Tim Farron’s speech to the Lib Dem conference seems to have gone down well with those in the hall, which probably means that it did the trick, given this was his first conference as leader and the party’s first conference since its defeat. But given Farron wants to rebuild his party by appealing to those who no longer feel that Labour is their home, or those who worry that the Tories are going a bit further than they’d like, his speech wasn’t quite as effective as it could have been.
Sure, he delivered it well - particularly when he was talking about housing and the refugee crisis, where he became passionate and angry and quite thunderous for a cheeky chappie who liked to talk a lot about his band - but some of the words that he delivered were rather poorly chosen.
Towards the end, Farron started to talk about the sort of person who should join the Liberal Democrats. He posed the question ‘what makes a liberal?’ which he then repeated in an email following up his speech which was entitled ‘are you a liberal in your heart?’. And this was his answer:
‘A liberal is someone who looks for the best in people, not the worst. We believe everyone is of equal value and that people always achieve more together than they do when they are at each other’s throats.’
Later, he added:
‘If you reject the politics of blame and separation. If you say Britain is best when Britain is together.
‘If you say Britain is best when it is outward looking, modern and inclusive. Then guess what. You’re a liberal. Embrace that diagnosis. It is an utterly decent and British condition.’
Farron is indeed talking about an utterly decent and British condition. It’s called being utterly decent and British, not being liberal. This isn’t a definition of being a liberal any more than it is a definition of a libertarian, a Conservative, a Labourite, a socialist or (whisper it) a Blairite. It is the definition of being a nice person.
The Lib Dem leader may not have been to the conferences of other parties, but he seems to be labouring under the impression that at the Labour conference, they say:
‘A Labourite is someone who feels profoundly misanthropic and dismisses all apparent acts of altruism as ultimately selfish. They believe some people aren’t worth very much and that it’s best to have a jolly good scrap at every opportunity.’
Or perhaps Farron believes that at the Tory conference David Cameron will say:
‘If you love blaming people and shattering relationships. If you say Britain is best when Britain is splitting up. Then guess what. You’re a Tory!’
Farron is basically suggesting that if you’re a nice person who likes nice things to happen then you’re a liberal. Is that really the best definition he can come up with? Doesn’t he realise that Conservatives also have the same sense that they are good, decent moral people who believe that their party will do the best for Britain? Does he really think that people who vote Labour do so because they are so self-loathing that they think ‘yes, I hate people, therefore I vote Labour’? That’s the sort of thing that some thoughtless twit posting anonymously on social media sites claims, not someone who has thought enough of their own political party that they’ve stood for election as an MP and then as its leader. Or perhaps the sort of thing that schoolchildren fighting over who cares more about ponies would claim.
If we stick with the premise that most people consider themselves decent people, then why should those decent types choose the Lib Dems over the other political parties that also claim to be doing decent things? What makes a liberal? Tim Farron illustrated what liberalism might look like in action in his speech, but then failed to sum it up with words. The bit about ‘outward-looking, modern and inclusive’ was as close as he got - and other parties could make exactly the same claim.
He didn’t need to start talking in flowery academic language about the belief in a state that doesn’t circumscribe someone’s freedom to advance themselves, or to believe, or to come from or be in a minority group. But he did need to sum it up with something a little more specific than ‘someone who always looks for the best in people’. That’s a line you’d find in a eulogy for a beloved aged relative, not a pitch from a political party for more members and voters.
Perhaps this is because it is difficult for a party that combines economic liberalism and social liberalism - two strands of thinking whose subscribers sometimes regard one another with suspicion as to whether the other lot really do look for the best in people - to really define what makes a liberal. But the Lib Dems are in a lot more trouble than we previously thought if they can only sum up what makes them who they are by claiming that, like most people, they’d like to be nice.