Me and the Lib Dems and Tim Farron

As you may remember, I left the Liberal Democrats (of which I was a founding member back in 1988) a few years back. I was angry about the so-called welfare reforms, started by Labour and continued by the Conservatives, which the Lib Dems in government colluded with, in some cases with unseemly glee. Any notion of a war on poverty and disability seems to have been transformed into a war on the poor and disabled, and the families of the disabled; and not enough of the Lib Dems were audible on the right side of the debate for me to continue feeling comfortable. I am fortunate enough to live in a country with a real welfare state. I pay huge amounts of tax, and I get every euro-cent of it back one way or the other. But people here retain confidence in the system as a back-stop for everyone.

I was angry also that two significant constitutional reforms, electoral reform and reforming the House of Lords, were comprehensively botched. The AV referendum was a stupid idea for anyone who actually wanted change in the system. On the House of Lords I recognise that I'm an outlier anyway, in that I'd prefer to abolish it than make it an elected body, but the actual plan proposed was massively silly and would actually have increased the percentage of bishops among members. It was right that it failed and wrong to propose it.

I remain angry about both of those sets of issues, and the party deserved the kicking it got in retribution from voters. There was no alternative to coalition with the Conservatives – Labour had neither the necessary numbers nor any serious intention of making it work – and the party was right to do it but wrong in the way that it was done. The rot set in early, with the debacle over university tuition fees (which in fairness was more a question of presentation, but a catastrophic failure in that regard), and it was never stopped. I do not say this with any joy. I feel sorry particularly for the ten MEPs who lost their seats (or in a couple of cases stood down pre-emptively) in last year's election. I know almost all of them personally, and they were tremendous contributors to the European Parliament, for the party, for the UK and Europe. They paid the price for other people's decisions.

It would be better for the UK if there was a stronger voice for liberalism which actually believes in the sorts of things I believe in, and doesn't screw up when in government. The two lasting public policy changes forced on the coalition by the Lib Dems, equal marriage and (more wonkishly) fixed-term parliaments, are very good things; and the Lib dems did stand up against the loopy anti-immigration policies of both Conservatives and Labour. My feeling was that if the Lib Dems stopped colluding with government policies I find disgusting and started sounding a bit more effective, I might give them another try.

In anticipation of this, I kicked in £20 to a party fund-raising appeal during the election campaign. The premise was rather silly; it was to enter a draw for a dinner with John Cleese. It was also fairly early in the campaign, so of course meant that having paid once, I got further despairing appeals for funds as the campaign went on. I'm in political communications myself, so I smiled and then ignored them. Rather to my dismay, one thickish envelope arrived by snail-mail, labelling itself a membership pack. I hadn't rejoined; I'd just made a small donation. So I binned it.

When the exit poll was handed to me in the TV studio in Belfast at twenty to ten on election night, my first reaction was that 10 seats might be an over-statement and we could well see the Lib Dems level-pegging with the DUP. Fortunately for me, I said so on camera, so my reputation for predictive power is maintained. Unfortunately for the party and (on reflection) for the UK, I was right. As the Lib Dem seats tumbled in all directions, I watched with some anxiety for the fate of one old friend in particular.

In roughly 1988-1991, which a brief spasm again in the mid-1990s, I was active in student politics with the Lib Dems, and became briefly a large fish in that rather small pool. Way back then, Tim Farron, who is three years, a month and a day younger than me, was already someone to watch. We were both involved in a certain number of political battles which seemed awfully important at the time but whose details have mercifully faded from memory. What I do recall is that when Tim and I differed politically, he usually won; and on reflection, that was usually because he was right and I was wrong.

Watching from afar, I had supported his candidacy for President of the party, and appreciated that he was on occasion prepared to vote against the government, notably on tuition fees at the beginning, and continued to keep up the pressure, including on immigration. Some complained that he had not taken responsibility by accepting a government position; frankly that doesn't look to me like a stupid move at all, in the light of the performance of the party in government. When it became clear that the choice of new leader would be between Tim and another candidate who had held office in the coalition government, and who had emerged since I moved away from the UK in 1997, I resolved privately that I would rejoin the party if and when Tim got elected.

Well, the decision has been partly thrust into my hands. Because the party has chosen to treat my £20 as a membership renewal rather than a one-off donation, a membership ballot arrived the other day. And although I feel it's frankly sneaky of the party to count me among its (supposedly burgeoning) numbers before I had really decided on that for myself, I will fill in the form and send it back for Tim. Whether I renew again next year depends on what he does with the leadership once he gets it, as it seems likely that he will. Good luck to him.

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