Tim Farron: “I really like Miliband, so I don’t want to diss him”

While Nick Clegg remains comfortable in coalition with the Tories, the Lib Dem president, Tim Farron, has other ambitions.

The 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

Enter Tim Farron’s Westminster office and the first thing you notice is a giant wall planner on which the words “presidential visit” repeatedly appear. They are, I realise, a reference not to Barack Obama but to Farron’s upcoming election battleground speeches. You might suppress a laugh at the thought of hard-pressed Liberal Democrat candidates greeting the decidedly unflashy Farron as “Mr President”, yet it is a reminder of his unique status in British politics. As the party’s directly elected president, Farron has a personal mandate from party members and at the same time, as a non-minister, he remains unbound by collective responsibility. To the undoubted relief of David Cameron and Ed Miliband, there is no equivalent in either Labour or the Conservatives.

Since the formation of the coalition government, Farron has defied the party whip on tuition fees, the NHS bill and secret courts. The MP for Westmorland and Lonsdale did so again on Syria, the subject to which we turn once his long-serving aide Paul Butters has brought him a cup of tea. Why did he abstain from the vote in parliament, rather than oppose the motion outright?

“What I expected when I talked to Nick [Clegg] on the Tuesday and what I expected us to be asked to vote on would be something that would be a rush to military action,” Farron says. “I spent the best part of 48 hours pleading with Nick that we ought to go through the UN, that there should be no immediate rush to military intervention, not least because we need to have as much evidence as is humanly possible . . .

“The thing is, when you see the motion that ended up before the House, I’d got all the things I’d asked for and there was no rush to military action; there was the UK-led attempt to go through the UN. And I felt that, having got what I wanted, it would be a bit churlish to vote against.”

He adds, however, that had there been a second vote, he would have opposed military action. “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.”

 We are meeting shortly before the start of what is the most important Liberal Democrat conference since the party entered government. In Glasgow, MPs and activists will vote on which policies to include in the party’s 2015 manifesto. Clegg aims to use the occasion to complete the Lib Dems’ transformation into a grown-up “party of government” by inviting members to endorse the policies pursued by the coalition: an aggressive austerity programme, a reduced top rate of income tax and tuition fees of £9,000. Like a student who returns home from university and tears down his Che Guevara posters before embarking on a respectable career in the City, Clegg wants the party to put away childish things. He is determined that the Lib Dems will enter the next election unencumbered by unwisely made pledges such as the one on tuition fees.

The fear among activists is that the result will be a bland, centrist document seemingly crafted with a second Conservative-Lib Dem coalition in mind. It is a concern shared 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.” Though Farron avoids mentioning Clegg by name, he tells 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 on the basis of what we want to achieve.”

 The question of what the Lib Dems want to achieve is equally divisive. Asked recently about the possibility of pledging to restore the 50p rate of tax, David Laws, the schools minister and a close ally of Clegg, warned against policies that raise little revenue and are “just symbols”. Farron turns this logic on its head. “My 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.”

In the case of tuition fees, he similarly argues 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 says, should call for “movement towards a more progressive system”.

Farron, aged 43, was elected to parliament in 2005 in his Cumbrian seat by a margin of just 267 votes. By campaigning relentlessly in the five years that followed, he expanded his support to the point where he now enjoys a nuclear-proof majority of 12,264. As party president and the standard-bearer of the Lib Dem left, he has made it his mission to win back the millions of progressive-minded voters who have deserted the party since the election in 2010. While Farron would never describe any voter as lost, Clegg seems to regard the Lib Dems’ former supporters with something close to contempt. He remarked last year: “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 ask Farron whether he agrees, he bluntly replies: “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.”

He emphasises the need for greater differentiation between the Lib Dems and the Tories “on issues like housing, on issues like support for the public sector and those who work in it, and on fair taxation”. In an unprompted swipe at Michael Gove, he tells me that the Education Secretary is “completely wrong if he thinks 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 reasons why we’re behind other European countries and always have been.”

