Liberal Democrats think of themselves as a family and last night’s rally to celebrate the christening of the new leader was one of the better family gatherings for quite a while. Almost all of my favourite political aunties, uncles, brothers, sisters and much loved cousins were there. Former MPs, former MEPs, former councillors, former cabinet ministers gathered patiently outside the Islington Assembly Rooms forming a decent sized queue for the cameras and journalists, who had politely turned up to cover the event. Back in the glory days Islington was a flagship Liberal Democrat council, but now we don’t have a single councillor there. “Talk about an ungrateful electorate,” said one rather bitter great aunt as we waited together on the pavement.
Electorates of course don’t have to show gratitude. They simply choose who gets to govern next. At the last election they decided that it definitely wasn’t going to be the Liberal Democrats. Nick Clegg, having taken the party into government for the first time and then rather unceremoniously out again, had one last job to do: to turn up, smile, and hand over the baton to his successor Tim Farron. The branch of the family who had looked after Nick at events like this over the years were there too steering Nick through the distant, slightly embarrassing relatives who still needed to get one last family photo with him for their album.
And then it began. Some of the grandchildren, who had come home specially from university, were arranged decoratively and diversely as a back drop on the stage and Grandmother, in the form of Party President Sal Brinton introduced the runner up in the leadership election Norman Lamb to sustained and genuinely affectionate applause. Norman had impressed the party faithful through his time in government, particularly with his work to tackle the stigma of mental health. He is thought of as a “Proper Liberal” and his campaign team calling themselves the Norm Troopers had done well to secure him 43.5% of the vote, but a continuity candidate cursed with coalition cabinet credentials was never going to win this time.
The family knew all along that Tim was going to be the next leader. He has been patiently biding his time, quietly making sure he had personally shaken the hand of every single party member over the last few years and waiting for his moment. This was it. We knew he would deliver a belting speech and he completely did; gracious in his tributes to his predecessor, effusive in his praise for his defeated rival, and warm with his welcome to the new members of the family. There are apparently 17,000 who have married into the clan, some might say bizarrely, since the party’s worst ever election result.
That was all just for starters. For the main course he served up all the family favourites. Attacking the Conservatives for their assault on Human Rights, bashing Labour for their collusion and complacency in places like Preston where he grew up. Tim is proper Liberal too but one with a North West accent. “Nothing robs you of your freedom more than poverty and poor (pronounced poou-erh) housing.” He got the crowd going weak at the knees as he reminded them that liberals believe in seeing the best in people not the worst, seeing immigration as a blessing not a curse. Indeed the liberal knees were so weakened that one of the grandchildren actually collapsed and fell off the stage.
He searched across the world for a story where liberals had bounced back from electoral defeat. It turns out that there is a branch of the family in Holland who have been through the same experience of post coalition collapse only to rise up again. He called on the faithful to “Have hope. Have courage. Have belief.” Convinced that Britain, in spite of the election result, is still essentially a liberal country, Farron began to speak to the audience outside the room. Listing the symptoms of liberalism as caring about human rights, not wanting your emails snooped on, wanting people to have decent housing and thinking it’s wrong to demonise immigrants, the young, the poor, foreigners, Brussels, the English, the Scots he urged people to admit to themselves that they are in fact liberals and to “…embrace that diagnosis. It is an utterly decent and British tradition.”
He sent the family all home with one simple instruction to “Pick a ward, any ward and win it.” The Liberal Democrats are not dead yet and will, if Tim Farron has his way, be appearing on a doorstep near you soon.