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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Why the Liberal Democrats by-election surge is not all it seems

The Lib Dems chalked up impressive results in Stoke and Copeland. But just how much of a fight back is it?

By the now conventional post-Brexit logic, Stoke and Copeland ought to have been uniquely inhospitable for the Lib Dems. 

The party lost its deposit in both seats in 2015, and has no representation on either council. So too were the referendum odds stacked against it: in Stoke, the so-called Brexit capital of Britain, 70 per cent of voters backed Leave last June, as did 62 per cent in Copeland. And, as Stephen has written before, the Lib Dems’ mini-revival has so far been most pronounced in affluent, Conservative-leaning areas which swung for remain. 

So what explains the modest – but impressive – surges in their vote share in yesterday’s contests? In Stoke, where they finished fifth in 2015, the party won 9.8 per cent of the vote, up 5.7 percentage points. They also more than doubled their vote share in Copeland, where they beat Ukip for third with 7.3 per cent share of the vote.

The Brexit explanation is a tempting and not entirely invalid one. Each seat’s not insignificant pro-EU minority was more or less ignored by most of the national media, for whom the existence of remainers in what we’re now obliged to call “left-behind Britain” is often a nuance too far. With the Prime Minister Theresa May pushing for a hard Brexit and Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn waving it through, Lib Dem leader Tim Farron has made the pro-EU narrative his own. As was the case for Charles Kennedy in the Iraq War years, this confers upon the Lib Dems a status and platform they were denied as the junior partners in coalition. 

While their stance on Europe is slowly but surely helping the Lib Dems rebuild their pre-2015 demographic core - students, graduates and middle-class professionals employed in the public sector – last night’s results, particularly in Stoke, also give them reason for mild disappointment. 

In Stoke, campaign staffers privately predicted they might manage to beat Ukip for second or third place. The party ran a full campaign for the first time in several years, and canvassing returns suggested significant numbers of Labour voters, mainly public sector workers disenchanted with Corbyn’s stance on Europe, were set to vote Lib Dem. Nor were they intimidated by the Brexit factor: recent council by-elections in Sunderland and Rotheram, which both voted decisively to leave, saw the Lib Dems win seats for the first time on massive swings. 

So it could well be argued that their candidate, local cardiologist Zulfiqar Ali, ought to have done better. Staffordshire University’s campus, which Tim Farron visited as part of a voter registration drive, falls within the seat’s boundaries. Ali, unlike his Labour competitor Gareth Snell and Ukip leader Paul Nuttall, didn’t have his campaign derailed or disrupted by negative media attention. Unlike the Tory candidate Jack Brereton, he had the benefit of being older than 25. And, like 15 per cent of the electorate, he is of Kashmiri origin.  

In public and in private, Lib Dems say the fact that Stoke was a two-horse race between Labour and Ukip ultimately worked to their disadvantage. The prospect of Nuttall as their MP may well have been enough to convince a good number of the Labour waverers mentioned earlier to back Snell. 

With his party hovering at around 10 per cent in national polls, last night’s results give Farron cause for optimism – especially after their near-wipeout in 2015. But it’s easy to forget the bigger picture in all of this. The party have chalked up a string of impressive parliamentary by-election results – second in Witney, a spectacular win in Richmond Park, third in Sleaford and Copeland, and a strong fourth in Stoke. 

However, most of these results represent a reversion to, or indeed an underperformance compared to, the party’s pre-2015 norm. With the notable exception of Richmond’s Sarah Olney, who only joined the Lib Dems after the last general election, these candidates haven’t - or the Lib Dem vote - come from nowhere. Zulfiqar Ali previously sat on the council in Stoke and had fought the seat before, and Witney’s Liz Leffman and Sleaford’s Ross Pepper are both popular local councillors. And for all the excited commentary about Richmond, it was, of course, held by the Lib Dems for 13 years before Zac Goldsmith won it for the Tories in 2010. 

The EU referendum may have given the Lib Dems a new lease of life, but, as their #LibDemFightback trope suggests, they’re best understood as a revanchist, and not insurgent, force. Much has been said about Brexit realigning our politics, but, for now at least, the party’s new normal is looking quite a lot like the old one.