Farron is often pejoratively likened to a student politician (he served as the president of the Newcastle University Students’ Union in 1991), an image enhanced by the Dr Martens he wears. A popular joke among Clegg’s allies runs, “What does Tim Farron want to be when he grows up? Simon Hughes” – a reference to the party’s left-leaning and anguished deputy leader. In reality, Farron’s ambition, popularity among grass-roots activists and impeccable voting record mark him out as a top contender for the party leadership when a vacancy next arises. Will he stand? “I honestly don’t know. It could be many, many years off. I’m not even remotely focusing on it.” To decode: his leadership ambitions have been postponed, rather than abandoned.

As another hung parliament looks increasingly likely in 2015, I ask Farron whether he would rather ally with Labour or the Conservatives, to which he offers the default Lib Dem response: “The electorate will decide who’s in power.” But he speaks with warmth about Miliband. While critical of the Labour leader’s conduct over Syria (“He changed his mind half a dozen times in 48 hours”), he quickly qualifies his remarks by saying, “I really like Ed Miliband, so I don’t want to diss him. I don’t want to join in with the Tories who compare him to [Neil] Kinnock.”

He continues: “First of all, he’s a polite and nice person. 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 openminded about modernising our democracy, somebody who’s instinctively a bit more pluralistic than most Labour leaders and a bit more internationalist as well.”

I wait for a “but”, only for Farron to say: “And there are 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 adds mischievously: “He wouldn’t share a platform with Nick [Clegg], so he ended up with me, poor thing. I like the guy.”

Could a Miliband-Farron coalition government be the future of British politics? Should Labour become the largest party in another hung parliament in 2015 and call for the removal of Clegg, just as the Lib Dem leader demanded that Gordon Brown stand down, it would be far from unthinkable. Even though Clegg seeks to remake the Lib Dems as an economically liberal party, instinctively closer to the Tories than to Labour, Farron holds out the alternative of an unambiguously centreleft party, at one with Miliband on issues such as the 50p tax rate and tuition fees.

Before the 2010 election, Cameron memorably – to his later embarrassment – named Clegg as his “favourite joke”. Should Miliband fall short of a majority in 2015 and look to the Lib Dems for allies, many may yet be forced similarly to revise their opinion of Farron.

George Eaton is political editor of the New Statesman.

This article first appeared in the 16 September 2013 issue of the New Statesman, Syria: The deadly stalemate

Getty
Show Hide image

Brexit, betrayal and English football

Plus: what Nietzsche knew, Douglas Carswell's curious tweets and why David Cameron is like an essay crisis.

A couple of years ago I met the then Tory MP Douglas Carswell at a dinner at the Swedish embassy in London. He had not yet defected to Ukip and, with his eyes blazing, he began talking at me about sovereignty and direct democracy as well as comparing the campaign to liberate the British from the EU to the struggles of the Levellers and Chartists. It was hard not to stifle a yawn. Still, I listened politely and in the spirit of pluralism invited him to submit a guest column. The column never arrived, and in the intervening years I turned off the television or radio whenever it was announced he would be on. He struck me as a pious, moralising, single-issue crank, without any of the breezy wit or charisma of Nigel Farage, the Ukip leader whom Carswell loathes and longs to unseat.

Essay crisis PM

Whatever you think of Farage’s politics (and all NS readers will no doubt despise them), you cannot doubt his conviction, radicalism or political brilliance – no one did more to take Britain out of the EU than he. His triumph is total and contrasts markedly with David Cameron’s failure. For such a pragmatist, the Prime Minister gambled everything on the referendum. Perhaps a series of narrow victories, notably in the 2014 Scottish referendum and the 2015 general election, had beguiled him into believing in the myth of his own good luck. But he never prepared the electorate for the referendum or made the positive case for the EU, until it was much too late. He is one of the guilty men who has led Britain to its present impasse, perhaps the guiltiest of all, because of his insouciance and carelessness. John Wheeler-Bennett, the conservative historian, described Neville Chamberlain’s actions at Munich as “a case study in the disease of political myopia which afflicted the leaders and the peoples of Europe in the years between the wars”. Cameron, the essay crisis prime minister, has turned out to be similarly myopic. Now we all have to live with the consequences of his wretched defeat. 

