Tim Farron: good speech, but wrong message

Sometimes the toughest speaking gigs for MPs is when they are talking to a friendly audience – but something interesting is happening behind them. So it was a few months ago with Julian Huppert talking to Putney Liberal Democrats. Very thoughtful speech, well received by the members and supporters present – but Julian had to struggle to avoid being upstaged by the cute, preening, attention-seeking cat paddling back and forth behind him.

When Tim Farron came to speak to Haringey Liberal Democrats last night, there was no cat to distract – but instead the minor drama of the stalwart member who had done the cooking finding herself trapped in the kitchen and having to get help to partially disassemble the door. But like Julian, Tim just about won out…

Which left me to ponder the question that’s been gently batting back and forth in blog posts and comments about Tim’s approach to speaking. As Caron Linsday pointed out before praising one of his speeches:

In recent weeks, both Liberal England‘s Jonathan Calder and Mark Pack have criticised Party President Tim Farron for doing too much crowd pleasing stuff and not enough side taking, not being willing to upset people by sticking his neck on the line.

To which I added an extra explanation:

Personally, I’d use the phrase “taking the lead on controversial issues in the party” to describe what I’d like to see Tim do more of.

He’s fab at the motivational stuff, but he’s also chair of the Federal Executive and therefore has a responsibility that covers a wide range of issues where there is debate in the party and decisions have to be made (even if by default in deciding to do nothing).

From what you say, it sounds like in Scotland he’s been doing some of that, which is good to hear.

Tim Farron’s speech to Haringey Liberal Democrats

So how did Tim Farron measure up? Did he challenge the audience by, for example, saying things I disagreed with?

Well, sort of. Tim did what he does well, very well. Positive and motivational but honest and frank. As one member said to me just afterwards, “He’s a great speaker, isn’t he?” Of course the fact that he drew my raffle ticket as one of the winning ones didn’t do any harm.

But he repeated a basic political message which I’ve heard in different forms from others such as Nick Clegg and Danny Alexander. And it’s flawed.

The message is basically this: look at the four policies on the front page of the 2010 Lib Dem manifesto and how they are now being implemented (along with many other Liberal Democrat policies). Then look at what the Conservatives said they would do if given an overall majority and look at the list of things they’ve had to drop. In other words – for a party with far fewer MPs than Labour or the Tories, the Liberal Democrats did a good job getting policies started or dropped in 2010. Then look to the future and admit it will be very tough sorting out the economy, financial system and deficit. Tim even went so far as to say, “The job for now is to stop the world getting worse”.

In this case, conventional wisdom is right

In itself each part of that is reasonable to say. But take a step back. That message is about talking up the past (look what we achieved in 2010) and taking down the future (it’ll be grim).

That turns conventional political messaging wisdom (talk down the past, talk up the future) on its head – and in this case conventional wisdom has it right and the party’s message is wrong.

So it was a good speech from Tim, doing that public facing part of being Party President well.

But there is a big challenge for not only Tim but the whole party to find the right positive message about the sort of fairer, liberal Britain which getting 75% of our manifesto will at least in part achieve. Party conference, though good about at what we are not and what we are against, failed to provide that positive message and it is still very much needed.

3 responses to “Tim Farron: good speech, but wrong message”

  1. Tim is a fantastic performer, and often takes advantage of the independent stance on issues affecting the party that his position as President affords him – hence his talk of 'divorce' and his tough rhetoric on NHS reforms at conference. However he appears as prone as many within the party to a common fallacy – that is, he fails to see that even implementing the Big Four manifesto/Coalition Agreement items in full (it's debatable whether we have) isn't enough in the eyes of many members and definitely not in the eyes of the public, when balanced against the massive economic crisis we face and other things we've had to swallow like tuition fees and the health bill.

    Put it another way. If we look backwards too much at the triumph that was the Coalition Agreement, and insist on this number (circa 75%) of manifesto commitments implemented, we risk going to the polls in 2015 arguing that were were brilliant at negotiating a coalition, which for the next 5 years was associated in the electorate's eyes with diving living standards and unfair public spending cuts. A bit like someone who clings to technicalities like possession statistics or 'shots-on-goal' whilst their team is getting beat, say 6-1… 🙁

    You're right Mark, there isn't nearly enough positive messaging about what we have to offer going forwards – and coming from the likes of Tim who I have enormous amounts of respect for, that's worrying…

  2. Good points, Mark. What frustrates me, as someone who, like you, regulary goes to help in the many London byelections, is that there is just not anything to give out on the doorsteps to people who ask why we went in with the Tories, or to people who raise the issues of tuition fees, is that we don't have anything to give them. Same as we don't have an A4 sheet to give out saying what we are achieving in Liberal Democrats in Government. Very frustrating. So who should be producing the material and why aren't they?

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