Tim Farron’s speech to Liberal Democrat Autumn Conference
Speaking at Liberal Democrat Autumn Conference on Sunday, Liberal Democrat Party President, Tim Farron said:
So, well done – you all got past security clearance!
Incidentally I’m very grateful to the police, they’ve now provided me with all the detailed personal information on party members that I need in order to conduct a Stalinist purge.
Basically anyone who actually passed security clearance without sign of being a subversive will be erased.
Its been a busy six months since Sheffield.
And I’m going to start where I should.
At the bottom.
And Mays elections really were the bottom – at least they flipping well better had be!
Ok, we got 16% of the vote and had some real successes around the country, but let’s not fool ourselves.
In much of the country we got slaughtered.
In Scotland, in many of our great cities, in shire districts Liberal Democrats who have served their communities and worked their backsides off for years, got their backsides kicked.
I want to say this to you now, if you lost your seat, I stand with you; I am angry on your behalf; I take the responsibility and I absolutely will not insult you by claiming that this was collateral damage, or an understandable mid term blip.
Frankly, as your President, I owe you an apology.
Politics is full of clichés.
Perhaps the worst, is that bit where you’re on telly having to pretend everything’s gone swimmingly on a bad election night.
I had that job, and I have to confess that I didn’t stick to the script.
I didn’t pretend it was alright really.
Cos it wasn’t.
I saw the stats piling up, the Lib Dem minus figure getting bigger, you know, I knew these were not statistics, these people are my friends.
People who didn’t deserve to lose.
But who lost.
I’m not going to explain them away, shrug and accept their defeat as an inevitable consequence.
Defeat is never inevitable or acceptable.
But sometimes it happens.
I remember 2001 when we should have won Westmorland and Lonsdale and didn’t.
The campaigns department sent us a pager during the campaign – cutting edge!
They included us in the messages they sent to sitting MPs.
After the election, they carried on sending us messages – assuming that we’d got elected.
I went back to work at Lancaster University on the Monday after I lost, and I kept getting messages telling me about photo calls for new MPs, swearing in and making maiden speeches.
It was a sickener.
I was pleased for those who’d won, but I was gutted, depressed, I took the whole thing personally.
I’d worked my socks off for 3 years, I’d done everything I thought I could to win, but I still lost by 3,000.
And I have to confess that after 2001 there were a few months where I thought, why don’t I just jack it in?
Do a 9-5, dig the garden, get a season ticket at the Rovers, you know, torture myself in a different way.
Then I changed my mind.
There were two things that did it if I recall.
First, England beat Germany 5-1 in Munich; which has no political significance whatsoever, it just massively cheered me up!
A few days later my daughter Gracie was born.
If that doesn’t make you take stock, nothing will.
I thought back to what had first politicised me, and if you’ve heard this one before – well, tough!
I was 14 I saw Cathy come home, it completely broke my heart and my reaction was to do something, to join Shelter and then the Liberals.
Because if homelessness, poverty and inequality are wrong, then not doing something to stop them is equally wrong.
I’d joined this party to make a better a world, and now in the maternity ward in Kendal I had this little ginger thing, someone to make the world better for.
I had no flaming right to walk away.
So I got re-selected and spent 4 years doing everything Hilary Stephenson told me to, and a bit more.
Because you can’t change the world if you come second.
That’s why I am here rather than watching Rovers put 4 past Arsenal, despite only having 3 shots on goal.
Tell me if I’ve got this wrong, but I think that you want me as President to sell the undiluted Liberal Democrat standpoint.
Not to be an apologist for everything the coalition does.
Committed to the Liberal Democrats in coalition, but more importantly, committed to the Liberal Democrats.
There’s wonderful freedom in this role and I’m determined to use it!
Unlike ministerial platform speeches at conference this year, I don’t have to show mine to Oliver Letwin in advance!
I didn’t have to.
But I sent him a copy anyway just to wind him up.
But there are 18 Liberal Democrats who don’t have the luxuries that I do.
They can’t just sound off if they don’t like government policy or trot through the no lobby on occasions – rare occasions – to demonstrate their disagreement.
