By Joe Banfield
It was a hot day in July 2015 when I first heard Tim Farron speak. The daisy-fresh, strawberry-blond Cumbrian MP in his middle forties was making his inaugural speech as Leader of the Liberal Democrats at the Islington Assembly Hall in North London.
Once you get over how adorable he is, with his endearing little ski-slope nose, his dark, searching eyes, raised eyebrows, and upturned mouth, you can focus on what he has to say. Tim may look like a fluffy stuffed smiling toy, but the humble-bumbling Northern charmer can soar with mellifluous oratory, too. He is an excellent speaker, inspiring confidence with ease.
As well as advocating co-operation, tolerance, and the power of the individual, Farron’s Lib Dems stand out in their support for refugees, a regulated cannabis market, transgender rights, and the vote for sixteen-year-olds. But it is on Europe that they are strongest.
Any democrat must pay due respect to last June’s vote. But to do so does not mean to ignore it, leaving the terms of exit, so fundamental to our future for generations to come, to be dictated without reference to the people. Perhaps that would be Theresa May’s ideal scenario. Brexit, with its endless sides and side-effects, has forced her to become an ultra-pragmatist. With nothing to unite them, every interested party must believe that they are getting what they want.
Jeremy Corbyn is great because he likes manhole covers and cycles everywhere instead of driving. But he is also uncharismatic, toxic, and divisive. He has principles, but lacks an appetite for the power he needs to realise them. Unlike May, he is not pragmatic enough. And according to The Independent his approval ratings are on 18% to her 55%. Oh dear. With a weak opposition, May sees an opportunity to silence one interested party and bring coherence to the complicated EU exit settlement. It’s just a shame that the interested party in this instance is the entire British population.
“We voted for departure, but not the destination,” says Tim Farron. He is correct. Last year’s vote did not come with a blueprint. Voting Conservative in this election is not just saying ‘get on with Brexit’ – it is saying ‘get on with Brexit however you want.’ Goodbye, single market.
If we give Theresa May the mandate she desires, we lose our say. The democratic stake in Brexit will be drowned out – in a colossal feat of irony – by the very ‘bureaucrats in Brussels’ against whom it was directed. I see voting for the Liberal Democrats in this election as a way of holding the government to account; showing Theresa May that the British people, Leavers and Remainers alike, are still an interested party, whose voice is to be heard and understood, not simply interpreted by her and a tiny elite. That is to say: if you believe in democracy, then believe in the Liberal Democrats.
Putting to one side the unfounded criticisms, I can see just three genuine objections to voting Liberal Democrat. First, they are a small party. Yet despite having been left with just 8 MPs in 2015, one (Sarah Olney) has already been added through a by-election win. The Lib Dems were by far the biggest winners at the 2016 local council elections, gaining 45 seats, and in subsequent council by-elections have gained more than all other parties combined. In many constituencies, they are close on the Tories’ heels. They have the power to win.
Then, as students, we are still singed by the tuition fee flame. But the party is under new leadership: Farron voted against the hike. And if the issue is with trusting a party leader to keep promises, just look at May’s record on whether she would call a snap election. When the stakes are as high as keeping a finger in the Brexit pie, I implore you to forgive.
Finally, there is this business of Farron’s personal views on homosexuality. He has confirmed in the House of Commons that he does not believe it is a sin. More importantly, whatever his personal interpretation of the Bible, he does not enforce it onto others, and it has not impacted his policy: on the second reading, he voted for the Equal Marriage Bill, and he has repeatedly restated his commitment to LGBT+ rights. Tolerance comes first.
So, what are the options this June? We could put our faith in a white-bearded, manhole cover-loving, allotment-keeping cyclist (do not do this). We could hand the terms of our EU exit firmly over to May, Johnson, Davis, Fox, & co., giving up our stake in its direction absolutely to the whims of the ultra-pragmatists – clearly, do not do this either. Or: we could forgive the Liberal Democrats. We could keep our democratic voice alive. We could put our faith in a daisy-fresh, strawberry-blond Cumbrian MP in his middle forties. Tim Farron, truly, is our only hope.
Photograph: Peter Sigrist via Flickr and Creative Commons