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

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How Jeremy Corbyn won the Labour leadership election

The revolt against the leader transformed him from an incumbent back into an insurgent. 

On the evening of 12 July, after six hours of talks, Jeremy Corbyn emerged triumphantly from Labour’s headquarters. “I’m on the ballot paper!” he told supporters gathered outside. “We will be campaigning on all the things that matter.”

The contest that Corbyn’s opponents had sought desperately to avoid had begun. Neither a vote of no confidence by 81 per cent of Labour MPs, nor 65 frontbench resignations had persuaded him to stand down. Days of negotiations led by Tom Watson had failed (“For years I’ve been told that I’m a fixer. Well, I tried to fix this and I couldn’t,” Labour’s deputy leader sorrowfully told the parliamentary party). The rebels’ last hope was that the National Executive Committee would force Corbyn to reseek nominations. After being backed by just 40 colleagues in the confidence vote, both sides knew that the leader would struggle to achieve 51 signatures.

But by 18-14, the NEC ruled that Corbyn would be automatically on the ballot (“Watson, Watson, what’s the score?” chanted jubilant aides in the leader’s office). After withstanding a 16-day revolt, Corbyn appeared liberated by the prospect of a summer of campaigning. His confidence prefigured the outcome two months later.

Corbyn did not merely retain the leadership - he won by a greater margin than last time (with 61.8 per cent of the vote to last year's 59.5 per cent) and triumphed among all three sections: party members, affiliated supporters and registered supporters. The rebels had hoped to narrow his mandate and win among at least one group: they did neither. Far from being a curse for Corbyn, the contest proved to be a blessing. 

***

The day before the pivotal NEC meeting, Angela Eagle, who had been preparing to stand for months, launched her leadership bid. The former shadow business secretary was admired by MPs for her experience, tenacity, and economic acumen. Her trade union links and soft left background were further cited in favour of her candidacy.

But after an underwhelming launch, which clashed with Andrea Leadsom’s withdrawal from the Conservative contest (leaving Eagle calling questions from absent journalists), MPs gravitated towards Owen Smith.

Like Eagle, Smith hailed from the party’s soft left and had initially served under Corbyn (two prerequisites in the rebels’ eyes). But unlike her, the former shadow and work pensions secretary did not vote for the Iraq war (having entered parliament in 2010) or the 2015 Syria intervention. “It looks like the war party,” a senior Corbynite said of Eagle’s campaign launch with Hilary Benn. Many Labour MPs feared the same. With the left-leaning Lisa Nandy having ruled herself out, only the ambitious Smith met the criteria.

“I’d been in hospital for two days with my brother, who was unwell, in south Wales,” he recalled when I interviewed him.  “I came out having literally been in A&E at Cardiff Heath hospital for 29 hours, looking after him, to have my phone light up with 30, 40, 50 colleagues, MPs and members, ringing up saying ‘there’s going to be a contest, Angela Eagle has thrown her hat into the ring, you should do likewise.’ And at that point, on the Wednesday night, I started ringing people to test opinion and found that there was a huge amount of support for me.”

On 19 July, after Smith won 90 MP/MEP nominations to Eagle’s 72, the latter withdrew in favour of the Welshman. A week after the Conservatives achieved their second female prime minister, Labour’s 116-year record of all-male leaders endured. Though Smith vowed that Eagle would be “at my right hand throughout this contest”, she went on to appear at just one campaign event.

Corbyn’s challenger was embraced by MPs as a “clean skin”, untainted by service during the New Labour years. But Smith’s non-parliamentary past was swiftly - and ruthlessly - exploited by his opponents. His time at the US drugs firm Pfizer was cited as evidence of his closeness to big business. Corbyn’s supporters also seized on interviews given by Smith as a by-election candidate in 2006.

The man pitching to the left was found to have defended Tony Blair (suggesting that they differed only over the Iraq war), supported private sector involvement in the NHS and praised city academies. “I'm not someone, frankly, who gets terribly wound up about some of the ideological nuances,” he told Wales Online. Such lines were rapidly disseminated by Corbyn supporters through social media.

