Tim Farron, the leader of the Liberal Democrats, is significantly to the left of his party. He was one of the few Lib Dems to vote against any rise in tuition fees and he also voted against the so called bedroom tax. Due to his firm stance on these, and other issues, Farron is seen by many as the political heir of the late Charles Kennedy. That said, this week Farron has espoused phrases such as ‘we are a moderate party’ and ‘we are economically credible’. Such language would be seen as alien to Kennedy but despite having very similar views the present political situation has forced Farron to emphasise how moderate and realistic the party is rather than how radical and left wing it is.
Charles Kennedy was leader of the Lib Dems from 1999 till 2006: for the majority of the time Tony Blair was Prime Minister. Although it is widely debated, Blair’s government was left wing on some issues but right wing and authoritarian on others. This left a lot of room for Kennedy to challenge Blair from the left. For example, in 2004, Kennedy was critical of the Blair government’s approach to crime saying it was ”piecemeal, knee-jerk, headline chasing, focusing on the symptoms – the criminals – at the expense of sound policies aimed at tackling the disease; crime itself.” Promoting views to the left of his party was not simply what Kennedy wanted to do but what was politically astute at the time as it enabled a greater differentiation from Labour.
The situation for Tim Farron is very different due to the election of Jeremy Corbyn as Labour Party leader. When Farron was elected Lib Dem leader a few months ago it was expected that either Yvette Cooper, Andy Burnham or even Chuka Ummuna would win the Labour leadership which would have given Farron room to show his radical left wing credentials and re-establish the Lib Dems as a party to the left of Labour; a position Nick Clegg moved away from. At the time Farron was elected leader of his party, Corbyn was at best 200/1 to win the Labour leadership and his left wing speech on the welfare reform bill further highlighted the direction Farron, given his ideal political circumstances, would want to take the Lib Dems. The election of Corbyn has forced the Lib Dems in a more centrist direction to attract austerity supporting Labour voters. Whereas left wing, socially liberal policy was what was needed for the Kennedy to differentiate from Blair to attract left wing voters, Farron has been forced to emphasise more moderate aspects of the Lib Dems to differentiate from the new socialist emphasis of the Labour party under Corbyn to attract more moderate voters.
Another reason Farron presents himself differently to Kennedy is party policy. For example, due to their time in coalition with the Conservative party, the Lib Dems have lost a lot of their left wing members and have gained large number of classical liberals in their place. As the party conference makes party policy in the Lib Dems, party policy has gradually taken a shift to the right in recent years. For example, in 2013, the party conference voted to support the coalition government’s economic policy and opposed increasing the higher rate of income tax from 45p to 50p. Although Farron himself is left wing, he is leading a party that is slightly to the right of where it was under Kennedy. Due to both party pressure and policy, Farron is pushed to promote more moderate aspects of the Lib Dems.
I await the next five years with anticipation. Politics has never been more interesting. As a former member of the Lib Dems I watch their development with much interest and am intrigued to see whether they can return to play a big part in British politics. If they do, it will probably be as a party of the centre; something hard to guess at the time Kennedy lead the party.