They are our ministers.
And while I’m parading my conscience around the TV studios saying the right things, they are busy in their departments doing the right things.
On those very, very rare occasions when Michael Gove says or does something stupid or wrong, Sarah Teather doesn’t come out and slag him off. Instead she fixes it.
Free schools for example!
When the Tories showed hesitancy about committing to true and fair banking reforms, Vince Cable laid on the pressure and forced that commitment.
And when George Osborne flew the kite of cutting income tax for the wealthy, Danny Alexander cut the string, and stopped him.
Incidentally, those 20 economists – nearly all of them top rate tax payers by the way – who called for scrapping the 50p tax rate.
They have many supporters in the Conservative party.
But they are utterly wrong.
Are we all in this together?
Well not if we give tax cuts to the rich!
At a time when 90% of the country is struggling to pay the rent or the mortgage,
giving a 10p tax cut to those who need it the least, would not just be economically witless, it would be morally repugnant.
Now of course, all income tax is temporary!
Income tax was introduced as a temporary measure in 1798 during the Napoleonic wars.
So my solemn promise to you is that we will get rid of this temporary measure, as soon as we stopping falling out with the French.
Danny, Vince, Nick and I are absolutely clear – the wealthy will continue to pay the largest share of the cost of our recovery so that we can protect the least well off.
The principle that the rich pay more does not come from a desire to penalise the wealthy, but from a desire to ensure that our recovery must be a fair recovery.
Be absolutely sure of this. Liberal Democrat ministers are the guarantors of fairness in a government that would be an absolute nightmare without them.
And not only this.
Your average Tory minister, bless them, works hard in their department and is rarely seen anywhere near their constituency.
Our ministers are full-on committed constituency MPs as well as being tasked with the small responsibility of running the country.
Their commitment to Liberal Democrat principles and policies is immense and their workrate is phenomenal.
That goes for all our ministers, but goes for Nick in spades.
This summer, Nick hasn’t stopped. His schedule racing around the country meeting members, supporters and one or two former supporters, has been staggering.
Thick skinned, warm hearted, quick witted, occasionally paint-splattered, a Liberal to his fingertips – he leads the Lib Dems, runs the country and runs rings around the Tories.
If you listen to Nadine Dorries, Conservative home and the Daily Mail, then Nick Clegg is leading the government; but when it comes to the NHS, the Bankers and fair taxation, Nick seems to be leading the opposition too!
Ed Miliband, are you still on holiday?
Who is taking the Blairite nonsense out of the NHS bill?
Who put the bankers back in their boxes over financial restructuring?
Who stood up against reactionary Tory drivel after the riots?
We are a radical Liberal Party putting radical liberal politics into action and blocking Tory policies every day.
For how many decades have we dreamed of being able to say that?
I have always been proud to be a Liberal Democrat, I was proud of us when we called it right on Kosovo, when we called it right on Iraq, when we called it right on deregulation of the banks.
But I have never been more proud of my party than I am now.
British public opinion is a bit more mixed.
I mean we’ve endured decades where the public were utterly indifferent to our existence, then for 5 minutes they loved us intensely, followed by a lengthier period where they’ve actively disliked us.
I had a girlfriend like that once.
But no one can say we don’t matter anymore, as Oscar Wilde said there’s only one thing worse than being talked about, and that’s not being talked about!
Look we had three political options after the 2010 elections: we had to choose between the rather unpleasant, the completely impossible or the utterly appalling; but we only had two economic options between the horrible and the catastrophic.
Now my politics were formed in the 1980s amidst mass unemployment in the north of England.
At times more than half of my class at school were on free school meals, most of us – me included – had parents out of work.
That experience scarred me, and it scarred me all the more because those levels of unemployment in the 80s were avoidable – that government deliberately used unemployment as an economic tool to control spending and the unions.
And we are tackling the deficit today, making horrible decisions to avoid the catastrophic alternative of market meltdown and mass unemployment or, as Ed Balls calls it ‘plan B’.
If the Tories created mass unemployment in the 80s out of wickedness, Labour would create mass unemployment today out of witlessness.
