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.

Photo: Getty Images
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If Corbyn becomes leader, what's left for the Greens?

The forward march of the Greens, halted? A Corbyn leadership will be a new challenge for the Green party, says Rupert Read.

The seemingly unstoppable rise of Jeremy Corbyn toward the leadership of Labour is an exciting and heartening event for anyone who wants to see a fairer Britain and a more meaningful political debate. That means: it is heartening not just for Labour-supporters. Most of us in the Green Party are delighted by this turns of events, too.

This article addresses, in this context, how exactly Greens (or at least: this Green, your humble author) relate to the rise of Corbyn.

Politics is usually thought of as, in essence, a ‘right’ vs. ‘left’ affair. What does this mean? Basically, it means capital vs. labour.

There are however three big things wrong with this idea:

  1. Capital vs. labour, right vs. left, is, to be sure, an important political spectrum. On that spectrum, Greens nowadays tend to see ourselves as on the left. Corporations and the rich have gobbled up far too much wealth; the scales need a serious re-balancing. BUT: this spectrum is only one political spectrum. There are others that are also of great significance (Here’s a well-known one.) An additional, neglected political spectrum that I’d particularly like to draw your attention to is: centralisation vs. localisation. On that spectrum, we Greens tend to find ourselves no more sympathetic to the ‘left’ than to the ‘right’.
  2. There is an even more fundamental problem with boiling politics down into a struggle of capital vs. labour. It leaves out something more basic, on which both of these ‘factors of production’ depend: land. The Earth. Ecology. That is ultimately why the ideology of choice for the Green Party is not socialism, nor conservatism, nor liberalism. It is ecologism. Only when ecology is placed front and centre is there a politics fit for the 21st century, the century in which the prime question becomes how we will reconcile ourselves to the planetary limits that as a species we are breaching.
  3. The struggle between right and left is a struggle over how much of the spoils of economic growth should accrue to capital and how much to labour. Seen from the Left, it is (to be blunt) the effort of labour to get itself a larger chunk of what capitalists will accumulate and hoard for themselves if given half a chance. Karl Polanyi, in his great work The Great Transformation, shows however that we cannot understand our world adequately, letalone build a better one, if we allow labour thus to be commodified. The pursuit of a higher price for one’s labour concedes that labour is a commodity. But what Polanyi argued so brilliantly is that labour, money and land are all of them fictitious commodities. They are not real commodities: for real commodities respond to the laws of supply and demand. Real commodities are arguably not too horribly deformed by being treated as commodities. Land, labour and money by contrast are fundamentally not things suitable for such commodification: they are life itself. ‘They’ are us.

Let me expand on this 3rd point, by going briefly through the cases of land, labour and money in policy-terms, from a Green point of view:

  1. The Green Party favours the introduction of a Land-Value Tax (LVT). LVT is designed to realise the truth that land is not a genuine commodity. LVT would deal with the absurd ‘propertarian’ culture of contemporary Britain — and our dangerous levels of financial speculation in land — by returning to the public the escalation of land-value that is not brought about by any action of the owner of that land, but rather by other changes in society, often due to public investment (e.g. by the opening of a new tube station).
  2. The Green Party advocates a Citizens Income(CI). Now, provided that CI is set at a sufficiently-decent level so that the poorest do not lose out - and (contrary to misinformed media reports during the last general election campaign) the Green Party would ensure that this is so - this revolutionary policy-instrument points the way toward a less overworked ‘leisure society’. It abolishes wage-slavery, as well as the poverty- and unemployment- traps. It provides a permanent safety net for all, including the “precariat”. While Labour pins its hopes on the “Living Wage”, a labourist idea that continues to treat labour as a commodity (and simply seeks for it a better price), the visionary Green solution that is CI points toward a future in which we are treated by the state and indeed by employers more as citizens than as labourers.
  3. The financial crisis of 2007 to the present day has brought rudely to public attention the absurdity of a monetary system that allows money to be created privately as debt, and that treats money as a commodity to be produced and traded like any other (and that is what the modern ‘financialisation’ that landed us in the crisis was: an attempt to make oodles of money simply off money, to treat money as itself the ultimate thing to buy and sell, to ‘make’). Money is necessary in a complex large-scale society: it is the means by which we conduct our economic affairs. Money is a “commons”: its creation should be for public benefit, both in terms of its volume and in terms of the profit (the “seignourage”) it yields. That is why Greens believe in Monetary Reform: the state (more accurately, the public, nationally and also locally) taking back (and taking away from the commercial banks) the power to create money as well as the profit from its creation.

