mental health, climate change and welcoming refugees into the country”, he adds.
Farron says he “wholeheartedly supports” the findings of the Higher Education Policy Institute’s recent report on university students’ mental health. He suggests increased funding for counselling services, changes to allow students to register with a GP in two places, and the provision of necessary materials for staff in regular interaction with students.
“We all need to do more to encourage open conversations about mental health—in universities and elsewhere—to tackle the stigma and encourage more people to seek help.”
The challenges facing self-styled “progressives” like Farron are not unique to Britain. From Democrats in the US to moderate opponents of Putin’s kleptocracy in Russia, liberals are struggling to articulate a narrative which can convince displaced electorates. But gaps in the resurgent nationalism may be appearing. The anti-Islam populist Geert Wilders was seen off in the Dutch elections last month, whilst the centrist French presidential favourite Emmanuel Macron is displaying how liberals can use unconventional structures to take on the far-right.
If opposition to the unexpected post-liberal turn in world politics is giving progressives new unity, Farron is clearly optimistic about this shift. He is firm on how the UK should approach Donald Trump’s “racist and inhumane policies.”
“President Trump appears to have chosen to turn his back on the shared culture of civilisation and tolerance which has underpinned the post-war relationship between the UK and the US,” he says. “We should not be seen to celebrate this or to simply shrug our shoulders about it.”
He offers a chilling condemnation of Theresa May’s apparently welcoming policy towards the US President. “Donald Trump is a successful businessman. In his book ‘The Art of the Deal’ in 1987, he explained that the best time to do a deal is when the other guy is desperate for a deal. It seems very clear to me that having chosen to sever our ties with civilised democracies in Europe our Prime Minister is now desperate for a deal with the USA, irrespective of whether it will do Britain any good and irrespective of whether it will damage Britain’s record of standing up to persecution, racism and tyranny.”
It is obvious from Farron’s words that he believes the necessary base exists for new movements, but how far, or for how long, such a party or grouping could appeal beyond leafy Richmond suburbs remains unclear. Targeting the Remain vote is an understandable short-term tactic for a party with eight MPs, but as the salience of the issue is lost, and the Lib Dems become defined as a pro-EU party, there is little to suggest they could speak as a nationwide opposition. And so, the question remains: who will speak for liberal Britain?
“Britain needs a progressive party that is serious about power and positive about Europe,” Farron says. “Liberal Democrats are ready to take up the mantle.” We will see.