Liberal Democrat leadership frontrunner Tim Farron speaks at the party's conference in Glasgow last year. Photograph: Getty Images.
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Tim Farron interview: Escape from the wilderness

The Liberal Democrat leadership frontrunner on future coalitions, the Labour leadership contest and how his party can recover. 

Before the Liberal Democrats’ great humbling, Tim Farron was fond of claiming that they possessed the resilience of “cockroaches after a nuclear war”. The apocalypse did come – but only Farron and seven of his fellow MPs survived. On the day I meet the former Lib Dem president in his Westminster office, the Parliamentary Labour Party has just held its leadership hustings. The Lib Dems could now stage an equivalent event in a large family car.

I begin by asking Farron how surprised he was by the scale of the defeat. “If I’d been forced to give you a number [of seats], I’d probably have given you low-to-mid-twenties. It declined in my head during the election but not by that much. I wouldn’t have said that I’d have eaten my hat,” he adds, in reference to Paddy Ashdown’s response to the exit polls, “but I was certainly surprised by ten and even more surprised by eight.”

Long before Nick Clegg’s resignation as leader, the 45-year-old Farron was the fav­ourite to succeed him. The MP for Westmorland and Lonsdale became the darling of Lib Dem activists during his four years as president (to the resentment of his party’s ministers) and protected his reputation by voting against policies such as higher tuition fees, secret courts and the bedroom tax.

“It is hard to visualise anyone but Farron leading the troops back across the wasteland,” I concluded when I last interviewed him in February. With the defeat on 7 May of most of his putative rivals – such as Danny Alexander, Jo Swinson and Ed Davey – he faces just one candidate, the former health minister Norman Lamb (who is said to have taken some persuading to stand), in the Lib Dem leadership election. The result will be announced on 16 July.

Farron, who is finishing his speech to the Gladstone Club when I arrive and is wearing his trademark Dr Martens, sums up his pitch. “We got kicked into the wilderness on 7 May and the only thing that matters now is: how do we get out of it?” he says. “Norman’s got loads of great skills, he’s a mate, [a] very good minister. But in the end, who can they see inspiring the people who are not yet members of the party and who didn’t vote for us this time round to change their minds next time?

“We need to have a voice that is a lot clearer and a lot louder to compensate for our size being smaller and I think I’m the person who’s the campaigner and the communicator who can do that,” he continues. “If Norman wins, I’ll get right behind him. I think the current situation calls for my skillset, though I say so myself.”

He names housing, the environment and civil liberties as his priorities and declares his opposition to fracking (“It’s another fossil fuel”) and the like-for-like replacement of Trident (“It’s an act of aggression and will be seen as so by a global community that’s looking for people to disarm, not rearm to the max”). He refuses to say what a “good result” would be in 2020 but tells me that the key to the Lib Dems’ recovery is to establish themselves as “the clear anti-Tory party” in Cornwall and the West Country, where Labour has long struggled.

“We have to pick a number of seats and we have to go for it. We have to be part of a movement that seeks to remove a Conservative government from office,” he says. Nonetheless, he does not rule out forming a future coalition with the Tories on the grounds that doing so would make the Lib Dems “weak in negotiations” and that “the arithmetic” may demand it. However, for the first time, he announces that the introduction of proportional representation would be a prerequisite for a deal with either the Conservatives or Labour. “I would not sign off any agreement with any of the other parties that did not entail [electoral reform], end of story. Massive, massive red line, don’t even pick up the phone.”

I ask him which of the Labour leadership contenders he is most impressed by. “I’ll be very careful what I say here. I think they’ve all got something to them and for them . . . I just hope that Labour selects someone, for the country’s sake, who is bound to be tribal to an extent – that’s kind of their job – but is not too tribal and understands that what the Conservatives are about is entrenching themselves in power for a generation and they really don’t care if they dismantle the United Kingdom in the process. I hope whoever they elect is somebody who, whilst they must put the interests of the Labour Party first, [will] also consider the long-term importance of working with others to make sure we protect Britain’s future.” He suggests that Andy Burnham, the front-runner, could prove to be a surprise reformer. “There are some arguments for him as being a bit of a Kinnock-type character and I don’t mean that in a nasty way . . . [but] in a complimentary way. He’s somebody who’s perceived as of the left who could move the party in
a more moderate direction.”

