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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Keir Starmer: “I don’t think anybody should underestimate the risks of getting Brexit wrong”

The former director of public prosecutions is now heading up Labour’s response to Brexit. But can he succeed in holding the Tories’ feet to the fire?

Early in his new role as shadow Brexit secretary, Keir Starmer was accused of being a “second-rate lawyer”. The gibe, in a Commons debate, came from none other than Iain Duncan Smith. Starmer was director of public prosecutions for five years and later stood for parliament in 2015. No novice, then. Within a few days, Duncan Smith stood again in the House, this time to offer his apologies.

A fortnight later, I met Starmer at his quiet office in Westminster. He was sitting at a table piled with papers, in an office that, a discreet family photo aside, was unadorned. He had just got back from a whirlwind trip to Brussels, with many more such visits planned in the weeks ahead.

Starmer returned to the shadow cabinet after Jeremy Corbyn’s second leadership election victory last month. “The series of agreements we will have to reach in the next few years is probably the most important and complex we’ve had to reach since the Second World War,” he told me.

Starmer, who is 54, took his time entering politics. Born in 1962, he grew up in a Labour-supporting household in Surrey – his father was a toolmaker and his mother a nurse – and was named after Keir Hardie. After studying law at Leeds University, he practised as a human rights barrister and became a QC in 2002. In 2008, after varied legal work that included defending environmental campaigners in the McLibel case, he became the head of the Crown Prosecution Service for England and Wales as well as director of public prosecutions, positions he held until 2013.

When in 2015 Starmer ran for a seat in parliament to represent Holborn and St Pancras in London, it was assumed he would soon be putting his expertise to use in government. Instead, after Labour’s election defeat under Ed Miliband, he served as one of Corbyn’s junior shadow ministers, but resigned after the EU referendum in June.

Now, he is back on the opposition front bench and his forensic scrutiny of government policy is already unsettling the Conservatives. Philippe Sands, the law professor who worked with him on Croatia’s genocide lawsuit against Serbia, says he couldn’t think of anyone better to take on the Brexiteers in parliament. “It’s apparent that the government is rather scared of him,” Sands said. This is because Starmer is much more capable of teasing out the legal consequences of Brexit than the average Brexit-supporting Tory MP. Sands added: “It would be fun to watch if the stakes weren’t so very high.”

Starmer is a serious man and refused to be drawn on the character of his opponents. Instead, speaking slowly, as if weighing every word, he spelled out to me the damage they could cause. “The worst scenario is the government being unable to reach any meaningful agreement with the EU and [the UK] crashing out in March 2019 on no terms, with no transitional arrangement.” The result could be an economic downturn and job losses: “I don’t think anybody should underestimate the risks of getting this wrong.”

If Starmer seems pessimistic, it is because he believes time is short and progress has been slow. Since the referendum, disgruntled MPs have focused their attention on the final Brexit settlement. Yet if, as he argues, the starting position for our negotiations with the EU is wrong, the damage will have been done. MPs faced with a bad deal must either approve it or “risk the UK exiting the EU without a deal at all”.

It is this conviction that is driving his frantic schedule now. Starmer’s first month in the job is packed with meetings - with the representatives of the devolved nations, business leaders and his European counterparts.

He has also become a familiar face at the dispatch box. Having secured a commitment from David Davis, the minister for Brexit, that there will be transparent debate – “the words matter” – he is now demanding that plans to be published in January 2017 at the earliest, and that MPs will have a vote at this stage.

In his eyes, it will be hard for the Prime Minister, Theresa May, to resist, because devolved parliaments and the European parliament will almost certainly be having a say: “The idea there will be a vote in the devolved administrations but not in Westminster only needs to be stated to see it’s unacceptable.”

In Europe, Starmer said, the view is already that Britain is heading for the cliff edge. It was May’s pledge, that after Brexit the UK would not “return to the jurisdiction of the European Court of Justice”, which raised alarm. And among voters, there is “increasing anxiety” about the direction in which the UK is moving, he said. Even Tory voters are writing to him.

In the Labour Party, which is putting itself back together again after the summer’s failed coup, immigration remains the most vexed issue. Starmer told me that Labour had “earned a reputation for not listening” on the issue. Speaking on The Andrew Marr Show shortly after becoming shadow Brexit secretary, he said immigration was too high and ought to be reduced. But later that same day, Diane Abbott, a shadow cabinet colleague, contradicted him, publicly criticising immigration targets.

Starmer believes there is a bigger picture to consider when it comes to Britain’s Brexit negotiations. Take national security, where he warns that there are “significant risks” if communications break down between the UK and the EU. “Part of the negotiations must be ensuring we have the same level of co-operation on criminal justice, counterterrorism, data-sharing,” he said.

Crucially, in a Labour Party where many experienced politicians are backbench dissenters, he wants to reach out to MPs outside the shadow cabinet. “We have to work as Team Labour,” he stressed.

It’s a convincing rallying cry. But for some MPs, he represents more than that: a lone moderate in what can be seen as a far-left leadership cabal. Does he have any ambitions to lead Labour? “Having had two leadership elections in the space of 12 months, the last thing we need at the moment is discussion of the leadership of the Labour Party.” He has agreed to serve in the shadow cabinet, and is determined to stay there.

Starmer has found his purpose in opposition. “If we think things aren’t going right, we’ve got to call it out early and loudly. The worst situation is that we arrive at March 2019 with the wrong outcome. By then, it will be too late.”

Julia Rampen is the editor of The Staggers, The New Statesman's online rolling politics blog. She was previously deputy editor at Mirror Money Online and has worked as a financial journalist for several trade magazines. 

This article first appeared in the 27 October 2016 issue of the New Statesman, American Rage