 

When one understands these three points, one can understand how Greens tend to see the rise of Corbyn. Corbynmania represents a revolt against the machine-politics and hollowing-out of Labour, against the inauthenticity of what that Party has become. In that sense, it is hugely welcome. Like the “Green Surge”, it is a demonstration of the hunger at this time for truth, for a big change in politics-as-usual, for radical solutions to the problems that face us all. Furthermore, in terms of the conventional ‘left vs right’ political spectrum, most Greens welcome a turn to the Left, for the reasons I gave under, above. We too want to see a joined-up railway system back in public hands; an end to the cruel austerity cuts, a restoration of the kinds of rates of tax on the rich that we had in the 80s (if income tax at 60 per cent for those on the highest incomes was not too high for Thatcher, then for goodness sake it shouldn’t be too high for Britain today), and more besides.

 

BUT in terms of the other, neglected political spectrums (such as centralisation vs localisation); in terms of putting ecology front and centre; in terms of dropping the fantasy of endless economic growth and replacing it with the sanity of one-planet living…in all these terms, Corbyn is not Green. In his out-of-date espousal of economic growth of coal-mining when what we have to do with most fossil fuel is to #leaveitintheground, and simply in his labourism. He is Labour: and that’s just fine; indeed, that’s as it should be…

 

For it’s great to see the Labour Party apparently about to crown as its new leader someone who is actually Labour. Actually Left. It makes things in British politics rather clearer than they have been ever since the arrival of ‘New Labour’ on the scene. It also makes it simpler to see where the Green Party stands:

  1. We are broadly ‘left’ (and thus more sympathetic with Corbyn than with his lacklustre leadership rivals) BUT we are also determinedly and radically decentralist, in favour of a long-term project of economic and political delocalisation.
  2. We think it the merest sanity to take the deepest possible care of our one and only planetary home, the Earth, and we regard this requirement as more basic even than the ‘left vs right’ fight. There can be no social justice without a sound foundation to our collective life, a foundation in ecology.
  3. Given this, then continued economic growth at this time is simply irresponsible, and is neither desirable nor in any case necessary. Rather than trying to commodify ever more of our world - whether it be ecology, human activity or finance that is being commodified - we badly need to supersede the taking of land, labour and finance as commodities:
  1. LVT is a key instrument to this end, so far as land is concerned: it profoundly disincentivises the commodification of land.
  2. CI, unlike the Minimum Wage or even the Living Wage, fundamentally de-commodifies human ‘labour’.
  3. MR understands (and creates) money correctly as a commons, not as a commodity that private banks can create and do as they please with.

These three signature Green policies are key — in fact, absolutely central — examples of what our time needs. They are Green policies; not Labour policies, not even Corbyn policies.

 

In 1978, Eric Hobsbawm famously penned his prophetic pamphlet, “The forward march of Labour halted?” . Is the Green Party’s progress now in danger of being halted, ironically, by the seemingly-inevitable accession to the Labour leadership of a man who Hobsbawm would have been thrilled to see take the reins of that Party? If all that British politics were was a battle of ‘left vs right’, then perhaps we would be in danger of this. But I have set out here why politics, and the Green Party, are SO much more than that.

So long as we are and remain in this sense the Green Party — and now that (with the ‘Green Surge’) we are stronger and better-resourced than we have ever been, and are at long last starting to get some of the public- (including: media-) attention that we have so long deserved — I don’t see the (splendid, extraordinary) rise of Jeremy Corbyn stopping us.

With ecological crisis gradually pressing in upon us all ever-tighter, it is — both sad and happy to say — hard to see the forward march of the Green Party being halted.