Exclusive: Tim Farron interview: "I really like Ed Miliband, I don't want to diss him"

The Liberal Democrat president lavishes praise on the Labour leader and says "I don’t want join in with the Tories who compare him to Kinnock."

Liberal Democrat president Tim Farron said of Ed Miliband: "I don’t want join in with the Tories who compare him to Kinnock."
Illustration: Nick Hayes

Nick Clegg and his allies have long regarded Tim Farron, the Liberal Democrats’ popular and ambitious president, with suspicion and they have even more reason to do so after my interview with him in tomorrow’s New Statesman.

Days before the Lib Dem conference opens in Glasgow, Farron lavishes praises on Ed Miliband in a clear signal that he has his eyes on a Labour-Lib Dem coalition after 2015. While critical of Miliband’s conduct over Syria (“He changed his mind half a dozen times in 48 hours”), he qualified his remarks by telling me:

I really like Ed Miliband, so I don’t want to diss him. I don’t want join in with the Tories who compare him to Kinnock.

He went on to praise Miliband as a model progressive:

First of all, he’s a polite and nice person. I think he is somebody who is genuinely of the Robin Cook wing of the Labour Party, from their perspective what you’d call the 'soft left'. Somebody who is not a Luddite on environmental issues, somebody who’s open minded about modernising our democracy, somebody who’s instinctively a bit more pluralistic than most Labour leaders and a bit more internationalist as well.

I waited for a "but", only for Farron to say:

And they’re other things too. For all that I think he could have done a lot more on the AV campaign, he did at least have the backbone to come out and back it.

He mischievously added:

He wouldn’t share a platform with Nick [Clegg], so he ended up with me, poor thing. I like the guy.

As Farron knows, should Miliband refuse to form a coalition with Clegg in 2015, he could well end up with him again. In a way that the Deputy PM never could, the Lib Dems president regards Miliband as an ideological co-spirit. While Clegg seeks to remake the party as an economically liberal outfit, instinctively closer to the Tories than Labour, Farron holds out the alternative of an unambiguously centre-left party, at one with Miliband on issues such as the 50p tax and tuition fees.

Farron’s comments set him at odds with Clegg allies such as Home Office minister Jeremy Browne (interviewed by Rafael this week), who described Labour as "intellectually lazy, running on empty" and suffering "from a leadership void". Rather than making eyes at Miliband, he praised David Cameron for identifying "the big issue of our time” in the form of “the global race".

On Michael Gove: "completely wrong" on school standards

By contrast, when Farron does mention a Conservative minister (Michael Gove) it is to bury, rather than praise him. He told me that the Education Secretary was "completely wrong if he thought that the way to deal with the age-old problem of the fact that Britain doesn’t always compete as well when it comes to educational outcomes as our European neighbours is to just berate the teaching profession, the chances are that it’s British political culture and class culture that are the reason why we’re behind other European countries and always have been."

50p tax rate: "we should have that in our manifesto"

Elsewhere, in another point of agreement with Miliband, Farron calls for the Lib Dems to pledge to restore the 50p tax rate. While David Laws has warned against tax policies that raise little revenue and are "just symbols", a view shared by Clegg, Farron turned this logic on its head.

"My personal view is that we should have that in our manifesto and while it raises an amount of money, it’s also a really important statement that we are all in it together."

Tuition Fees: "I’d like to see fees abolished"

In the case of tuition fees, he similarly argued that the party should not settle for the status quo. “I would personally like to see fees abolished and replaced with a graduate contribution system purely based on ability to pay.” The manifesto, he said, should call for “movement towards a more progressive system.”

While avoiding mentioning Clegg by name, he told me:

There’s a danger that some people in the party might think we should concede and maybe write bits of our manifesto on the basis of what we think other parties would accept, rather than the basis of what we want to achieve.

The fear among activists is that the party will produce a bland, centrist manifesto seemingly crafted with a second Conservative-Lib Dem coalition in mind. It was a concern echoed by Farron. "The most important thing from our perspective, and I’m a member of the manifesto group, is that we ensure that our manifesto is 100 per cent Liberal Democrat. You don’t pre-concede on things. So if we think the Tories wouldn’t accept putting the top rate of tax back up to 50p, but we want to, then we stick it in there and we negotiate from that point."

Syria: I would have voted against military action

Farron abstained on the government motion on Syria but told me that he would have opposed military action had there been a second vote.

"I made it very clear that if it was a call to intervene militarily, I would have voted against. If the vote had been won, and we’d been back here voting on action this week, I’d have been in the no lobby."

On Clegg’s attitude to left-wing voters: "you don’t write people off"

As party president and the standard bearer of the Lib Dem left, Farron has made it his mission to win back the millions of progressive-minded voters who have deserted the party since the last election. But while he would never describe any voter as lost, Clegg often appears to regard his party’s former supporters with something close to contempt. He remarked last year: "Frankly, there are a group of people who don't like any government in power and are always going to shout betrayal. We have lost them and they are not going to come back by 2015. Our job is not to look mournfully in the rear view mirror and hope that somehow we will claw them back. Some of them basically seem to regard Liberal Democrats in coalition as a mortal sin."

When I asked Farron whether he agreed, he bluntly replied: "the people who are most likely to vote for you next time are the people who voted for you last time...You don’t write people off, they’re there to be persuaded to come back, or rather stay with us."

Housing: we should build "vast numbers" of council houses

While the coalition's Help To Buy scheme is inflating housing demand, Farron will use his speech to the Liberal Democrat conference on Saturday to address the fundamental problem of supply.

He told me that the party should commit to building "vast numbers" of council houses, a minimum of "half a million", and that local authorities should also be allowed to develop "a new strand of income".

