Corbyn through the looking glass

Tim Farron's speech to the Lib Dems tried to steal Corbyn's clothes, and his supporters

Today Tim Farron delivered his keynote speech to the Lib Dem conference, and in many ways he faced in Bournemouth the same challenge Nick Clegg and every other leader of Britain’s erstwhile third party has faced throughout its history: defining the Liberal Democrats.

Despite Farron’s pretensions to tack left of Clegg’s leadership, the themes were remarkably consistent with previous Lib Dem values – defending the green economy, standing up for human rights, campaigning for Britain to remain in the EU on a ‘no ifs, no buts’ basis – it all sounded fairly familiar.  And therein lies Farron’s trouble: nobody liked it last time round, so it’s not clear why they would plump for it next time.

Here Farron lay out his appeal: you may not know it, but you could well be a liberal, he declared.  His call for people to join the Liberal Democrats was at least in part aimed at those who felt their parties had left them, and he most certainly had moderate Labour people in mind.  From time to time Farron sounded very similar notes to Corbyn on issues such as poverty and affordable housing, but was clear about the areas where he differed, such as his equivocating over Europe.

But, like all other parties, the Lib Dems still have issues outside the mainstream that they like getting worked up about.  The greatest roars of enthusiasm came when he said we should be doing more for people fleeing Syria, and on maintaining Britain’s place in the EU.  This is representative of his greatest problem.  If polls are to be believed, the public by and large don’t want too many more Syrians, and their attitude on leaving the EU is hardening.  It could be that the Lib Dems are diverging from mainstream opinion at just the time they need to fight for the centre ground.  It’s by no means clear that Farron is starting from the bottom – there could still be some hard lessons to learn in elections next year.

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