by Jonathan Todd
Commenting on Tim Farron’s Liberal Democrats on BBC Daily Politics on Monday, Kelvin MacKenzie claimed, “it’s like that line about the Pope. How many divisions has he got?” He meant, “he doesn’t have enough MPs to matter”. But if MacKenzie reflected on the origin of the quotation, he might come to a different conclusion.
While Stalin asked this question of the Pope in 1935, the Catholic Church remains and the Soviet Union does not. If all that mattered were divisions, this would not be so. Ideas matter too. Ultimately, more than divisions. The ideas of the Soviet Union weren’t strong enough for their divisions to sustain it.
During this Liberal Democrat conference week, the question ought to be: Do they have compelling enough ideas to avoid the Soviet Union’s fate?
It’s easy to mock their dearth of divisions – even MacKenzie can do it. It’s harder, yet more important, to assess the force of the ideas that sustain them.
The idea that Farron is selling is “social justice and economic credibility”. Listen to him on TV and radio this week, he keeps coming back to this very New Labour couplet. He’ll do so again – and probably again – in today’s speech.
It ill behoves me to comment on Farron without acknowledging the crushing defeat that he inflicted on me as Labour’s candidate in Westmorland and Lonsdale in 2010. I was road kill on Farron’s ruthlessly efficient transformation of a safe Conservative seat into that now very rare thing, a Liberal Democrat citadel.
“The trouble with Michael is that he had to buy all his furniture”. Michael Jopling may be best remembered on the national political scene for being reported in the Alan Clark diaries as saying this about Michael Heseltine. In Westmorland, he is better remembered for consistently riding on the back of truck at the County Show and making sure that everyone knew he was there. Vehicle aided, this could be quickly accomplished, a good lunch doubtless earned. His successor, Tim Collins, is said to have later spent more time at the show but lingered uncomfortably throughout in the shadows of the Tory tent. Accustomed to Jopling’s routine, voters enquired, “where is our MP?”
They’ve never had cause to ask this of Farron since he defeated Collins in 2005, a campaign in which Collins maintained all shadow ministerial commitments across the country, confident that Westmorland would remain blue. Tireless pavement politics put Farron into parliament and allowed him to spectacularly grow his majority five years later.