Brexit and betrayal

Carswell sent an especially mendacious tweet during the campaign: “I am with @Vote_leave because we should stop sending £350 million per week to Brussels, and spend our money on our NHS instead.” As a monomaniacal Eurosceptic he would have known that he was lying about Britain’s EU contribution. He would have known, too, that the juxtaposition of this figure with NHS spending was wilfully misleading.

Yet when I called him out on his lies he suggested that I had not come to terms with my grief. I am not grieving (being no ardent lover of the EU) but I am angry – angry about the mendacity and cant of the Brexiteers, who are already retreating on promises and pledges made. The leaders of Leave are, in effect, free-market Randians who will be leading a coalition of social conservatives that cannot hold. Soon there will be plaintive cries of betrayal and, from the streets, shouts of, “This is not what we meant at all!”

Hodgson’s choice

In an interview in November 2015, the Spanish coach Vicente del Bosque said that there was no “‘English’ football any more  . . . no authentic English style”. How true. Roy Hodgson, who resigned after the abject defeat to Iceland (population: 330,000), was the highest-paid coach at the Euros, on £3.5m a year. He earned significantly more than Joachim Löw of Germany, a World Cup winner. For context, Chris Coleman, who led Wales to the quarter-finals, has an annual salary of £200,000. There were eight coaches who earned less than Coleman at the Euros.

Why is Hodgson paid so much? Because English football is bloated, greedy, arrogant and deluded about its standing in the world (does this sound familiar?). At the 2014 World Cup in Brazil, England were knocked out of the tournament within six days of the start, yet Hodgson stayed on to lead his hapless squad to another international humiliation. In manner, he is amiable but garrulous, speaking in looping circumlocutions: he sounds more like a prison officer in the 1970s sitcom Porridge than a contemporary continental football coach whose working methods are enlightened by data analysis, sports science and management theory.

After four years under his auspices, England had no method or signature style, as Del Bosque recognised. They had no structure or shape, which is why they fragmented at moments of stress. A well-coached side, with positional discipline and an unbreakable structure, can withstand pressure when it plays poorly – think of George Graham’s Arsenal of the late 1980s. Hodgson did not seem to know who his best players were or in which formation to use them. He had no leader on the pitch. Wayne Rooney was his captain but, for all his bull-necked pugnacity, he is introverted. Hodgson kept picking Raheem Sterling (for whom Manchester City paid a laughable £50m) and Adam Lallana. Together they have 52 caps for England but only two goals. Should Hodgson have been surprised that his forwards did not score when he needed them most? Evidently he was, otherwise why keep picking them? Yet coaches can be transformative, as Eddie Jones has been so rapidly for English rugby, or Trevor Bayliss for English cricket. But here’s the thing: both men are Australians.

Laughed off stage

“Fuck off, we’re voting out” chanted the drunken English yobs at the start of the tournament in Marseilles (they were less exuberant once the Russian Ultras marched into town). England will not be missed at the Euros. Worse than this, they exited to the sound of derisive laughter, as they retreated to their island stronghold. The laughter has not ceased. You could say that, after Brexit, the English are becoming something of a laughing stock, alas. “Laughter I have pronounced holy,” wrote Nietzsche in Thus Spake Zarathustra. “You higher men, learn – to laugh!” Laughter captures the essence of a truth that cannot be communicated. The alternative is tears.

Jason Cowley is editor of the New Statesman. He has been the editor of Granta, a senior editor at the Observer and a staff writer at the Times.

This article first appeared in the 30 June 2016 issue of the New Statesman, The Brexit lies