Tim Farron – 2017 Speech to Liberal Democrat Party Conference

Below is the text of the speech made by Tim Farron, the former leader of the Liberal Democrats, at the party’s conference in Bournemouth on 18 September 2017.

I was at Euston the other day and a lady came up to me, half my size but still somehow able to look down her nose at me.

She said ‘well, I’m not surprised you stepped down! Never trust a man who wears Doctor Marten shoes!’

If only we’d known. I’d have worn the boots instead, cherry red with yellow laces up to my knees. And that would be the only thing I’d change.

I’m not giving up, so this won’t be a giving up speech. And I’m not retiring, I mean I turned down celebrity Dancing on Ice! Because Lembit Opik is a friend. Not a blueprint.

Look, I’m not going to give you a long list of advice – I’m not Paddy.

Just one bit of advice really, it’s this:

If you have joined this party as a fast track to a career in politics, then your careers officer wants sacking.

This is not the place if you want an easy life. It is the place to be if you want to make a difference.

31 years ago I joined the Liberals.

Like the rest of you I chose the tough route in politics, I chose that tough route knowingly.

Any old mediocrity can join Labour or the Tories, hold office, be someone for a bit, but do exactly the same as any other careerist would have done.

But I also know you can only make a difference if you are brave enough to be different.

When I first got elected, getting lost on the parliamentary estate was pretty much a daily event. Its like going to big school for the first time. One night Greg Mulholland and I were trying to find our way out of parliament, and we got lost, its just possible that we might have had a pint.

Anyway, we wandered into the house of lords lobby by mistake and Greg whispered to me ‘I think we’re in the wrong place’ to which the policeman on the door responded ‘not in the wrong place sirs, just 30 years too early.

Which tells you something about how folks see the comfortable trajectory of the career politician.

Anyhow, about a week later I decided to join year 6 of Dean Gibson Primary School from Kendal on their tour around parliament. Everything I know about what’s where in parliament I got from that guided tour.

As the tour progressed we ended up again in the House of Lords lobby, and I got distracted by Geoffrey Howe moving rather slowly out of the chamber and into the lobby.

I don’t mind telling you, I was rather star struck, I mean he was chancellor of the exchequer when I was at school!

One of the kids saw who I was looking at, and she said ‘who is he?’ and I said ‘that’s Geoffrey Howe, he brought down Margaret Thatcher’ and she said, ‘who’s Margaret Thatcher?’

Which goes to show that, you know, there is some justice.

Margaret Thatcher love her or not, was a great leader, immensely significant, and, apparently… forgettable.

Those whose driving motivation is a glittering career, the fulfilment of personal ambition, are not only vain, their efforts are in vain.

Careerism is futile. But changing people’s lives isn’t. So winning elections isn’t.

These last two years, we have begun to win again.

And we have a great, new leader in Vince.

He is exactly what we need, just when we need it – and I still aim to encourage, inspire and support you as we seek to win, in councils and in parliaments, in your community, and across our country.

To me, the Tories aren’t the enemy, Labour aren’t the enemy, defeat is the enemy.

Because defeat robs us of the ability to make people’s lives better.

The Women’s Hour survey last week showed that the South Lakes is the best place in the north for women to live… and it was pretty clear why, because of housing, affordable housing.

And that’s down to us. Having built something like a thousand social rented properties, the liberal democrats have halved the housing waiting list.

It wasn’t rocket science: you have a vision, a plan to make people’s lives better, you inspire your volunteers you inspire the voters, you win, you change people’s lives.

I joined this party because I agreed with it. I stayed in this party because I fell in love with it. Because this is the party that is in no one’s pocket. This is the party that lets you think for yourself.

This is the party that treats people like people, not pawns in an ideological game. This is the party riddled with compassion, and we are terminally infected with optimism. And guided by rational thought, by a refreshing wisdom in the face of extremism and dogma.

Given that we are now led by the wisest person on the planet, it’s probably a good time for me to tell you that it is this party’s wisdom that I love the most. Wisdom is not always popular, but wisdom is what any country needs, especially this country and especially now.

You can win elections and win power by being crafty and clever. But you only do any good by being wise.

But choosing wisdom over populism can leave you pretty lonely. Just look at our record of being right, but standing alone. We spoke out about climate change decades before anyone else. And we were right.

