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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How the mantra of centrism gave populism its big break

A Labour insider reflects on the forces behind the march of populism. 

For just under a quarter of a century, British politics has been dominated by what might be called, paradoxically, a “theology of centrism” - the belief that most people were more concerned with what works than ideology, and that politics should principally be the art of improving the delivery of public goods. It was a theology that, for all their policy differences, united Tony Blair and David Cameron. Anyone who thought electoral success could be won anywhere but from the centre was either naïve or fanatical, or both... but definitely wrong.

Now, populism is on the march across the West. In Britain, as elsewhere, the political class is unnerved and baffled.

So what happened? Partly, as with all revolutions in politics, the answer is: “events”. Unsuccessful wars, economic crashes and political scandals all played their part. But that isn’t enough of an explanation. In fact, the rise of populist politics has also been a direct result of the era of centrism. Here is what has taken place:

1. A hollow left and right

First, the theology of centrism was the culmination of a decades-long hollowing out of mainstream politics on the left and right.

In the mid-20th century, Conservatism was a rich tapestry of values – tradition, localism, social conservatism, paternalism and fiscal modesty, to name but a few. By 1979, this tapestry had been replaced by a single overriding principle - faith in free-market liberalism. One of Margaret Thatcher's great achievements was to turn a fundamentalist faith in free markets into the hallmark of moderate centrism for the next generation of leaders.

It is a similar story on the left. In the mid-20th century, the left was committed to the transformation of workplace relations, the collectivisation of economic power, strong civic life in communities, internationalism, and protection of family life. By the turn of the 21st century, the left’s offer had narrowed significantly – accepting economic liberalism and using the proceeds of growth to support public investment and redistribution. It was an approach committed to managing the existing economy, not transforming the structure of it or of society.

And it was an approach that relied on good economic times to work. So when those good times disappeared after the financial crash, the centrism of both parties was left high and dry. The political economic model of New Labour disappeared in the first days of October 2008. And when a return to Tory austerity merely compounded the problem of stagnant living standards, public faith in the economic liberalism of the centre-ground was mortally wounded.

2. Fatalism about globalisation

Second, Labour and Tory politics-as-usual contained a fatalism about globalisation. The right, obsessed with economic liberalism, welcomed globalisation readily. The left under Bill Clinton in the US and Blair in the UK made their parties’ peace with it. But globalisation was not a force to be managed or mitigated. It was to be accepted wholesale. In fact, in his 2005 Conference speech, PM Tony Blair chastised those who even wanted to discuss it. “I hear people say we have to stop and debate globalisation," he said. “You might as well debate whether autumn should follow summer. They're not debating it in China and India.” (I bet they were, and still are.) The signal to voters was that it was not legitimate to fret about the pace and consequences of change. No wonder, when the fretting began, people turned away from these same politicians.

3. A narrowing policy gap

Third, the modernising projects of Blair and Cameron ended up producing a politics that was, to use Peter Mair’s term, “cartelised”. The backgrounds, worldviews and character of party elites began to converge significantly. Both parties’ leaderships accepted the same external conditions under which British politics operated – globalisation, economic liberalism, sceptical acceptance of the EU, enthusiasm for closeness to the US on security issues. The policy space between both main parties narrowed like never before. As a result, economic and class divisions in the country were less and less reflected in political divisions in Westminster.

The impression arose, with good reason, of an intellectual, cultural and financial affinity between politicians across the main divide, and between the political class and big business. This affinity in turn gave rise to a perception of “groupthink” across the elite, on issues from expenses to Europe, and one that came with a tin ear to the concerns of struggling families. It may be misleading it is to depict all politicians as snug and smug members of a remote Establishment. Nevertheless, social and economic convergence inside Westminster party politics gave populists an opportunity to present themselves as the antidote not just to Labour or the Tories, but to conventional politics as a whole.

4. New political divides

Lastly, the populist moment was created by the way in which new electoral cleavages opened up, but were ignored by the main political parties. The last decade has seen a global financial crash that has restored economic insecurity to frontline politics. But at the same time, we are witnessing a terminal decline of normal party politics based fundamentally on the division between a centre-left and centre-right offering competing economic policies. 

Of course economics and class still matter to voting. But a new cleavage has emerged that rivals and threatens to eclipse it - globalism vs nationalism. Globalists are economically liberal, positive about trade, culturally cosmopolitan, socially progressive, with a benign view of globalisation and faith in international law and cooperation. Nationalists are hostile to both social and economic liberalism, want more regulation and protection, are sceptical of trade, see immigration as an economic and cultural threat, and have little time for the liberal international order.

The factors that drive this new electoral divide are not just about voters’ economic situation. Age, geography and education levels matter – a lot. Initially both main parties were tectonically slow to respond to this new world. But populism – whether Ukip, the SNP or Theresa May's Tories – has thrived on the erosion of the traditional class divide, and sown seeds of panic into the Labour party as it faces the prospect of sections of its traditional core vote peeling away.

Centrists thought their politics was moderate, pragmatic, not ideological. But signing up to free market liberalism, globalisation and an economistic view of politics turned out to be seen as a curious kind of fundamentalism, one which was derailed by the 2008 crisis. The exhaustion of the theology of centrism did not create populism – but it did allow it a chance to appeal and succeed.

Those on the left and right watching the march of populism with trepidation need to understand this if they are to respond to it successfully. The answer to the rise of populist politics is not to mimic it, but to challenge it with a politics that wears its values proudly, and develops a vision of Britain’s future (not just its economy) on the foundation of those values. Populists need to be challenged for having the wrong values, as well as for having anger instead of solutions.

But calling for a return to centrism simply won’t work. It plays precisely to what has become an unfair but embedded caricature of New Labour and Notting Hill conservatism – power-hungry, valueless, a professional political class. It suggests a faith in moderate managerialism at a time when that has been rejected by events and the public. And it tells voters to reconcile themselves to globalisation, when they want politicians to wrestle a better deal out of it.

Stewart Wood, Lord Wood of Anfield, was a special adviser to No. 10 Downing Street from 2007 to 2010 and an adviser to former Labour leader Ed Miliband.