Can the Liberal Democrats be the student voice once again?

There is no denying it, the Liberal Democrats faced a crushing defeat at the last election. Losing forty nine parliamentary seats, £150,000 and almost all student support, the Liberals face a tough job if they are to bounce back.

As the dust settled on what Nick Clegg called a “cruel and punishing night”, their once noble leader resigned. And in came a flock of MPs rallying for leadership. Well, sort of – from the seven MPs who were allowed to run, only two threw their hat into the ring.

The news is not all bad though. Out of the battered and bruised party came Tim Farron, the bookies favourite to win the leadership race. He is hopeful of the fact that membership has grown faster than any other major party since the election defeat and believes that the party will recuperate.

I interviewed the man himself to see if the Liberal Democrats can reconnect with the student population once more, especially after the infamous actions of Nick Clegg.

The bitter issue for students was the tuition fees fiasco. Farron actually voted against the rise but said that “there was a limit to what we could do – we were the junior party in the coalition. But we should have argued for it harder in the coalition negotiations; and if we were unable to reach agreement, we should have simply agreed to have no coalition policy on it.”

Although, he maintains that the policy was still a good one, “We didn’t go along with the Browne Review’s recommendation of lifting the cap on fees entirely, we raised the threshold at which loans have to be repaid from £15,000 to £21,000, we ensured more money was spent on helping the most disadvantaged students get into university [and] we also protected funding for further education”.

“There was a limit to what we could do – we were the junior party in the coalition”

The Liberals were arguably right to support such changes. Now we are seeing more applications than ever, and a record number are from people with disadvantaged backgrounds. Now, only about one in four graduates are expected to have to repay the full amount. Despite palpable hostility, students seem to have benefitted from this.

Admittedly, however, it was the fact that Nick Clegg could not deliver on his manifesto pledge that ignited such apathy towards the party. But under new leadership, the morals and philosophy of the party can change. The fact that Tim voted against the rise in tuition fees speaks volumes in regards to how the party would have acted under his leadership.

But can students ever forgive the party for Clegg’s actions? Tim Farron is probably the best man to lift the party off its knees. His constituency agent, Paul Trollope, said that Farron’s “community politics approach has meant that [Westmorland] is the only seat in the country where the Liberal Democrats have an absolute majority”. Perhaps this community approach is what the Lib Dems desperately need to reconnect with the electorate.

Tim claims he will gain back student support if they “start from the bottom up, immerse themselves in their community, work hard, listen to what people have to say, offer hope and make a difference”.

“Tim Farron is probably the best man to lift the party off its knees”

His actions regarding gay marriage were, however, controversial. In May 2013 he voted against a bill relating to equal marriage. He countered this by saying that “I support same sex marriage and always have… the last time I looked at my voting record for SSM (Same Sex Marriage) I had a 90.4% in support”. But he admits that his voting record “could be better”.

If elected leader of the Liberal Democrats he aims to push further for LGBT rights by targeting trans issues and abolishing the ban on gay blood donations.

Farron says that “I think and hope that students can see their ideals – human rights around the world, the environment and fairness. As someone who worked in Higher Education before I became an MP I know how much this matters and I will continue to work for students”.

If Farron is elected as the leader of the Liberal Democrats, would you consider voting for the Liberal Democrats?
Comment below.

Alex Dooler

Image by Liberal Democrats via Flickr

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