We spoke out about the impending banking collapse before anyone else. And we were right.

We called for Britain to join Europe from the start. And we were right.

We opposed the illegal Iraq war. And we were right. We called for Britain to take our fair share of refugees. We were right. We are right.

And we said that leaving the EU is the biggest mistake we have made in a hundred years and that we should resist it. And we are right.

But I am fed of being right and getting beat.

And when I took on the leadership of this party, we had been beaten beyond our worst nightmares.

It had been an honour to see Nick Clegg and our team in government put liberalism into practice for 5 years in coalition, but in July 2015 the question was not whether we would return to government it was whether we would survive at all.

Our challenge wasn’t ‘trust’ or defending our record in government, it was far bigger and more basic than that.

Our challenge was basic relevance.

We simply didn’t matter.

And because of the disaster of 2015, I was the first and hopefully last lib dem leader to fight a general election when we weren’t even the third party.

90% of our MPs defeated, 50% of our councillors defeated, 50% of our members departed. Ejected as the 3rd party.
Dismissed as irrelevant.

The day I took over as leader one journalist predicted confidently that ‘the party that began with Gladstone will now end with Farron’.

So that was cheerful.

Well, not cheerful, but utterly motivating to me. I saw those assumptions that we were dead and buried and I resolved that we were going to survive and we were going to grow and we were going to matter and we were going to win again.

The Liberal movement that gave us the welfare state, the old age pension, freedom of religion, the health service, LGBT equality, council housing.

The Liberal movement of Gladstone, Lloyd George, Shirley Williams, Jo Grimond, Nancy Sear, Charles Kennedy – the movement I joined as a 16 year old, was not going to die on my watch.

And so 2 years ago, in this very hall, I set you a challenge and you rose to that challenge, you picked a ward and you won it, we had the first local election gains for our party in 8 years, we grew our membership, we took risks, we made ourselves matter.

We saved the Liberal Democrats and I am proud of every single one of you.

In the early hours of the 24th June 2016 I took our biggest risk. A considered risk.

You see, unlike David Cameron, I had made a plan as to what we would do if the EU referendum was lost.

It was a simple plan, and it was to stick to our principles.

It was to defiantly say that the Britain we love is a Britain that loves the world.

That the Britain we love is open, tolerant, united, it is not insular, suspicious and divided.

That to be a patriot is to do what is best for your country what is best for your children’s future.

I respect the majority, because I am a democrat.

But I resist Brexit and I want the people to have the chance to change and rescue their future, because I am a patriot.

June 24th 2016 was a long day, but it was a day we turned a corner, with a conviction and clarity that meant for the first time in ages we actually seemed to matter.

It was an especially long day if you worked in the Lib Dem membership department.

When I arrived at HQ that morning everyone’s eyes were fixed on a TV screen, not BBC, ITV, Sky, no, the screen that displays the party’s current membership figures.

That number was rising at the rate of a new member every single second, and it went on, and on and on and we grew and grew and grew.

We made a risky call that morning, but since then our membership has doubled to 100,000, the highest it has ever been in the history of our party.

We had the best run in council by-elections for more than a generation, we had Witney and then we had Richmond Park.

We experienced something we had hardly experienced for years: winning, and the joy and energy and momentum that comes from winning, which leads to more winning!

And for all the challenges of the June election, for the first time in four general elections, our party came back with an increase in MPs and our most diverse parliamentary party ever.

I said during the campaign that my motivation for fighting the madness of Brexit was that I wanted to look my children straight in the eye in the years to come and say that I did everything, everything to prevent this disaster.

And that is still my motivation.

It is not too late. The Britain we love can still be saved. Do not give up.

We will be mocked, we will be vilified, we will be snarled at as enemies of the people, remoaners, losers and it will feel easier to walk away, to keep your head down, to change the subject.

Believe me, since the referendum there were times when I was tempted to do that.

But I remembered Charles Kennedy.

I remembered Charles Kennedy stood in the Commons speaking wisdom and reason as Tories and Labour ganged up to take us into that illegal war in Iraq, I remember Charles being screamed at for being a traitor, and hounded for daring to stand up to Bush and Blair.

And I remember public opinion against us at first. I remember Charles determination to keep going all the same, he was right, he knew it and he wasn’t going to let it go.

