THE Liberal Democrats are ready to be part of coalitions despite their bruising experience of sharing power with the Conservatives which left them with just eight MPs after last year’s General Election, according to leader Tim Farron.
Mr Farron rejected the suggestion that the Lib Dems would be steering clear of power-sharing agreements after their mauling at the hands of the electorate last May.
I’m pretty certain they are the most ineffective official opposition in living memory and possibly ever.Tim Farron
He was speaking ahead of the Liberal Democrats’ spring conference in York, a city where the party began sharing power with the Conservatives last year just as the two parties’ Westminster coalition came to an end.
Mr Farron told The Yorkshire Post: “If you are wanting to be a member of parliament or a councillor you surely want power so you can make a difference, not at any price by the way, but if the electorate give you a set of arithmetic in the council chamber that means you need to work with another party you shouldn’t think you’re too good for that.
“It’s important you serve the local people as best you can and that will sometimes mean coming to an arrangement with another party or more than one party sometimes for the best of the community, that doesn’t mean you’re in a marriage.”
But Mr Farron isn’t looking ahead to what might happen in 2020 yet, acknowledging the party faces a “massive challenge” to get back to the days when it was running town halls across Yorkshire and vying for a share of power in Westminster.
The next test is May’s local elections and while stressing his view that they matter in their own right, the Lib Dem leader also acknowledged they will be a “measure of how things are going” on the party’s road to recovery.
“To my mind I’ve always been clear this will be a long job. I don’t expect, I’m not writing it off as a possibility, but I don’t expect an overnight recovery in our fortunes. I expect, like most things in life, you have to work for it and therefore it won’t happen overnight.These elections are important but they are not make or break,” he said.
The Lib Dems are hopeful of gains in areas such as Harrogate and Sheffield where, in an echo of their pre-Coalition days, they will position themselves as the only realistic challenger to the traditionally dominant party.
“There’s nothing worse for any community, a national or a local one, than having a party that takes you for granted, that’s in sole control of your area,” said Mr Farron.
“I think it is bad for Britain that the Conservatives appear to be so unassailable now, I think it’s certainly bad for Scotland that it’s effectively become a one party state up there, whether you agree with what people are doing or not. It’s certainly not good to have Conservatives in Harrogate or Labour in Sheffield, for example, just assuming they are going to be able to rule the roost for the foreseeable future.”
Labour’s shift to the Left under Jeremy Corbyn has been seen as an aide to the Lib Dems’ prospects by creating a pool of centre-ground voters looking for a home but Mr Farron insisted Labour’s current disarray was also bad for the country.
“I’m pretty certain they are the most ineffective official opposition in living memory and possibly ever. That makes me quite angry when you think of some of the things that are happening to the North, the promises made over the northern powerhouse which is a now complete northern power failure.
“You look at the tax on hard-working people on low wages, universal credit cuts coming in, you look at what’s happened with green energy, how far back the Conservative Government have taken us, it makes me almost as cross with Labour because the Conservatives are getting away with this because we have a Labour official opposition who are talking about themselves to themselves rather than addressing the problems of the country and holding the Government to account.”
The York conference will be Mr Farron’s opportunity to pitch his party’s alternative vision for the North of England to the ‘northern powerhouse’ offered by the Government.
“The fact is the North of England is the United Kingdom’s best untapped resource and a source of growth and expansion and economic success and the Government’s choices are for all to see,” Mr Farron said.
“I am prepared to be patient but I’m not prepared to be duped by a Government that have a badge of the northern powerhouse but in reality has achieved and is seeking to achieve very very little. The to-ing and fro-ing over some of the railway line upgrades distracts us from the real issue which is the complete lack of ambition in the first place.”
He added: “The key to a real northern powerhouse, the key to making the best use of what is Britain’s best untapped resource is to make the North matter in and of itself not just because of how quickly you can get to and from London and that’s critical. I think there’s not a single sign the Government intends to do anything of that sort.”