Christine Jardine: Tim Farron can lead Lib Dems

He wasn’t a coalition minister and he was against tuition fees. He is the right person at the right time, writes Christine Jardine
Tim Farron: English politician who understands Scotland. Picture: GettyTim Farron: English politician who understands Scotland. Picture: Getty
Tim Farron: English politician who understands Scotland. Picture: Getty

It was during a Question Time about four years ago that I realised Tim Farron could have an appeal beyond Liberal Democrat members.

My normally politically unaligned husband suddenly looked up and said: “I’ve not heard that guy before, but your people should use him more. He’s good.”

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As I listened that night, I heard the same thing which this week convinced me that Tim Farron is the person who can lead us out of the disaster that is the 2015 general election result.

He speaks in a language people understand and can relate to. And when he talks about liberalism, about civil liberties, a more equal society and the political reform that our country needs to stop it splitting apart, his commitment is clear.

But more than that, I believe that he is exactly the type of person that the Liberal Democrats need. The right person at the right time.

To be clear, many of us in the party have thought for some time that if there were to be a leadership contest, Tim’s would be one of the names in the frame.

During his successful term as the party’s president, his ability to communicate and inspire helped him develop a widespread following among the grassroots members and activists.

It also helped him build the sort of public profile that is essential to any political leader.

But more than either of those, he was not a minister in the coalition and, critically, he voted against tuition fees.

To many people, Tim Farron represents the section of the party that was never completely comfortable with the coalition and wanted to rebel.

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That distance from the difficulties of five years of government will allow him to appeal to those more than 11,000 new members who believe that British politics needs a Liberal voice.

He has the capacity to appeal to those who felt betrayed by a coalition with the Conservatives while not alienating those of us who believed we had to put the best interests of the country before the party.

More than that, for me he is an English politician who understands Scotland.

That is not to deny the contribution of Nick Clegg to achieving a No vote in last year’s referendum. I often felt that Nick’s greatest strength when it came to Scottish issues was in recognising that there were others to whom he should defer because they had a better understanding.

But Tim Farron, like many of us in the Scottish party, sees things from a very non-metropolitan-London perspective.

His constituency of Westmoreland and Lonsdale is in the Lake District. The man himself is from Preston in Lancashire, and he went to university in Newcastle.

It is perhaps therefore no surprise that among those who have already voiced their support for his leadership bid are the Scottish leader Willie Rennie and Welsh leader Kirsty Williams.

Rennie and Williams, in a joint statement, said: “Tim is a committed liberal, a brilliant communicator, an outstanding campaigner and an inspirational leader.”

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The Huffington Post described him as the darling of the grassroots and the New Statesman said it was difficult to see Liberal Democrats following anybody else.

But while being a popular, effective communicator is vital, being a truly effective political leader takes something more. Tony Blair and Margaret Thatcher succeeded by being able to take the fundamental beliefs of their parties and express them in a new way; reshape them and communicate them in a way appropriate to their times.

I believe Farron can do the same with liberalism.

To many of us in the party, he represents a very different strand of Liberal thought to the one which was most evident in the coalition; one that I feel has been both overlooked and underestimated during the rise of the Orange-bookers and economic liberalism.

Farron is a member of the Beveridge Group. A social liberal. It’s a strand of liberalism which does not reject the free market, but I would characterise as using that market to serve a purpose. Harnessing it to provide the wealth to pursue those ends which Beveridge saw as vital to improving the society in which he lived: state education, a welfare state, full employment, decent homes and the National Health Service.

Last summer, Farron was invited to give the Beveridge Memorial Lecture. In it, he set out his vision of how government should attack the evils which beset society today.

It was an inspiring speech, which outlined a view of Liberal Democracy which was not laissez-faire, right-centrist but instead focused on how we should tackle the issues of housing and poverty in modern Britain.

In that Beveridge Memorial lecture, there was one section whose prophetic quality now seems to reek with bitter irony.

He said: “There is no political market for a centre-right, laissez-faire liberal party amongst the British electorate, or for a party that sets itself up as the permanent see-saw coalition partner. To aim to be either would be to neuter our movement and invite electoral annihilation…”

If only we had listened to Tim Farron sooner.