So, Tim Farron MP is to be the next president of the Liberal Democrats. In a ballot of party members, he defeated ex-MP and London mayoral candidate Susan Kramer by a smaller margin than some expected.
Their merits and personal constituencies left the two candidates fairly evenly matched: parliamentarian vs. non-parliamentarian, rising male star vs. woman and safe pair of hands, career politician vs. graduate of professional life. There were few policy differences between them. Both candidates were somewhat vague as to how they would go about leading or changing the party organisation -- but the job itself is somewhat ill-defined.
No, this election was really about the party, its independence and self-esteem. Six months into the coalition, who could be relied upon to protect the party’s values and its integrity; who would stand up for its distinctive identity?
In one of Tim Farron’s first campaign e-mails he promised to be:
a strong, persuasive and distinctive voice.
Ministers can present the coalition’s arguments. I will present a Liberal Democrat view. I’ll explain what we stand for and what we are achieving in power. I'll spell out what is wrong with Tory policies.
Susan Kramer promised to be
a strong champion for grassroots members.
In her election address she promised to:
work to keep our distinctive Liberal Democrat voice, and will champion Liberal Democrat achievements at every level.
She also pledged to:
work to keep our party strong, unified, distinctive and true to its core beliefs.
It sounds as if the two candidates offered the same thing. Not quite. In an interview with Liberal Democrat News (29 October 2010), both Farron and Kramer were asked how much party members should feel free to express dissent in the coalition. Their answers were instructive. Here’s Kramer’s well-modulated reply, promising better internal communications:
Party members always have freedom of dissent. We don’t take instruction from our leaders. I would never want to see that change. It’s what makes our party stronger. However, our party must be in constant communication with our members. For example, many members, although having qualms about joining a coalition, felt very much included in the decision to go ahead and although it would mean compromise, felt it was right both for the sake of the nation and because it would also implement policies for which we had been fighting for generations. So we have a very aware membership but I would never wish the membership to feel it took instruction from the leadership.
Farron gave a simple illustration – a story - about how he would handle disagreement with the Conservatives, or coalition policies for that matter. He promised to speak out whenever he felt it was needed.
There’s nothing shameful about compromise [but] I think we got the compromise wrong on tuition fees. Liberal Democrats are entitled to fight for what they believe in. We know we didn’t win a majority but we must still feel proud to be Liberal Democrats. I think perhaps the most important part of my job is going to be raising party morale not just by going around eating chicken and tofu but by being the person you hear on the Today programme making you feel proud to be a Liberal Democrat. It may occasionally be spiky and adjunct but it isn’t dissent. It’s loyalty to the party.
Both candidates embodied their narratives. Tim Farron and his supporters constantly reminded us that he is an “activist”, a “campaigner” and “a communicator”. (Hvae you ever seen him barnstorming during the end-of-conference appeal?). Susan Kramer ran an online survey of party members, to find out their concerns, and held face-to-face conversations with members across the country. Her last campaign e-mail said :
I have already learned so much by listening to you and that will continue. I will use that knowledge you have shared to help the party grow and I will make sure you have the tools you need to campaign and build local success.
Everyone wants to be listened to. But Kramer came slightly unstuck because in politics, “listening” to people is a process, not an outcome. The Australian commentator, Don Watson, has even suggested that one of the consequences of the influence of management language in politics is that governments only want to claim that they're listening to people. He argues forcefully that a sense of authenticity has been lost, as a result of this kind of management speak.
By contrast, Tim Farron and his campaign team understood that you communicate in politics by telling stories that strike a chord with listeners’ emotions. In the Lib Dem presidential contest the emotional crux was party members’ anxieties about being smothered by the coalition and policies of which they disapprove. Above all, he recognised their need to keep feeling proud of being Liberal Democrats. You’ve got it. Tim the communicator will be on The Today Programme, Channel 4 News and in The Guardian and The Independent, setting the record straight and making party members feel OK. Such are the politics of belief. They have kept the liberal flame alive for generations now.
And Farron’s campaign made the most effective use of “heuristics” -- mental short cuts that enable people, especially low awareness voters to decipher issues and make choices. Susan Kramer had endorsements from Vince Cable, Chris Huhne and Jo Swinson. But Party members received a “vote for Tim” e-mail from Paddy Ashdown. (Paddy even compared Farron to the late David Penhaligon, a Liberal campaigning legend from the 1970s and 1980s.) And his election address carried endorsements, with photos, from Baroness Shirley Williams, former leader Sir Menzies Campbell and former chief executive and target seats guru Chris Rennard. Note that all of these have been, to some degree, sceptical about the coalition with the Conservatives.
Now, let’s see if Tim Farron can bring to the party’s communications the same intuitive storytelling skill that he brought to his presidential campaign.