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Snap British election gives Farron and Lib Dems a genuine chance to unite anti-Brexit voters

Tim Farron has a once-in-a-generation opportunity to forge a new broad-based liberal, moderate and pro-Europe party across the United Kingdom. (Daniel Hambury / Stella Pictures)

In calling a snap election for June 8, British prime minister Theresa May has done exactly what former Labour prime minister Gordon Brown didn’t do a decade ago — taking initiative to win a personal mandate and extend her party’s majority for up to five more years.

With Labour’s likely support tomorrow, May is set to win a two-thirds majority to hold an election, in spite of the Fixed-term Parliaments Act that would otherwise set the next general election for 2020 — long after the two-year negotiations triggered last month by Article 50 to leave the European Union are set to end. May and the Conservatives now hope that voters will give her an emphatic endorsement for her approach to Brexit — and a much wider majority than the 17-seat margin the Conservatives currently enjoy in the House of Commons. Though some commentators believe a wide Tory victory would make a ‘hard Brexit’ more likely, a lot of sharp commentators believe that it could give May the cushion she needs to implement a much less radical ‘soft Brexit.’

In any event, it’s not unreasonable for May to seek a snap election while EU officials pull together their negotiating positions for later this summer — since the last vote in 2015, the country’s experienced the Brexit earthquake and a change in leadership among all three national parties.

It will also come as the Tories are riding high in the polls by a margin of around 20% against Labour, now in its second year of Jeremy Corbyn’s hard-left leadership. If the election were held today, every indication points to a historic defeat for Labour. It’s not only the polls, which are dismal enough. Corbyn has made so many enemies among the parliamentary Labour Party that many MPs will not stand for reelection (including former home secretary Alan Johnson, one of the few genuinely popular figures around who represent ‘New Labour’).

Corbyn’s electoral record, too, is weak. When Jamie Reed, a Corbyn critic and an MP since 2005, resigned, Conservative Trudy Harrison captured his Copeland constituency by a 5% margin against the Labour candidate in a February 23 by-election. Not only was it the first gain for a governing party in a by-election since 1982, it was a seat in Labour’s once-reliable northern heartland, held without interruption since 1935.

Without a major change (and it’s hard to see anything that could swing voters on Corbyn at this point), Labour is doomed. The next 51 days will likely bring iteration after iteration of Corbyn’s political obituary, with a crescendo of the infighting within Labour that has characterized his leadership.

It will be ugly.

Labour, with 229 seats, is already near the disastrous levels of its post-war low of 1983 (just 27.6% and 209 seats), and there’s reason to believe Corbyn could still sink further. No one would laugh at the suggestion Labour might lose another 100 seats in June. For Corbyn’s opponents within Labour, the only silver lining to a snap election is that a decisive defeat could end Corbyn’s leadership now (not in 2020), giving Labour an opportunity to rebuild under a more talented and inclusive leader.

Moreover, in the wake of a call for a second referendum on independence for Scotland (which would presumably seek to rejoin the European Union), Scottish first minister Nicola Sturgeon could well improve the Scottish Nationalist Party (SNP) position — the party now holds 54 of 57 seats in Scotland with the unionist opposition divided among the three national parties.

So where does this leave anti-Brexit voters who are uncomfortable casting a vote for May’s Tories?

The Liberal Democrats. Continue reading Snap British election gives Farron and Lib Dems a genuine chance to unite anti-Brexit voters

Corbyn suffers massive parliamentary revolt as Labour unravels

Jeremy Corbyn faces an insurrection from his own MPs in Westminster, though it's not clear they can win a fresh leadership vote. (Getty)
Jeremy Corbyn faces an insurrection from his own MPs in Westminster, though it’s not clear they can win a fresh leadership vote. (Getty)

A few months ago, I argued that Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn had a tailor-made opportunity with the EU membership referendum. United Kingdom Flag Icon

Given that working-class Labour voters would be likely to determine the result, Corbyn could have shown that he has what it takes on the most crucial national referendum in decades. Most importantly, for a nervous set of Labour MPs warily eyeing a general election in 2020 or even sooner, it would show that Corbyn could actually win votes.

 Corbyn, who fought a lonely fight in the 1970s and 1980s against Margaret Thatcher, then increasingly against his own party’s moderate ‘third way’ leadership in the 1990s and 2000s, was uniquely placed to win back those voters in northern England, many of whom supported Nigel Farage’s United Kingdom Independence Party (UKIP) in the 2015 general election. Of course, they are the voters who also voted so overwhelmingly to leave the European Union. Sadly, Corbyn had the kind of credibility that could have brought more working-class voters in Labour’s traditional northern heartlands to the Remain camp.

As it turns out, Labour supporters backed Remain by the considerable margin of 69% to 31%. But that 31% that supported Leave could have made the difference between failure and victory.

Today, as over 80% of the Labour Party’s MPs have delivered a vote of no confidence in Corbyn, and as Corbyn now faces — at minimum — a humiliating new leadership challenge, it’s clear that his lackluster performance in the ‘Brexit’ referendum has energized his opponents and caused even longtime supporters to reassess his ability or willingness to make the case to voters.
Continue reading Corbyn suffers massive parliamentary revolt as Labour unravels

Farron wins poisoned chalice of LibDem leadership

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If the contest between the two contenders to succeed Nick Clegg as leader of the Liberal Democrats seemed particularly grim, it’s probably because most of the ‘big beasts’ lost their constituencies in last May’s wipeout.United Kingdom Flag Icon

Vincent Cable, former business secretary; Danny Alexander, the former chief secretary to the treasury; Simon Hughes, a former civil liberties minister and former deputy party leader — all lost their constituencies in an election that saw the LibDem caucus shrink from 56 to just eight.