Towards the end of our conversation, I mention the late Charles Kennedy, one of Farron’s mentors, to whom he delivered an emotional and acclaimed eulogy in the recent Commons tribute session. His eyes well up and his voice cracks as he tells me how he hopes to emulate his party’s lost son. “I remember my first Any Questions?. I bumped into him the day before on the Thursday and I said, ‘Any advice, Charles?’ and he said, ‘Yeh, yeh, just be yourself, just be yourself.’ So I think that’s very important.”

He continues: “Human, principled and effective – and he got our highest number of MPs in living memory [62, in the 2005 general election]. What Charles Kennedy is, is living proof that the good guys can be effective. We’ve just gone through an election where the bad guys were effective . . . Charles is proof that you can be human, you can be rigidly principled to a degree, thoroughly principled, and effective and win elections – and that’s a model I’d love us to follow.” 

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Now listen to George discussing Tim Farron's leadership prospects on the NS podcast:

 

George Eaton is political editor of the New Statesman.

This article first appeared in the 11 June 2015 issue of the New Statesman, Who owns the future?

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How can London’s mothers escape the poverty trap?

Despite its booming jobs market, London’s poverty rate is high. What can be done about it?

Why are mothers in London less likely to work than their counterparts across the country, and how can we ensure that having more parents in jobs brings the capital’s high child poverty rates down?

The answers to these two questions, examined in a new CPAG report on parental employment in the capital, may become increasingly nationally significant as policymakers look to ensure jobs growth doesn’t stall and that a job becomes a more much reliable route out of poverty than it is currently – 64 per cent of poor children live in working families.

The choice any parent makes when balancing work and family life is deeply personal.  It’s a choice driven by a wide range of factors but principally by what parents, with their unique viewpoint, regard as best for their families. The man in Whitehall doesn’t know best.

But the personal is also political. Every one of these personal choices is shaped, limited or encouraged by an external context.   Are there suitable jobs out there? Is there childcare available that is affordable and will work for their child(ren)? And what will be the financial gains from working?

In London, 40 per cent of mothers in couples are not working. In the rest of the country, the figure is much lower – 27 per cent. While employment rates amongst lone parents in London have significantly increased in recent years, the proportion of mothers in couples out of work remains stuck at about 12 percentage points higher than the rest of the UK.

The benefits system has played a part in increasing London’s lone parent employment rate. More and more lone parents are expected to seek work. In 2008, there was no obligation on single parents to start looking for work until their youngest child turned 16. Now they need to start looking when their youngest is five (the Welfare Reform and Work Bill would reduce this down to three). But the more stringent “conditionality” regime, while significant, doesn’t wholly explain the higher employment rate. For example, we know more lone parents with much younger children have also moved into jobs.  It also raises the question of what sacrifices families have had to make to meet the new conditionality.  

Mothers in couples in London, who are not mandated to work, have not entered work to the same level as lone parents. So, what is it about the context in London that makes it less likely for mothers in couples to work? Here are four reasons highlighted in our report for policymakers to consider:

1. The higher cost of working in London is likely to play a significant role in this. London parents are much less likely to be able to call on informal (cheaper or free) childcare from family and friends than other parts in the country: only one in nine children in London receives informal childcare compared to an average of one in three for England. And London childcare costs for under 5s dwarf those in the rest of the country, so for many parents support available through tax credits is inadequate.

2. Add to this high housing and transport costs, and parents are left facing a toxic combination of high costs that can mean they see less financial rewards from their work than parents in other parts of the country.

3. Effective employment support can enable parents to enter work, particularly those who might have taken a break from employment while raising children. But whilst workless lone parents and workless couples are be able to access statutory employment support, if you have a working partner, but don’t work yourself, or if you are working on a low wage and want to progress, there is no statutory support available.

4. The nature of the jobs market in London may also be locking mums out. The number of part time jobs in the capital is increasing, but these jobs don’t attract the same London premium as full time work.  That may be partly why London mums who work are more likely to work full time than working mums in other parts of the country. But this leaves London families facing even higher childcare costs.

Parental employment is a thorny issue. Parenting is a 24-hour job in itself which must be balanced with any additional employment and parents’ individual choices should be at the forefront of this debate. Policy must focus on creating the context that enables parents to make positive choices about employment. That means being able to access the right support to help with looking for work, creating a jobs market that works for families, and childcare options that support child development and enable parents to see financial gains from working.

When it comes to helping parents move into jobs they can raise a family on, getting it right for London, may also go a long way to getting it right for the rest of the country.