Farron explained: "that means not just building council houses but building more expensive houses as a way of developing income streams. Local authorities do incredibly good work in supporting people but not if they’ve got no money, they’ve got a reduced council tax base and reduced funding from central government. Being a councillor is a miserable experience these days as you’re having to cut, cut, cut just to stand still. Well, here’s a way of providing a genuine source of income, with councillors as developers, as investors in their own communities."

Tim Farron is speaking at a New Statesman fringe event ‘Endgames: the Lib Dems in the final phase of coalition’ in partnership with the Institute of Government on Monday 16th September at 6pm at the Liberal Democrat conference in Glasgow. He is also doing an 'in conversation' event in partnership with Santander on Tuesday 17th September at 6:15pm. 

George Eaton is political editor of the New Statesman.

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To beat the Trump hype, we need a return to old-fashioned political virtues

If we want to resist the Trumpification of politics, what we need is restraint, duty and incorruptibility.

After the 1992 US presidential election, Alistair Cooke’s celebrated BBC radio series Letter from America struck a poignant note. Cooke described Bill Clinton’s worn jeans and checked wool shirt, contrasting them with George H W Bush’s buttoned-up Wasp manners and buttoned-down Ivy League shirts. Clinton’s style, Cooke argued, was a rebuke to a tired social and political establishment. His casualness was the new America.

Cooke, then 83, was honest enough to admit unease about this departure from the old, patrician modes and manners. “Along with the passing of George Bush,” he said, “we shall see, I fear, the passing of the blue blazer.” Cooke seemed right at the time. But don’t write off the blue blazer just yet. As ruling elites change, so does the appropriate counterpoint. To topple Bush’s stuffy golf club elites, Clinton picked up his saxophone, took off his tie and felt everyone’s pain. And now? The subtext of these turbulent months (the inevitable second question, prompted by “How do you beat Donald Trump?”) is: “What should ­tomorrow’s leaders, the leaders we crave, look and sound like?”

My conjecture is that, to beat Trump and his type – bling, shiny suits, dodgy deals – we should push towards centre stage an underestimated set of political virtues: restraint, duty and incorruptibility. If it weren’t for the gender associations, I would be tempted to call this quality gentlemanliness. Aside from personal virtue – signally lacking in the Clinton camp – how might decency inform public debate as it comes under attack from maverick showmen trained in the media circus? How can the middle ground regain its confidence?

First, level with the public. Maybe liberalism hasn’t failed so much as its messaging has failed. Instead of smashing the electorate over the head with the idea that everything is just great, make the case that not everything can be for the best in all possible worlds. As populists reach for empty slogans, a new space has opened up. Accept and exploit those asymmetries: more people are ready to hear uncomfortable truths than politicians imagine.

Kingsley Amis once argued that a writer’s voice should stay close to his speaking voice: not the same, but close. Adapting that idea, if politicians stayed closer in public debate to the truths that they articulate in casual conversation – some things are impossible; almost every policy creates a losing as well as a winning side; there really isn’t any money – they would be surprised how many people are ready to hear that not all problems can be evaporated into thin air. Stray too far from awkward truths and elections become about simple lies v tricksy lies.

Second, centrists do more harm than good when they rush to categorise dissenting opinion as not only wrong, but unacceptable. “Any suggestion that liberal values are not humanly universal,” as John Gray wrote in a recent NS essay, “will provoke spasms of righteous indignation.” Instead, we need to be more tolerant in our tolerance.

Third, stop pretending that everything desirable can be shoehorned into the “progressive” agenda. “I really care passionately about persevering with the common-sense middle ground and doing it quite well” is a problematic political sales pitch, but not for the reasons that are usually given. The gravest difficulty may come at the beginning, with the faux passion, rather than with the substance – public service and competence – underneath.

It is revealing that those closest to David Cameron expended so much energy trying to persuade us that he was not an updated version of Harold Macmillan. That is why the gay marriage reforms, though admirable, were accorded too much significance. Ah, Cameron was a natural crusader! But he paid a price for dressing up as a “radical” when greater challenges arrived. It weakened some of his strongest cards – calmness, perspective, proportion – just as politics was coarsening. Aren’t Tories supposed to understand the virtues of yesterday? In other words, as an electoral strategy to beat Trump (or Nigel Farage), I’d put up a Macmillan type over a Clinton type every time.

Fourth, cut ties with “messaging experts”. It’s a fraud. They teach that everything must be asserted with powerful conviction. Yet ideas unworthy of powerful conviction are best left shorn of them. The electorate has endured a communications version of crying wolf. As a result of the messaging game, when something genuinely important crops up, it sounds simply like the same old shtick.

Fifth, ditch the bogus quantification. Few things signal untrustworthiness more reliably than fake precision. Something shifted in me when George Osborne argued that Brexit would leave households £4,300 worse off. What, no decimal point? Voters understand uncertainty better than politicians imagine. Precise quantification used to sound professional. Now it sounds suspicious.

Finally, think about tone. Conventional wisdom holds that the mainstream must fight the Trumpian revolution on its own terms: a simple solution, memorably expressed, a guiding vision for the country or the world. If anyone has a good one to hand, I’m all for it. But what if – after decades of ­sophisticated argument and counterargument, as politics has solved the easy problems while parking the difficult or insoluble ones – we have reached a state of such evolved equilibrium that no such easy answer can exist?

Pretending otherwise is no longer a point of difference. It takes you towards the lowest common denominator. As Trump has shown, that is well-occupied territory. Perhaps wooing the angry mob is not the solution. Instead, the admirable and successful politician of the future will have to win back the support of moderate, sensible but disillusioned voters. 

Ed Smith is a journalist and author, most recently of Luck. He is a former professional cricketer and played for both Middlesex and England.

This article first appeared in the 01 December 2016 issue of the New Statesman, Age of outrage