So there’s not an incredible groundswell of excitement for Tim Farron, who was announced today as the party’s new leader — The Telegraph ran a comprehensive profile today in anticipation of Farron’s widely expected victory.

In a nutshell, Farron is the most openly pious major party leader in recent memory — somewhat unique in a country where Alistair Campbell, a media adviser to former prime minister Tony Blair (himself something of a believer) once famously said, ‘We don’t do God.’ Farron’s Christianity has made him somewhat hesitant on LGBT rights, including on the landmark 2013 vote to enact marriage equality, and he’s somewhat anti-abortion as well.

Otherwise, Farron ran as a candidate far closer to Labour than to the Conservative Party, and it seems clear that Farron wants to pull the Liberal Democrats back to their comfort zone of the 1990s and mid-2000s as a leftist alternative to the Tories.

Since 2005, he’s represented the Westmorland and Lonsdale constituency in Cumbia, England’s northwestern corner. Though he narrowly won the party presidency in 2011, Farron has no ministerial experience and he has a history of bucking the party’s leadership — most notably opposing Clegg’s now-notorious turn on student fees. The December 2010 vote split the party — 28 MPs supported the measure, which tripled tuition fees. Clegg’s decision maintained the unity of the Tory-LibDem coalition, but it disillusioned many of the party’s supporters. Clegg had campaigned vigorously in 2010 on the promise that he would oppose fee hikes, and the issue is widely cited as a primary cause for the LibDem wipeout in the 2015 election.

Farron’s opponent, Norman Lamb, was viewed as the more moderate candidate with close ties to Clegg. Twelve years older than Farron, Lamb has been an MP from Norfolk since 2001, and he served as minister of state for care and support from 2012 to 2015. Though Clegg never formally endorsed him, Lamb won the support of two additional former leaders — Menzies Campbell and Paddy Ashdown.

If history serves as any guide, Farron’s task will largely be a thankless one that leaves him, at best, in a rebuilding role. At worst, he may be destined to become the party’s analogue to William Hague or the Michael Foot.

After the Labour Party’s defeat in the 1979 election, it took 18 years and three leaders before the party returned to power.

When the Conservatives, likewise, suffered a cataclysmic defeat in the 1997 election, it spent 13 years in the wilderness, shuffling through three leaders before it eventually landed on David Cameron.

Four candidates are currently vying for the Labour Party leadership — voting will be open to party members between August 14 and September 10, with the leader to be announced at a September 12 conference.

Charles Kennedy has died at age 55

charles kennedy

It’s a stunning thing to wake up to the news that Charles Kennedy, the former leader of the Liberal Democrats, has died at the relatively young age of 55.United Kingdom Flag Iconscotland

The Inverness-born Kennedy represented Ross, Skye and Lochaber since 1997, and who represented a similar constituency in northern Scotland from 1983, until the general election just over three weeks ago. The Scottish National Party (SNP) swept away all but three of Scotland’s constituencies, including Kennedy’s, a shock result that had more to do with the dynamics of Scottish nationalism in the post-referendum era, not Kennedy, who remained widely popular. His death will deprive the Liberal Democrats of someone who could have helped the party rebuild its presence in Scotland.

As LibDem leader between 1999 and 2006, Kennedy served as a key transition between the beloved Paddy Ashdown and Nick Clegg, the latter who led the party on an economically liberal turn in the 2010 elections and ultimately brought the Liberal Democrats into government.

In May, however, the Liberal Democrats were wiped out — in England and Scotland alike — after widespread disappointment among their voters. The Liberal Democratic caucus reduced from 57 members of parliament to just eight.

Notwithstanding the Cleggmania of 2010, the high-water mark for the party was actually the 2005 election, when Kennedy’s Liberal Democrats won 62 seats.

As leader, Kennedy was one of the few opposition voices to prime minister Tony Blair’s decision to join the United States in its invasion of Iraq. Despite grumblings from some Labour MPs, including the late former foreign minister Robin Cook, Blair’s decision to join the Iraq invasion won at least begrudging support from his own party and quiet acquiescence from the Conservative Party.

It’s no exaggeration to say that, while the Tories fumbled in the electoral wilderness, shifting leaders from William Hague to Iain Duncan Smith to Michael Howard in the mid-2000s, Kennedy was often the de facto leader of the opposition, and he was certainly the undisputed leader of the anti-war movement in 2003 and beyond.

It’s true that Kennedy’s leadership ended when it became clear that he had a problem with alcohol. That he admitted it, sought treatment and remained a beloved elder statesman within the Liberal Democratic camp speaks to his strength — even Blair, in his memoirs, spoke of the pressure that drove him to problem drinking at Number 10.

Notwithstanding former Scottish first minister Alex Salmond’s comments, now being widely derided, suggesting Kennedy might have been a closet nationalist, the universal response across the country today is praise for a charismatic leader who took principled stands.

The party holds a leadership election on July 16, with the more leftist Tim Farron generally leading his opponent, the more centrist Norman Lamb. That the winner of the contest will try to restore the party’s fortunes without the talents of Charlie Kennedy, however, amounts to a tragic setback.