It’s hard not to feel a pang of sympathy for Tim Farron and his eight few, his merry band of Lib Dem brothers (and sister) when it comes to both the 2015 and forthcoming general election. Two years ago, the fellows in yellow were decimated at the polls by an unforgiving general public, with not much more penetrating general conceptions of the Lib Dems than an ingrained belief that all they did in their time in government was lie about tuition fees. From 57 seats, a measly eight remained. Cleggmania had well and truly bitten the dust.
Fast-forward to today, and Tim Farron is leading a party still seeking to restore its reputation. Yet since 2015, much to the “luck” of the Liberal Democrats, the national political narrative seismically shifted with the Leave vote in the EU referendum. The party resolutely refused to look the gift-horse of a hard-line Brexiteering government in the mouth and the Lib Dem’s core message has become one of representation for those who voted Remain, and those fearing a crash out of Europe. The groundwork was being laid – they were the party pushing for a second referendum, and unlike the Labour Party, the Lib Dems had a party line of voting against the Government’s Article 50 Bill.
The agenda from the Lib Dems seemed clear: fight the small fights, and fight them on the ground – but fight them with the underlying message of globalist progression. Nowhere was this more evidently and expertly implemented than in the toppling of Zac Goldsmith in the Richmond Park by-election, where Sarah Olney overturned a 23,000 majority – a constituency prior to 2010 which had been a Lib Dem stronghold since its 1997 creation. Farron parachuted in well-informed party members from all over London in his trademark boots-on-the-ground and intensely locally-focused campaigning style, while outside of the M25 Lib Dems expertly continued to shape the wider national pro-EU narrative in which the by-election would take place, but now honed to a vastly Remain-voting constituency.
This strategic trend was set to continue with the local elections on 4 May. The Gorton by-election may have been a Manchester battle, but once more was a nationwide call to arms for London-dwelling members to help the northern candidate swing the Labour stronghold using the tactics Farron had specialised throughout his whole career – doorknocking, canvassing and by grassroots involvement and immersion. In council elections, the narrative was to speak to the community in hopes of winning a few wards – and slowly push a Lib Dem agenda through its image rebrand ahead of 2020, when hopefully through this gradual development, 2010’s hard lost seats and more could be won back.
But, hopes for a progressive perception shift through little victories and a chance to prove themselves as a dependable party worth taking a punt on were stunted in their tracks as Theresa May called a snap general election to be held in June.
Despite this forcing the Lib Dems’ planned years of strategic reform to be reduced to just weeks, Farron beat Jeremy Corbyn by hours to release a reaction statement to May’s election announcement. Even with a fraction of the time, though, Farron put across a cohesive plan of action and focused appeal for the votes of the general public – or rather, 48% of them. It was a uniting message and one of clear direction, appearing even more pertinently so as Corbyn’s plea to represent the working Brit seemed, as with much of Corbyn’s tenure, that he was fighting the wrong battle, pushing an electoral message more at home four decades ago than for a general election in 2017.
This tactic is certainly paying off at the grass roots level – the Lib Dems recorded their highest membership levels in two decades off the back of the election announcement. Farron’s clear rhetoric and representation is landing with those on the left who no longer feel able to align themselves with Labour under Corbyn, and simultaneously those on the liberal right who felt at home in the warm embrace of Cameron’s globalist direction of the Conservatives but now find themselves perturbed by the perception that Theresa May seems very at home with Brexit.
Of course, in the run-up to 8 June the charge of the #LibDemFightBack will be hard and the campaign has already thrown up some challenging questions for Tim Farron. Seats tightly lost to the Conservatives and Labour in 2015, and especially those with large Remain-voting electorates, seem particularly fruitful targets – and a wise way to spend minimal resources. Yet, no matter how much of a fight the party may put up, the war is undoubtedly too soon to capitalise on bubbling membership gains and to heartily expect a glorious swell of representative numbers in parliament. The pursued narrative of a pro-EU and globalist party would surely have held more weight in 2020 upon the result of Brexit negotiations. Nevertheless, what the Lib Dems have tapped into, in a way that Labour have failed to thus far, is how the political ontology has shifted in this so-called post-truth world. As left and right blur and instead the dialectic of globalism versus isolationism treads into the fore, no matter if the foretold Conservative majority comes to pass, we may be witnessing a party that understands what an opposition must now represent.
Main image from Liberal Democrats, Flickr