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.” 

***

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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Trade unions must change or face permanent decline

Union membership will fall below one in five employees by 2030 unless current trends are reversed. 

The future should be full of potential for trade unions. Four in five people in Great Britain think that trade unions are “essential” to protect workers’ interests. Public concerns about low pay have soared to record levels over recent years. And, after almost disappearing from view, there is now a resurgent debate about the quality and dignity of work in today’s Britain.

Yet, as things stand, none of these currents are likely to reverse long-term decline. Membership has fallen by almost half since the late 1970s and at the same time the number of people in work has risen by a quarter. Unions are heavily skewed towards the public sector, older workers and middle-to-high earners. Overall, membership is now just under 25 per cent of all employees, however in the private sector it falls to 14 per cent nationally and 10 per cent in London. Less than 1 in 10 of the lowest paid are members. Across large swathes of our economy unions are near invisible.

The reasons are complex and deep-rooted — sweeping industrial change, anti-union legislation, shifts in social attitudes and the rise of precarious work to name a few — but the upshot is plain to see. Looking at the past 15 years, membership has fallen from 30 per cent in 2000 to 25 per cent in 2015. As the TUC have said, we are now into a 2nd generation of “never members”, millions of young people are entering the jobs market without even a passing thought about joining a union. Above all, demographics are taking their toll: baby boomers are retiring; millennials aren’t signing up.

This is a structural problem for the union movement because if fewer young workers join then it’s a rock-solid bet that fewer of their peers will sign-up in later life — setting in train a further wave of decline in membership figures in the decades ahead. As older workers, who came of age in the 1970s when trade unions were at their most dominant, retire and are replaced with fewer newcomers, union membership will fall. The question is: by how much?

The chart below sets out our analysis of trends in membership over the 20 years for which detailed membership data is available (the thick lines) and a fifteen year projection period (the dotted lines). The filled-in dots show where membership is today and the white-filled dots show our projection for 2030. Those born in the 1950s were the last cohort to see similar membership rates to their predecessors.

 

Our projections (the white-filled dots) are based on the assumption that changes in membership in the coming years simply track the path that previous cohorts took at the same age. For example, the cohort born in the late 1980s saw a 50 per cent increase in union membership as they moved from their early to late twenties. We have assumed that the same percentage increase in membership will occur over the coming decade among those born in the late 1990s.

This may turn out to be a highly optimistic assumption. Further fragmentation in the nature of work or prolonged austerity, for example, could curtail the familiar big rise in membership rates as people pass through their twenties. Against this, it could be argued that a greater proportion of young people spending longer in education might simply be delaying the age at which union membership rises, resulting in sharper growth among those in their late twenties in the future. However, to date this simply hasn’t happened. Membership rates for those in their late twenties have fallen steadily: they stand at 19 per cent among today’s 26–30 year olds compared to 23 per cent a decade ago, and 29 per cent two decades ago.

All told our overall projection is that just under 20 per cent of employees will be in a union by 2030. Think of this as a rough indication of where the union movement will be in 15 years’ time if history repeats itself. To be clear, this doesn’t signify union membership suddenly going over a cliff; it just points to steady, continual decline. If accurate, it would mean that by 2030 the share of trade unionists would have fallen by a third since the turn of the century.

Let’s hope that this outlook brings home the urgency of acting to address this generational challenge. It should spark far-reaching debate about what the next chapter of pro-worker organisation should look like. Some of this thinking is starting to happen inside our own union movement. But it needs to come from outside of the union world too: there is likely to be a need for a more diverse set of institutions experimenting with new ways of supporting those in exposed parts of the workforce. There’s no shortage of examples from the US — a country whose union movement faces an even more acute challenge than ours — of how to innovate on behalf of workers.

It’s not written in the stars that these gloomy projections will come to pass. They are there to be acted on. But if the voices of union conservatism prevail — and the offer to millennials is more of the same — no-one should be at all surprised about where this ends up.

This post originally appeared on Gavin Kelly's blog