This summer, the silly season got serious didn’t it?
No one saw the riots coming.
With the possible exception of the Kaiser Chiefs.
And I reckon that was just a lucky guess!
The riots were an outrage against peaceful communities, a tragedy for civil society, an affront to our identity and an absolute gift for every knee-jerk reactionary in the country.
Some who shall remain nameless, but for illustrative purposes lets call them David Starkey, saw the fires of discontent and thought it wise to pour petrol on them by invoking racial stereotypes.
Now David Starkey is one of Kendal’s favourite sons, and I know that he is absolutely not a fascist, but I also know that he is absolutely an intelligent person and intelligent enough to know that it is culpably reckless to play into the hands of those who are fascists.
And there’s been a hypocrisy in so much of the media – including from the apparently shameless Murdoch press – focusing their ire on what they call a feral underclass with a contempt for society.
Just an observation here:
The super rich don’t need to go down Ealing high street nicking tellies in order to demonstrate their contempt for society. They demonstrate their contempt by not paying taxes.
And lets be honest, we are sharing power with a bunch of people who think that this is OK!
If you care about communities, then you are an opponent of all those who undermine them.
That includes the looters. That includes those who benefit from our society but who do not pay the taxes that they should, and that includes politicians and newspaper editors who provide them with cover.
Before the summer recess, I spent June and July away from Parliament too after my wife had an operation.
She’s fine by the way, she spent 2 months effectively confined to home, not able to walk or drive so I was granted compassionate leave by the whips – who, lets be honest, didn’t owe me any favours!
So I got to look after the kids out of school hours and be a constituency MP the rest of the time.
Rosie meanwhile read lots of crime thrillers, got hooked on online shopping, but absolutely refused to get sucked into daytime TV.
Interestingly enough some tickets arrived through the post the other day for a gentle discussion programme called the Jeremy Kyle show.
I assume its a bit like question time.
The title is ‘my husband forces me to deliver leaflets even when I’m on crutches’.
Which is intriguing.
I learnt a lot during that time away from Parliament: first, being a Mum is hard work; second being my wife is really hard work; and third, politics looks a heck of a lot different when you are not in the Westminster bubble.
You see I spent almost 2 months getting my news the same way everyone else does.
No briefings or nuanced explanations from ministers.
The Lib Dems achievements on the NHS bill, on reigning in the bankers on keeping profiteers out of our state schools – they either don’t get reported, or the Lib Demness of those successes is exquisitely camouflaged.
Think about it, we are the first government party in history that doesn’t have a single newspaper telling our side of the story.
But the fact that our excellent message wasn’t landing in the minds of the public
highlighted an obvious danger for all of us who hold elected office.
And this is the moment when I could offend just about all of you, but isn’t it so often the same old story, you’re a brilliant campaigner, you get elected, you get sucked into the council, you go to meetings, you spend lots of time with your very lovely and very bright officers, and you start listening to them intently even though they don’t actually care two hoots if you’re re-elected.
And your diary gets a bit too full to go out knocking on doors, so not only are you now listening to officials but you have stopped listening to normal people and so you forget what they sound like, what angers them, what impresses them, what they elected you to do in the first place so you make daft decisions and you get slaughtered in the local press and then you lose.
That can happen in Whitehall as well as the town hall!
It can be a slippery slope.
So what’s the answer?
I’ll tell you what:
A full blooded return to the principles and the practice of community politics.
And it needs to start now.
In many of the mets, with elections in thirds, the same seats that we lost this year, are up again next year.
There may be a sense of inevitability that if we lost this year, we’re bound to lose next year too.
Well I am absolutely not having that!
This conference must mark a renewal of the theory and practice of community politics – and a belligerent determination to make our own luck.
I don’t underestimate the task ahead, but we have been through far worse and come out smiling on the other side.
The Thorpe scandal, the merger debacle; you know, if our poll rating is currently 13%, I can tell you that that’s about 14 times better than it was in 1989.
You know, I reckon if either of the other parties saw their poll ratings dip into single figures, they would implode and cease to be.
