Tim Farron, Lib Dems and the Political Centre Ground

I was very disappointed to read about the response of Tim Farron, the new leader of the Liberal Democrats, to Jeremy Corbyn’s appointment as Labour leader:

The MP for Westmorland and Lonsdale argued that Corbyn’s victory would open “a massive space in the centre ground of British politics” […] Since Corbyn’s election, some party figures have suggested privately the Labour party is starting to encroach on territory that Farron had marked out for the Lib Dems, necessitating a change of direction.

This disappoints me for two reasons.

First, because as I noted before, I think the idea of the political centre is at best worthless and at worst meaningless. By aiming to be in the centre between the Conservatives and Labour, Farron is expressing an aspiration without ambition. It’s the Lib Dems’ appallingly uninspiring “Look Left, Look Right, Now Cross” election campaign all over again. As Andrew Hickey’s friend Jennie put it, “You can’t put a Rizla between the other two — let us be that Rizla!” Farron seems to be saying here that Labour’s move to the left is good news because it makes the rizla-thick Labour/Conservative divide wider, giving the Lib Dems somewhere to inhabit.

And the reason this is so disappointing to me is that we know the Lib Dems can be so much better than this — they are fully capable of standing for specific important things rather than merely positioning themselves relative to the two larger parties. Have they not learned that “We’re neither Labour nor Conservative” is not only inherently bankrupt but also electorally suicidal?


The second reason it’s disappointing is the implication (hopefully not true) that Farron sees UK politics as an arena for the Liberal Democrat Party to play in, rather than somewhere to get actual work done on actual issues. Labour has lurched in the direction of values very much shared by the Lib Dems: I would like to see the latter embrace this as an opportunity to work together with another party that shares many of the same goals. (Not all of the same goals, but that’s fine: for that matter, no two members of the same party agree on all goals.) Instead, Farron seems to be saying that Labour’s shift requires the Lib Dems to change their own policies away from what they were before, so as to distinguish themselves from Corbynite Labour.

So the idea that comes across here is that he is more interested in the success of a specific political party than he is in advancing and particular policy. And that is not what I want to see from a leader. I want to see, you know, leadership. As in, having specific goals and ideas and sticking to them. (I especially want that from someone who, only two months ago, said “I think centrism is pointless. It’s uninspiring. I’m not a centrist.”)

So come on, Tim. Let’s see some collaboration towards achieving your shared goals. You’re here to make a difference in people’s lives, not to attain a position of power.

10 responses to “Tim Farron, Lib Dems and the Political Centre Ground

  1. You last blogged that Labour moving left would be a good thing; so that people have more clearly defined choices. Ergo a centrist party would be another choice – and perhaps a better one than their traditional stance of just being a general protest party with no need to actually cost or compromise their position due to little prospect of power. Incidentally, plenty of left wing voting choices already exist – https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/List_of_political_parties_in_the_United_Kingdom – more than exist on the right by some considerable margin. They probably split a lot.

    You say you want leadership from a political leader – well political leadership is compromise, back room deals, listening to the country and exercising realpolitik as much as it is blindly sticking to your personal notion of principles and thus proving unelectable.

    Let’s say I buy your belief that increased redistribution is the key to a ‘fairer’ society. I won’t critique it – I’m just going to be fully on board. What I want from the leader of the party I think most able to enact that vision is constant compromise. I want him to chuck some of his principles out the window if it gets his party elected because then he might enact *some* of the things I want to happen. If he sticks the rigid course and utterly, predictably, fails to win over the electorate, then none of those policies will be enacted.

    If I’m actually happy that he fails to get elected whilst sticking to his gleaming principles then I’m seemingly placing my own desire to feel righteous over the millions of lives I profess to want to change for the better.

  2. Perhaps I didn’t explain myself well, Robin. The problem is that “the centre” between Labour and the Conservatives is a point half way along a line. Whereas the Lib Dems shouldn’t even be on that line. They should be off somewhere at right-angles articulating a distinctive vision, not looking for the compromise vote, the “not nasty enough to vote Tory, not brave enough to vote Labour” vote.

    What I want from the Lib Dems — and I may as well mention here that they are probably my favourite of the three mainstream parties — is a vision of their own. A vision that someone who has never heard of Labour or Tory could understand, and support (or indeed oppose) on its own terms. While the LDs keep defining themselves by what their bigger rivals do, and especially while they keep redefining themselves when those bigger rivals make a change, they will never be a credible alternative.

  3. BTW:

    Let’s say I buy your belief that increased redistribution is the key to a ‘fairer’ society. I won’t critique it – I’m just going to be fully on board. What I want from the leader of the party I think most able to enact that vision is constant compromise.

    I do hear you on this.

    But first I want to know what the party, and the leader, actually stand for. By all means then go on to make the compromises that are necessary to bring about the best part of that vision. But unless I know what vision you’re compromising in order to achieve, I’ve got nothing to go on.

  4. Interesting point, although I’m not sure where a party that refused to be on the classic line would stand. Smaller parties tend to be easier to pinpoint as left or right, mainly because they don’t tend to have the same number of detailed policies as one of the big two, or because their very name (Green, Marxist-Leninist, Socialist Workers Party, BNP etc) gives you a very strong idea of where they target their policy discussion, and hence their position.

    So if I was to give the SDP or third party an identity it would be for something quite different. One where the personal ideals of the leaders would be immaterial – it would be an evidence based party. With the EP, the new direction for the LibDems/SDP etc, every decision or policy is based on the current best evidence for outcomes, and is therefore changeable with new data. Other than paying for research the party I envisage wouldn’t really have a position on anything. The party wouldn’t care if you hate or support nuclear power – or if its leadership did. Its only policy would be to investigate energy policy as a whole and advocate the current best combined policy. Any government system that can be replaced with computer models would be. Every system would be expected to upgrade to better tech and better data whenever possible – similarly the effectiveness of this uber policy would itself be subject to analysis.

    I can’t be sure what the policies of a party run like that would be, or even if they would appeal to enough of the electorate to make a difference – but I suppose in one example homeopathy would vanish from the NHS, unless it was proven that the placebo effect was cost effective in certain patients, and that allowing anti-science positions in the NHS didn’t have educational knock-on effects. Some studies would be very long term, others would effect best-practice on a monthly basis. Anyway – I’m dreaming here – nobody is ever going to suggest a party that radical. And considering that humans are inevitably involved, I may just have invented the Bureaucracy Party.

  5. Are those flying fish eggs on top of pickled squash? I’m getting hungry.

  6. Actually, I think that might be slices of pickled daikon (“Japanese radish”, though it’s not a radish). But, yes, it makes me hungry to look at.

  7. Robin, I have long dreamed of starting exactly such a party. I would call it the British Rational Party, for obvious reasons. (I will never actually do it, which on the whole is probably a good thing.)

  8. Robin and g, I would vote for your party.

    BTW., on homeopathy: it is effective as a placebo; but no more so than much cheaper placebos. So the best thing might be to tell pateints who are keen on homeopathy that they’re being given homeopathic remedies, while actually giving them regular placebos.

  9. I’m reminded of an recent article on the mediocrity of Olive Garden: “This is food that dreamed of growing up and earning an associate’s degree. It hurts when your heroes don’t try.”
    It seems that a number of parties and politicians in the English speaking world have this problem. I was just in Australia during the recent surprise PM change and heard much the same complaint.

  10. Any government system that can be replaced with computer models would be. Every system would be expected to upgrade to better tech and better data whenever possible – similarly the effectiveness of this uber policy would itself be subject to analysis

    And then when the Ice Warriors invade your moonbase?

    What then?

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