Success story: Tim Farron at the Lib Dem party conference 2013. Photo: Getty
Show Hide image

Tim Farron, the Lib Dem with a difference

Enter Farron’s office and you soon notice the signs of his success – an award for best MP on one side, a prize for most social tweeter on another. It’s a far cry from his party as a whole.

Tim Farron is that increasingly rare political creature: a Liberal Democrat whose standing has improved since 2010. Enter his parliamentary office and you soon notice the signs of his success – an award for best MP on one side (he represents Westmorland and Lonsdale), a prize for most social tweeter on another. In the four years since the formation of the coalition government, the 44-year-old Lib Dem president has steered a shrewd course between loyalty and dissent. As a non-minister, he has been free to rebel on defining issues such as tuition fees, NHS reform and secret courts while remaining untainted by accusations of plotting.

When I begin our conversation by mentioning the fate of Lord Oakeshott, who was forced to resign after attempting to bring Nick Clegg down by leaking unfavourable polling, Farron offers a more-in-sorrow-than-in-anger response. “I really like Matthew Oakeshott. I might be one of the very few people who still does. It was just unbelievably crass and foolish,” he says. “I hope there can be some way back for him.”

If coalition has been good for Farron, it has not for his party. Since 2010, the Lib Dems have lost a third of their members, 1,500 of their councillors, all but one of their MEPs, nine by-election deposits and as much as two-thirds of their previous opinion-poll support. One of the few consolations is the likelihood that the next general election will result in another hung parliament, offering the Lib Dems the chance to act once again as kingmakers. But while Clegg has ruled out support for anything short of full coalition, Farron argues otherwise. “When you go into negotiations with another party you have to believe – and let the other party believe – that there is a point at which you would walk away and when the outcome could be something less than a coalition, a minority administration of some kind. That is something we all have to consider.”

When the Lib Dems entered government they chose not to take ownership of entire Whitehall departments, a decision now widely viewed as a mistake. Farron sees wisdom in an alternative approach. “When you’re a smaller party, identity is everything . . . so if you pick two or three or four departments and you run them really well, then you’ve got a clear message to send to the electorate.”

For progressives, one of the biggest disappointments of the present coalition has been the near-absence of constitutional reform. Farron tells me that Lords reform has to come “immediately back on the table” in future coalition negotiations and suggests that proportional representation for local government should also be a priority. “What we should definitely do, which is what happened in Scotland, is to bring in STV [the single transferable vote] in multi-member wards for local government. There is absolutely no reason whatsoever not to do that, because the constituency
link argument doesn’t work; your average councillor is in a multi-member ward.”

I end by asking Farron the question he knows is coming: will he stand for the Lib Dem leadership the next time there is a vacancy? He is the bookies’ favourite and, according to a recent Liberal Democrat Voice poll, the members’ favourite to succeed Clegg. Farron replies, “I think anyone who is thinking about themselves at a time like this is incredibly selfish . . . I want Nick to lead us into the general election and beyond.” To translate: he’s ruling nothing out. 

George Eaton is political editor of the New Statesman.

This article first appeared in the 18 June 2014 issue of the New Statesman, Islam tears itself apart

Getty
Show Hide image

Labour’s best general election bet is Keir Starmer

The shadow secretary for Brexit has the heart of a Remainer - but head of a pragmatic politician in Brexit Britain. 

In a different election, the shadow Brexit secretary Keir Starmer might have been written off as too quiet a man. Instead - as he set out his plans to scrap the Brexit white paper and offer EU citizens reassurance on “Day One” in the grand hall of the Institute of Civil Engineers - the audience burst into spontaneous applause. 

For voters now torn between their loyalty to Labour and Remain, Starmer is a reassuring figure. Although he says he respects the Brexit vote, the former director of public prosecutions is instinctively in favour of collaborating with Europe. He even wedges phrases like “regulatory alignment” into his speeches. When a journalist asked about the practicality of giving EU citizens right to remain before UK citizens abroad have received similar promises, he retorted: “The way you just described it is to use people as bargaining chips… We would not do that.”

He is also clear about the need for Parliament to vote on a Brexit deal in the autumn of 2018, for a transitional agreement to replace the cliff edge, and for membership of the single market and customs union to be back on the table. When pressed on the option of a second referendum, he said: “The whole point of trying to involve Parliament in the process is that when we get to the final vote, Parliament has had its say.” His main argument against a second referendum idea is that it doesn’t compare like with like, if a transitional deal is already in place. For Remainers, that doesn't sound like a blanket veto of #EUref2. 

Could Leave voters in the provinces warm to the London MP for Holborn and St Pancras? The answer seems to be no – The Daily Express, voice of the blue passport brigade, branded his speech “a plot”. But Starmer is at least respectful of the Brexit vote, as it stands. His speech was introduced by Jenny Chapman, MP for Darlington, who berated Westminster for their attitude to Leave voters, and declared: “I would not be standing here if the Labour Party were in anyway attempting to block Brexit.” Yes, Labour supporters who voted Leave may prefer a Brexiteer like Kate Hoey to Starmer,  but he's in the shadow Cabinet and she's on a boat with Nigel Farage. 

Then there’s the fact Starmer has done his homework. His argument is coherent. His speech was peppered with references to “businesses I spoke to”. He has travelled around the country. He accepts that Brexit means changing freedom of movement rules. Unlike Clive Lewis, often talked about as another leadership contender, he did not resign but voted for the Article 50 Bill. He is one of the rare shadow cabinet members before June 2016 who rejoined the front bench. This also matters as far as Labour members are concerned – a March poll found they disapproved of the way Labour has handled Brexit, but remain loyal to Jeremy Corbyn. 

Finally, for those voters who, like Brenda, reacted to news of a general election by complaining "Not ANOTHER one", Starmer has some of the same appeal as Theresa May - he seems competent and grown-up. While EU regulation may be intensely fascinating to Brexiteers and Brussels correspondents, I suspect that by 2019 most of the British public's overwhelming reaction to Brexit will be boredom. Starmer's willingness to step up to the job matters. 

Starmer may not have the grassroots touch of the Labour leader, nor the charisma of backbench dissidents like Chuka Umunna, but the party should make him the de facto face of the campaign.  In the hysterics of a Brexit election, a quiet man may be just what Labour needs.

What did Keir Starmer say? The key points of his speech

  • An immediate guarantee that all EU nationals currently living in the UK will see no change in their legal status as a result of Brexit, while seeking reciprocal measures for UK citizens in the EU. 
  • Replacing the Tories’ Great Repeal Bill with an EU Rights and Protections Bill which fully protects consumer, worker and environmental rights.
  • A replacement White Paper with a strong emphasis on retaining the benefits of the single market and the customs union. 
  • The devolution of any new powers that are transferred back from Brussels should go straight to the relevant devolved body, whether regional government in England or the devolved administrations in Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland.
  • Parliament should be fully involved in the Brexit deal, and MPs should be able to vote on the deal in autumn 2018.
  • A commitment to seek to negotiate strong transitional arrangements when leaving the EU and to ensure there is no cliff-edge for the UK economy. 
  • An acceptance that freedom of movement will end with leaving the EU, but a commitment to prioritise jobs and economy in the negotiations.

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

0800 7318496