And as the months went by and our cause was proven right and just, the mood changed and Britain agreed that Charles Kennedy was right.

We need to follow Charles example today.

We are right, we will be proven right, we must not give up.

But lets not fixate on the disaster that is Brexit, let us build the positive case for a Europe that is Britain’s home.

Back in 1977, at the height of the Cold War, Jimmy Carter sent a recorded message up into space on board the voyager spacecraft.

He said we are trying to survive our time so that we may live into yours.

Well, Voyager has now left the solar system and so far we have survived.

When he recorded those words the nuclear arms race was at its most terrifying. Six countries who are now members of the European Union had nuclear weapons on their soil, pointed at us. But today, instead of plotting one another’s annihilation we are friends who trade and share a destiny…or at least we did.

The European Union is flawed, imperfect, in need of reform…for sure… but in its sinews and veins, in its very existence, it remains beyond compare the world’s most successful peace process.

That is why I will not let it go, get over it, suck it up.

Patriots are never populists. Because patriots tell their country the truth, it is a treacherous act to tell lies to your country, Boris ….. or to be a coward, acquiescing while lies gain a foothold, Jeremy.

So we must tell the truth. Britain’s exit from the European Union will make, is making, my country poorer, my country less safe, my country less powerful… and it is damaging the future for our children.

Of course there is one promise that Brexit will fulfil. It will reduce immigration, without changing a single law. Because if you turn Britain into a poorer, meaner, insular place, no one in their right mind will choose to come here.

So the Tories are breaking Britain to repel the immigrants. And they do it with Labour’s shameful connivance. What a disgrace!

You want to know why we need Liberals?

That is why we need Liberals.

You can be a Corbyn or a May and change your mind on Europe to suit the weather.

Too afraid of the people to ever deserve to lead them.

Leadership requires courage…not cowardice.

We stand between two parties led by cowards.

We stand between two parties leading Britain to disaster.

And people know it.

They vote for one because they’re terrified of the other.

We must give people hope to vote for not fear to vote against.

Britain deserves something better. Liberal Democrats are that something better.

Theresa May. With whom in the early 1990s I once shared a ballot paper, and a hairstyle, Rick Astley’s hairstyle to be precise. We wore it well.

Let me say this about Theresa May. When she and I fought North West Durham in 1992, she did actually turn up to the debates!

It didn’t do her any good mind, not that it did me any good either – But today she embodies perfectly the bankruptcy of the Tory party.

People act surprised that her manifesto was a vacuous disaster.

Why the surprise?

Why would the Tories bother with a serious manifesto – the only conviction they have is that people like them should run the country.

Holding office is more important than wielding power. Policies are mere details, why would you bother with those?

Theresa May, is still in number 10 because the Tories think that however dreadful she is, everyone else is worse.

And you can see their point.

You see, once upon a time, Michel Barnier would have croissants and coffee for breakfast, now he has David Davis.

Every flipping day.

Its embarrassing because my kids future depends on this circus, in which our representatives are the clowns and the rest of Europe is the audience, not sure whether to laugh at us, shout at us, or increasingly to just to walk away and spend their time on something less boring.

Because this is what this Conservative government is really doing.

Its making Britain weaker, smaller and less important.

Its making Britain smaller overseas, and its making Britain smaller at home.

Diminishing our schools as this summer, most head teachers had to lay off staff because of budget cuts.

Letting our NHS shrink, demoralising clinicians, betraying patients.

Pushing those who were just about managing into poverty and family crisis.

After the dementia tax disaster, going from a bad plan to no plan for the future of social care.

Turning its back on affordable and social housing.

Cutting rail investment.

Downgrading the green energy revolution that Nick and Ed delivered in government.

Brexit was never just about being out of Europe, it was always part of a wider plan: to shrink the state, cut the green crap, small government, weak citizens, everyone for themselves, a small Britain, a weak.

Britain, a mean Britain.

But that is not our Britain.

And this menace to our future is multiplied because the official opposition is a joke.

The party of Atlee, Gaitskell, Wilson, Callaghan, Blair and Brown… is now run by the kind of people who used to try to sell me newspapers outside my students union. A party which now has more in common with Class War than they do with the Fabian Society.

But Labour’s election result in June was better than expected.

Labour MPs won who had expected to lose. And so we have the born again Corbynistas.

