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

Photo: Getty
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The New Statesman 2016 local and devolved elections liveblog

Results and analysis from elections across the United Kingdom. 

Welcome to the New Statesman's elections liveblog. Results will be coming in from the devolved legislatures in Scotland and Wales, local elections in England, and the mayoral contests in London, Salford, Bristol and Liverpool. Hit refresh for updates!

00:06: Labour look likely to lose Crawley

00:02: Labour have kept control of Newcastle Council, taking a seat from the Liberal Democrats. (I knew that would happen the second I typed the words "Liberal Democrat revival"). 

00:00: For those of you just joining us: welcome. Labour is projected to lose seats but remain the largest party in Wales, where the Conservatives seem to be gaining ground. In England, the Liberal Democrat revival appears to be a thing and not just a Twitter meme. In Scotland, the SNP are sounding buoyant while the Conservatives believe they may beat Labour into third. London won't count until tomorrow but everyone - Labour, Tory, Cannabis is Safer Than Alcohol - is getting jittery over low turnout. 

23:55: That early worry I heard from Wales has vanished completely from the Tory side. Vale of Glamorgan is rumoured to be close - a close to six point swing to the Conservatives. So we have biggish swings away from Labour so far tonight. 

23:52: Labour are down 17 per cent in the six seats we've had so far (from 2012 when last contested). Still not very much data, but that would put the party in the mid to low 20s in terms of nationwide share. Personally I think it's unlikely to be that bad when all the results have rolled in. 

23:48: How about that Liberal Democrat fightback, huh? The Liberal Democrats have won a seat in Sunderland from Labour. 

23:47: The knives are already out for Kezia Dugdale in Scotland, where Labour may come third. 

23:42: Bad news for Labour from Wales. Clywd South is in play and the Tories may well win it. Cardiff North, which is Conservative-held at Westminster, looks likely to go the same way in the Assembly having been Labour-held since 2011. Newport West and Llanelli are worth looking out for too. 

23:39: Good news for Labour - they've held the first seat to declare out of Newcastle, and the Liberal Democrats, their main opposition, have privately conceded that Labour will remain large and in charge in Newcastle. 

23:35: Speaking of the Liberal Democrats, they are feeling cautiously optimistic about winning a seat in Edinburgh Western from the SNP, while they expect to recover a bit from 2015. (Things could hardly get worse, I suppose.)

23:32: The first Labour gain of the night, as a Liberal Democrat councilor in Stockport defects. 

23:30: Labour sources are gloomy about their chances of holding onto Exeter Council, where Ben Bradshaw is the party's only remaining MP in the South West. Looks like it will slip into no overall control. Party is also nervous about holding Derby. 

23:25: Tory mole in Wales tells me that things look bad for them - potentially worse than the losses shown in YouGov's poll. The election has become "a referendum on steel", apparently. 

23:20: Early results from Sunderland show Labour doing fairly badly (you know, for Sunderland) and Ukip doing very well. But one swallow doesn't make a summer and we need more data before we know anything. 

23:15: We should get our first result from Scotland in 45 minutes or so. Rutherglen, Labour-held since the Scottish Parliament's creation in 1999, and highly likely to go to the SNP. 

23:13: And what the results mean so far, according to ace numbercruncher Matt Singh:

23:07: Those numbers from Sunderland, where Labour have held in St Anne's ward. Labour down 15 points on 2012, when these seats were last fought, Tories down 3. It's Ukip who are making the headway (they didn't stand last time and expect them do post performances like this throughout the United Kingdom tonight and as results roll in over the weekend). 

23:04: Back to Wales - YouGov's poll "looks about right" according to my Plaid Cymru source. What does that mean? Labour could go it alone and do deals on a vote-by-vote basis - they govern alone now with just 30 seats. If the poll is even a little out - let's say either Labour or the Liberal Democrats get one more seat - they might do a deal if they can get a majority with the Welsh Liberal Democrats. 

23:01: Pallion Ward in Sunderland is the first to declare, and it's a Labour hold! More on percentages as I get them. 

22:58: Why isn't it an exit poll, I hear you ask? Well, an exit poll measures swing - not vote share, but the change from one election to the next. People are asked how they've voted as they leave polling stations. This is then projected to form a national picture. Tonight's two polls are just regular polls taken on the day of the election. 

22:57: The Sun's poll - again, not an exit poll, I'm not kidding around here - of Scotland has the SNP winning by a landslide. (I know, I'm as shocked as all of you) But more importantly, it shows the Conservatives beating Labour into second place. The Tories believe they may hold onto Ettrick as well. 

22:55: What news from Scotland? Labour looks to have been wiped out in Glasgow. Liberal Democrats think they might hold at least one of Orkney or Shetland, while the seats in Edinburgh are anyone's game. 

