Comparing their first Liberal Democrat conference speech as leader shows up an important difference of approach between Vince Cable and Tim Farron.
Tim Farron’s autumn 2015 speech was the emotional crowd pleaser:
It was a classic Tim Farron speech, which I do not mean completely as a compliment given his speech making very rarely involved saying anything that anyone in the audience would disagree with. That was a point perceptively highlighted by Jonathan Calder back in 2011 was he (Tim, not Jonathan) was rising to the position of ‘next leader’:
My impression of Tim is that he is very good at saying things people agree with. So in Cumbria he is against second homes and in favour of farming subsidies and Kendal mint cake.
And he is just as good at convincing party audiences that he is on their side too…
Now that Tim Farron is being spoken of as a possible party leader, he needs to risk the odd unpopular speech. Someone in that class cannot always be telling people what they want to hear.
As I added at the time:
There’s certainly a role for funny and uplifting speeches, but I always think it is a real shame if all someone giving speeches ever says are things everyone would have thought before hearing any of their speeches – especially if the speech giver is as gifted an orator as Tim. Simply telling people what they already thought is a waste of the opportunity given to you when you have a room or hall full of people looking your way and listening.
Providing people with new information or new perspectives is one way of taking that opportunity, but so too is telling people things they didn’t agree with at the start of your speech.
Certain as leader Farron went on to often make comments on Europe and on refugees, in particular, which those outside the party hated. But even on those issues, the desire not to say what an audience would not like tempted him into describing himself as a bit of a Eurosceptic in the middle of an election campaign based on the party’s pro-European position.
All the more so for speeches aimed primarily at Lib Dems. They were almost always (save for his forthright and effective intervention to help see through the introduction of all-women shortlists) unchallenging to the internal party audience. He told us what we liked to hear rather than challenged us to think harder: comfort food for the liberal soul – brilliantly cooked, but not challenging the party very much to think different or think better.
His answer to the party’s predicament was, essentially energy, enthusiasm and motivation. In many ways that was the right fit for his time as President and nor was it a bad fit for the immediate aftermath of 2015. And it went with getting the big call – what to say the weekend after the European referendum – right.
Where it showed its limitations was over, for example the vexed question of whether the party should defend its record in Coalition or try to move on from it. Clear lines on tough choices like that were not the staple of his speeches.
Which brings us to Vince Cable’s debut this week in Bournemouth. Not delivered with quite the same verbal panache as Tim Farron’s speeches, this was, however, in a way an advantage as it sort to paint a different, more serious, picture of leader and party.
It also gave a hint of some more challenging times to come. The references to improving the party’s record on diversity; to returning to work out what the party does on tuition fees; to casting the party’s post-18 education policy net wider, incorporating support for those who go for further education or further learning much later in life rather than just university students; to talking about taxing wealth more heavily – all these are references which when worked out into substantive detail are likely to provoke much more debate and policy arguments than any of Tim Farron’s policy initiatives.
If Tim Farron’s answer to the party’s predicament in 2015 was to inspire us to get back up and working, Vince Cable’s answer to the party’s 2017 predicament is to set some tough political problems to crack. Different times, different solutions.
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