It’s been just over a year since Tim Farron was elected the leader of the Liberal Democrats. It would be quite an understatement to say that he inherited a tricky position, being challenged to recover from a general election where his party was reduced to just 8 MPs and to rebuild a base hollowed out by several years of poor local election results.
It was always going to be an uphill battle for Farron. The loss of their place as Britain’s third party to the SNP in the Commons and UKIP in the popular vote made even getting into the media to be a struggle, a problem that was only compounded by his lack of name recognition compared to his predecessor Nick Clegg.
Farron’s leadership initially struggled to find it’s footing, trying to define itself first by housing policy and later through a compassionate stance on the refugee crisis. While these issues were undoubtedly important they did little to define the Lib Dems as the distinctive liberal voice that they seek to be in British politics. Championing the cause of drug reform, while laudable and an unquestionably liberal policy, also failed to capture the national attention.
The 2016 elections were very much a mixed bag for the Liberal Democrats. In Wales they hemorrhaged seat after seat due to a surge in support for UKIP while London too proved disappointing for Farron’s party. Results in Scotland were steady, the gain of two constituency seats from the SNP proving that the Lib Dems are by no means dead in Scotland. However, the most positive results came in the English local elections where they gained 45 seats, more than any other party, and secured control of Watford Borough Council by wiping out the Conservative group in it’s entirety. Throughout the coalition years the Liberal Democrats lost councillors, eroding the ‘pavement politics’ that once defined them. These losses were by no means reversed, but making gains marks an important first step for the party.
Farron unfortunately managed to get little airtime during the EU referendum, though he performed admirably during those precious few moments in the spotlight. However, in the aftermath of the referendum he has sought to define the Lib Dems as the party of Europe and represent the 48% of voters who backed remain. The strategy appears to have had paid off, with membership experiencing a surge since the referendum. Of course this strategy has it’s risks. While Lib Dem supporters did generally vote for Remain Farron has likely alienated the significant section that voted Leave. It remains to be seen how this will affect the party’s performance in areas where Brexit won significant support.
Gaining over 15,000 new members since the referendum is certainly impressive, as is a string of wins in council by-elections. Farron was seen as the man to rally the grassroots during the leadership election and he has definitely succeeded in that regard.
The rebuilding of the party will undoubtedly take time, but Farron is taking first few steps up towards that goal.