22:52: Hearing that turnout is low in Waltham Forest, Lewisham, Hackney and my birthplace of Tower Hamlets (the borough's best export unless you count Dizzie Rascal, Tinchy Stryder or Harry Redknapp, that's me). Bad news for Labour unless turnout is similarly low in the Tory-friendly outer boroughs. 

22:47: YouGov have done a poll (note: not an exit poll, it should not be taken as seriously as an exit poll and if you call it an exit poll I swear to god I will find you and kill you) of the Welsh Assembly. Scores on the door:

Labour 27

Plaid Cymru 12 

Conservatives 11

Ukip 8

Liberal Democrat 2

There are 60 seats in the Assembly, so you need 30 seats for a majority of one. 

22:40: In case you're wondering, how would closing a seven point deficit to say, six, compare to previous Labour oppositions, I've done some number-crunching. In 1984, Neil Kinnock's Labour turned a Tory lead of 15 per cent at the general election to a Conservative lead of just one per cent. In 1988, one of 12 per cent went down to one per cent. (He did, of course, go on to lose in both the 1987 and 1992 elections). In 1993, John Smith's Labour party turned a deficit of eight points at the general to a Labour lead of eight points in the local elections. William Hague turned a Labour lead of 13 points to one of just six in 1998, while Iain Duncan Smith got a Tory lead of just one point - from a Labour lead of nine. In 2006, new Tory leader David Cameron turned a 3 point Labour lead to a 13 point Tory one. Ed Miliband - remember him? - got from a Tory lead of seven points to a two point Labour one. 

22:35: John McDonnell is setting out what would be a good night as far as the party leadership is concerned - any improvement on the 2015 defeat, when the party trailed by close to seven points. Corbyn's critics say he needs to make around 400 gains.

I've written about what would be good at length before, but here's an extract:

"Instead of worrying overmuch about numbers, worry about places. Although winning seats and taking control of councils is not a guarantee of winning control of the parliamentary seat – look at Harlow, Nuneaton, and Ipswich, all of which have Labour representation at a local level but send a Conservative MP to Westminster – good performances, both in terms of increasing votes and seats, are a positive sign. So look at how Labour does in its own marginals and in places that are Conservative at a Westminster level, rather than worrying about an exact figure either way."

22:31: Oh god, the BBC's election night music is starting. Getting trauma flashbacks to the general election. 

22:22: A few of you have been in touch about our exit poll. Most of you have been wondering about that one vote for George Galloway but the rest are wondering what happens - under the rules of the London mayoral race (and indeed the contests in Salford, Bristol and Liverpool), 2 votes would not be enough for Sadiq. (He needs 2.5). However, all the other candidates are tied - which makes it through to the second round. What happens then is the second preferences are used as a tie-break. Of the tied candidates, Sian Berry has the most second preferences so she goes through to face Sadiq Khan in the final round. Final round is as follows:

Sadiq Khan: 3

Sian Berry: 2

3 votes is above the quota so he is duly elected. An early omen? 

22:19: Burnham latest. A spokesperson for Andy Burnham says:

"Approaches have been made to Andy Burnham to give consideration to this role. It is early days and no decision as been taken. Whatever the decision, he will continue to serve the leader of the party and stay in the shadow cabinet."

22:17: Anyway, exit poll of the office. We've got:

Sadiq Khan: 2

George Galloway: 1

Caroline Pidgeon: 1

Sian Berry: 1

22:15: Update on Andy Burnham. He has been asked to consider running. More as we get it. 

22:13: People are asking if there's an exit poll tonight. Afraid not (you can't really do an exit poll in elections without national swing). But there is a YouGov poll from Wales and I am conducting an exit poll of the four remaining members of staff in the NS building. 

22:11: It's true! Andy Burnham is considering running for Greater Manchester mayor. Right, that's it, I'm quitting the liveblog. Nothing I say tonight can top that. 

22:09: Rumours that professional Scouser Andy Burnham is considering a bid for Greater Manchester mayor according to Sky News. Not sure if this is a) a typo for Merseyside or b) a rumour or c) honestly I don't know. More as I find out. 

22:06: Conservatives are feeling good about Trafford, one of the few councils they run in the North West.

22:03: Polls have closed. Turnout looks to be low in London. What that means is anyone's guess to be honest. There isn't really a particular benefit to Labour if turnout is high although that is a well-worn myth. In the capital in particular, turnout isn't quite as simple a zero-sum game as all that. Labour are buoyant, but so are the Tories. In Scotland, well, the only questions are whether or not the SNP will win every single first past the post seat or just the overwhelming majority. Both Labour and Tory sources are downplaying their chances of prevailing in the battle for second place at Holyrood, so make of that what you will. And in Wales, Labour look certain to lose seats but remain in power in some kind of coalition deal. 

22:00: Good evening. I'm your host, Stephen Bush, and I'll be with you throughout the night as results come in from throughout the country. The TV screens are on, I've just eaten, and now it's time to get cracking. 

Stephen Bush is special correspondent at the New Statesman. He usually writes about politics.