They couldn’t hack it mentally or emotionally, and the vested interests that they serve would abandon them.
Not with us. We’ve got nerves of steel. Survival is what we do.
A bit like cockroaches after a nuclear war, just a bit less smelly, we are made of sterner stuff.
And we are not the vehicle of any vested interest.
We are the vehicle for a radical, green, tolerant, internationalist, progressive form of politics and if we did not exist then there’s hundreds of people here today who’d rush out and invent us!
Going into coalition was absolutely the right thing for the country, but costly for the party.
I’m in no doubt that being in coalition with the Tories has tainted us, our identity is blurred, many who support us are confused. They say: “We thought you were against the Tories, why are you shacked up with them now?”
The picture of the coalition being a marriage is a depressing one isn’t it?
It’s enough to put you off your tea!
If it’s a marriage, well its a good natured one, but I’m afraid its temporary.
We’re staying together for the sake of the kids, or the Special Advisors as we call them.
So look, I don’t want to upset you and its not going to happen for 3 or 4 years but I’m afraid divorce is inevitable.
So, as your president I took the liberty of seeking some legal advice about how we stand in the event of a divorce.
There’s good news and bad news. Good news: we might get half of Ashcroft’s money.
Bad news: we have to have Pickles at the weekends!
Well over the last few months, there’s been a new spikiness and effectiveness about the Liberal Democrats.
We fought against the bankers, we stood up against the witless kneejerk populism of the Tories after the riots, we’ve fought against tax cuts for the rich and we came out fighting on the NHS, and I’ll tell you what, we will continue the fight for our NHS.
And since then, we’ve started winning by-elections, including gaining a seat off Labour for the first time since the general election, our membership has risen, donations have increased and our poll ratings have shot up from absolutely diabolical to just slightly depressing.
Now there’s one thing I haven’t mentioned.
I was sort of thinking of leaving it out but that would be cowardly.
The AV referendum.
That went well didn’t it?
Electoral reform was within our grasp for the first time in our lifetimes, but was it for the last time?
Don’t even think it.
Two things I have got doggedly used to in the 25 years since I joined this party: one is losing, the other is never, ever flaming giving up!
We have a corrupt electoral system, it needs modernising and transforming.
We will democratise the House of Lords and we will bring in proportional representation for the upper house.
PR for parliament.
Unlike the NHS bill, it is in the coalition agreement, I don’t care how many Tories or Lib Dems don’t like it, it is not an optional part of the programme. It’s a red line.
It’s not a sexy doorstep issue, its not going in my focus leaflets, but it is vital if we are to ensure that our democracy emerges from the 19 century.
When we go to the polls in 2015, we must be electing a part of the upper house for the first time ever, by proper PR.
Not a miserable little compromise!
The AV referendum is salutary.
It reminds us what we are up against in general.
A Tory party owned and directed by the impossibly rich, a Labour party which may be led by a progressive but which is owned by the forces of conservatism and a media owned by a handful of powerful individuals with antidemocratic axes that they grind very effectively.
How do we compete against that? Isn’t it impossible?
David Penhaligon said “I only got elected because I was too naive to realise it was impossible”.
We must fight every day to ensure that we never become part of the establishment, but we should fight hard to prove that we are worthy of power.
David Penhaligon, Roy Jenkins, Jo Grimond and all the legions of others who brought us from the depths for such a time as this.
They’d have killed to see the day we were in government, and they’d have killed us for complaining about it.
There’s a true story about President Kennedy visiting a NASA warehouse used for storing fuel cylinders for the Apollo programme.
He met the janitor and asked him ‘what do you do?’ the janitor replied, ‘I’m putting a man on the Moon’. That is the spirit.
As Liberal Democrats, we are all in this together whether you are the Deputy Prime Minister or a Focus deliverer, or indeed both.
No one will sell our story if we don’t, no one will believe our message if we don’t, no one will fight our battles if we don’t.
We’ve spent years trying to qualify for the premier league of politics, now we are here – lets waste no time looking into the stands for reactions, let’s look at each other, look to each other, focus on the goal, tackle our opponents and stuff them.
Get on with it!