Liberal Democrats matter more than for a generation, insists Tim Farron

Tim Farron

Tim Farron, the leader of the Liberal Democrats, has backtracked on claims that Labour MPs could defect to his party, but insisted that it now mattered more than in a generation.

As the Lib Dem conference opened in Bournemouth, Farron said he hoped to stake a claim on the centre ground of politics in the wake of Jeremy Corbyn’s election as Labour leader.

Asked about his conference pitch, after disastrous general election results that left the Lib Dems with just eight MPs, he said: “The message here is very clear: we have the biggest space in politics open to us for a generation. Britain desperately needs a party that is liberal, progressive and economically responsible. We will fill that space. I’ll be calling upon the Liberal Democrats here to steel themselves... Having had the result in May, against all the odds we matter more than we have done for perhaps a generation.”

In response to what appeared to be a suggestion in an interview last week that Labour MPs had been in touch with him to discuss joining his party, he conceded that actual defections were unlikely.

In his first conference appearance as leader, Farron attempted to rally the party’s activists, insisting that the surge in membership since the election is a sign of a fightback. The party’s membership has grown by 20,000 to 61,000 since the election, and a record 2,500 members are expected at the five-day conference.

“Britain is teeming with liberals. Some of them are not yet in the Liberal Democrats. Some of them are in other parties. But we are their home,” Farron said at the opening rally. “We once again see the prospect of a decade or more of Tory rule, and it fills us with dread. So we have no right to sit in a comfort zone: every family whose home is at risk because the Tories undermine the recovery that we built, every desperate refugee turned back at the port, every business facing ruin if we leave the EU – every one of them is depending on us.

“We are liberals. We correctly talk a lot about rights, but we have a duty. Our duty is to claim the mantle of the credible progressive alternative to the Tories.”

As part of their pitch to Labour voters, the Liberal Democrats will unveil a new policy at conference on Sunday of a start-up allowance for new business owners worth more than £2,500 over six months.

A Lib Dem source said: “At conference Tim will be showing how the Liberal Democrats are the only credible opposition. This policy is an unashamed land grab for those Labour voters who understand and care about Britain’s economic stability and who look at Corbyn’s offering and despair. It is a clear sign that we are on the side of those who are aspirational and want to build something for themselves.”

Powered by Guardian.co.ukThis article was written by Daniel Boffey Policy editor, for theguardian.com on Saturday 19th September 2015 21.48 Europe/Londonguardian.co.uk © Guardian News and Media Limited 2010