Those who fought to get rid of him then, but who are happy to support him now.

I say this to the majority in Labour who are social democrats.

You may have saved your seats, but you have lost your party.

I’d argue that Labour’s most effective leader was actually Neil Kinnock. Blair would never have won without him.

Kinnock took a party in the grip of the extreme left, and he transformed it -he made it a social democratic party not a hard left socialist party.

Hard left socialism is an assault on our economy, an assault on our internationalism, an assault on our liberty. If you are social democrat in labour today, you know that.

and if you’re breathing a sigh of relief that you held on in June, you need to have a good long look at yourself.

You do not belong now to the party that you joined. You know that Labours leadership would keep us apart from Europe, trash our economy and lead us to the worst austerity in living memory.

And you know that the people who would suffer the most wouldn’t be the rich it would be the poorest.

It would be those who most rely on strong public services, health, social care, schools, welfare, pensions.

Those who would suffer from extreme socialism would be the many and not the few.

But for the thousands of labour members across the country who know this, its too late to do a Kinnock now.

You have lost your party for at least a generation.

Your party has left you, so its time for you to leave it.

Because it is now clear if there is to be a realignment of progressive forces then it can only be around this party.

Liberal Democrats, we should embrace that role, seize this moment, lead that movement.

So our job is to do good, not to attempt to leave vain personal legacies.

Careerism is futile. But there is nothing wrong with ambition, so long as your ambition is to do the right thing.

For me, I joined the party at 16, I’ve been a student activist, union President, councillor, parliamentary candidate in a winnable seat…that I lost, and then won, so then an MP, shadow cabinet, party president, party leader.

I guess if I had personal ambition, then I’ve done everything I realistically could have done.

So now is the time to do what I love to do.

And with a bit more time on my hands, I have done a bit more running, seen a lot more of my kids… and I co-authored a book with JK Rowling.

Well, sort of.. we both wrote chapters in the RAM album book which came out a fortnight ago.

She wrote about the Violent Femmes and I, as you know, wrote about NWA’s straight outta Compton having now established myself as the party’s leading authority on gansta rap.

Which is a niche position.

As, some would say, is our position on Brexit.

Indeed despite all the challenges we have faced it is true to say that we’ve 99 problems but the niche ain’t one.

But doing what I love, means being here.

I love being a campaigning MP, and I love being part of the lib dem family I have belonged to for 31 years.

So if its alright with you, then I’m here for at least the next 31 years too. Which would put me in my 70s… which is of course the perfect age to run to be party leader.

We’ve got a brilliant leader in Vince. A uniquely impressive leadership team in Vince and Jo. I’m very very proud to fight under their banner. Just as you have fought under mine, and for which I am so grateful.

And so I want to focus my final words on the most important people in our party. You.

This week, you are here, giving up your time and money.

All year, your work in your communities, fighting elections, running the local party, building our campaigning infrastructure on the ground is what really saved this party.

Half of you joined in the last 2 years, but you are the movement that forces this party through its dark times and which has now filled it with its greatest ever purpose and mission.

You make sacrifices for our cause, you are selfless in your commitment, you are all that stood between this party and oblivion and I salute you all.

And now I rejoin your ranks, proud to march alongside you.

Because activist I was since the day I joined, activist I was as leader, activist I remain until the day I die.

On the desperate plight of refugees,; on the dishonesty and calamity of Brexit; on the tragedy of homelessness; the horror of climate change; the chaos in care.

You are the people who will not walk on by, because you cannot walk on by.

That is why you are different and that is why I love you

And that is why our ambition matters.

Britain needs the Liberal Democrats, sanity in economics, compassion for all, a plan for the long term, an exit from Brexit… what’s not to like?

And there’s no one else in our market.

Of course celebrate our survival, but if we love our country then our ambition cannot now just be to survive, it must be to grab this moment, take that space and fill it with all that we have.

When I needed you, you were always there.

But your country needs you now.

It needs you to win, it needs you to grow, it needs you to get behind our outstanding leader and it needs you to believe that you belong to the only movement that can rescue our country and the generations to come from the disaster it now faces.

That is the ambition we all share, that is the ambition that burns within when personal ambition fades, that is the ambition that gives clarity to our mission, purpose to our campaigns, a reason to fight.

We have made our party matter, now we must make our party win.