Thursday, October 13, 2011

A memo to Liberal England on the subject of Mr Farron

Featured on Liberal Democrat Voice

In recent weeks, both Liberal England's Jonathan Calder and Mark Pack have criticised Party President Tim Farron for doing too much crowd pleasing stuff and not enough side taking, not being willing to upset people by sticking his neck on the line.

First of all, if there ever was a year when we needed Farron's gobby, barnstorming, feel-good stuff, always delivered with a good kick up the backside at some point in the proceedings, it's now. This year has been pretty crap all round and part of the President's job is to be there for us when things are bad. Tim's done that part of it all with a bit more sensitivity than I ever gave him credit for to be honest. I also appreciate the many times he's paid tribute to Andrew Reeves over the past few months. And his humour and method of delivery actually gives people ideas about how they can sell the coalition on the doorsteps. We actually do need to start doing that. We tried to divorce it from our Scottish Election campaign and look what happened to us. We need to be talking up the Liberal Democrat achievements in the coalition even if we feel that more should have been done.

But let's look at the charge sheet. I have to say that I do tend to agree with Jonathan that I would have liked to see Tim take a stronger line on the appalling accreditation system for the Birmingham conference. Having said that,  I do believe he was in there trying to sort things out behind the scenes.  I wonder what his appearance in the debate at Conference, on either side, would have done to the final result. Having said that, given the heatedness of the debate, it was a bit of a risk cracking jokes about it hours later. There aren't many who could have got away with that.

It's almost exactly a year since I decided to back Tim Farron for President. I said that we needed someone with a bit of stardust, a bit of edge to him. I had been, if not hostile, at best unconvinced by him up to that point. Having done phone canvassing on his patch during the Council elections, I knew how popular he was as a local MP and how hard he worked. But President?

Then he came up to our Scottish Conference last year and put a lot of effort into securing my vote. One of the deciding factors, though, was how he used the option given to both candidates, of making a speech anytime, on anything they wanted during the day.

Susan Kramer made a good speech, playing it safe, though. Farron, on the other hand, found the biggest, most controversial item on the agenda and waded right on in there. It was as a debate on an amendment tabled by the highly persuasive Sophie Bridger calling for a graduate contribution to replace our free university tuition policy.

This amendment was what everyone was talking about, and the outcome was by no means certain. Farron got up there and implored us to keep our free tuition policy. This was the week before the Browne Report was published, although we all had a pretty good idea what it was going to say. The amendment fell, but not before we'd had a really high quality debate. He made his case passionately, but without rancour and there was much more light than heat in the room, if you get my drift.

And then there was this year's conference last Saturday. Tim returned as President and gave us the zingy pep talk you expect from him.  He said some nice things about us - but then pretty much told us that we'd better get our arses out on the streets campaigning for the Council elections cos Willie Rennie deserved it.

That was in the morning. I was a bit surprised to see him still there at 5:30 pm, long after Conference should have closed. The reason for it over-running was, you guessed it, the most controversial item on the agenda - a  motion on diversity which would have extended the Leadership Programme to Scottish Parliament seats and instructed the Scottish Party to introduce a constitutional amendment introducing quotas for committees. I personally think it was a bit of a blunder by the proposers of the motion to put both of these in the same motion. I think that some people thought that the Leadership Programme was in the same vein as quotas, which of course it isn't - and that might have influenced their vote. Liberal Youth Scotland had proposed an amendment deleting all the bits about the Leadership Programme and the quotas, and adding in some practical stuff (which I may have had a wee hand in helping to draft) on selection committee and diversity training.

Again, Farron wades in with a speech in favour of the Leadership Programme, which did upset LYS a bit, mainly because he talked  about how, when he was their age he agreed with the sort of arguments they were making but, 20 years on with little progress had made him realise we needed to do more.

The Leadership Programme bit of the motion was eventually lost by 5 votes. The quotas were thrown out by considerably more. So, having seen him in action twice on controversial issues, I don't think our President can be accused of not being willing to take a stand.

Maybe he needs to do something south of the border. I actually wonder if he's the right guy to make things happen to tackle the sort of behaviour experienced by Ruth Bright. He'd ruffle some feathers in the process, but it's the right thing to do.

I said when I agreed to support him (for which I received a pile of telephone canvassing within minutes) that he'd better not let me down. He hasn't - and in fact if this was a Harry Potter exam he'd get an E for Exceeds Expectations as far as I'm concerned.

1 comment:

Mark Pack said...

Personally, I'd use the phrase "taking the lead on controversial issues in the party" to describe what I'd like to see Tim do more of.

He's fab at the motivational stuff, but he's also chair of the Federal Executive and therefore has a responsibility that covers a wide range of issues where there is debate in the party and decisions have to be made (even if by default in deciding to do nothing).

From what you say, it sounds like in Scotland he's been doing some of that, which is good to hear.

Community Politics also throws up several areas of controversy because if we're serious about it (and serious about it meaning something other than delivering lots of localised leaflets) - and Tim is serious about his rhetoric on it (which I think he is) - that means changing a fair number of things about the way the party operates.

Doing that with charm and a smile is a good approach - but it will also means getting into some controversial issues.


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