“Getting out early and framing Owen was crucial,” a Corbyn source told me. A Smith aide echoed this assessment: “It helped secure their base, it took a load of people out of contention.”

Throughout the campaign, Smith would struggle to reconcile his past stances with his increasingly left-wing programme: opposing private provision in the NHS, returning academy schools to local authority control, banning zero-hours contracts and imposing a wealth tax of 1 per cent. “It was easy for us to go for the jugular over his background when he portrayed himself as a left candidate,” a Corbyn source said.

Smith insisted that the charge of opportunism was unmerited. “To be honest, my opponents have extrapolated rather a lot in an attempt to brand me as a ‘Blairite wolf in sheep’s clothing,’” he told me in August. “Well, I’m nothing of the sort, I’ve always been a democratic socialist and I always will be.” He added: “I’m someone who’s been surrounded by people who’ve been on the left of the Labour movement all their lives. It should come as no surprise that I’ve come out of that background and I’m pretty red. Because I am.”

But a former shadow cabinet colleague said that Smith did not stand out as “a radical” in meetings. “The only time that I remember him becoming really animated was over further tax-raising powers for Scotland and the implications for Wales.”

As well as Smith’s ambiguous past, Corbyn’s allies believe the breadth of his political coalition hindered him from the start. “He was trying to bring together Blairites, Brownites and every other -ite in between,” a campaign source said. “That was never going to hold, we knew that and from the moment there were splits it was easy to point out.”

Jon Trickett, the shadow business secretary and one of Corbyn’s early supporters, told me: “They tried to pretend that there was no distinction between them and Jeremy on policy grounds, they tried to narrow down the areas of difference to electability. But, frankly, it didn’t seem credible since some of the people behind it were absolutely ideologically opposed to Jeremy. Peter Mandelson and people like that.”

A frequently expressed charge was that Smith’s left-wing pledges would be overturned by Blairite figures if he won. John McGeechan, a 22-year-old postgraduate student who joined Labour after “self-indulgent, self-serving MPs initiated their corridor coup”, told me of Smith: “He’s just another mealy-mouthed careerist who says whatever he thinks is going to get him elected. I don’t believe at all that he means what he says about creating a radical socialist government given that he’s got the backing of Peter Mandelson, Alastair Campbell and Tony Blair, people who’ve disagreed with Corbyn on pretty much all his socialist policies. I don’t believe that he’s going to stand up to these people.”

Whether believable or not, Smith’s programme showed how Corbyn had shifted Labour’s centre of gravity radically leftwards - his original aim in June 2015.

***

On the night Corbyn made the leadership ballot, the rebels still found cause for hope. Unlike in 2015, the NEC imposed a freeze date of six months on voting (excluding 130,000 new members) and increased the registered supporter fee from £3 to £25 (while reducing the sign-up period to two days). “It’s game on!” a senior figure told me. By narrowing the selectorate, Corbyn’s opponents hoped to achieve a path to victory. With fewer registered supporters (84 per cent of whom voted for Corbyn last year), they believed full party members and affiliated trade unionists could carry Smith over the line.

But when 183,000 paid £25 to vote, their expectations were confounded. Far from being “game on”, it looked to many rebels like game over. Once again, Corbyn’s opponents had underestimated the left’s recruiting capacity. Smith’s lack of name recognition and undistinctive pitch meant he could not compete.

Alongside the main contest were increasingly fractious legal battles over voting rights. On 28 July, the high court rejected Labour donor Michael Foster’s challenge to Corbyn’s automatic inclusion on the ballot. Then on 8 August, a judge ruled that the party had wrongly excluded new members from voting, only for the decision to be overturned on appeal.

In the view of Corbyn’s allies, such legal manevoures unwittingly aided him. “They turned Jeremy, who was an incumbent, back into an insurgent,” Trickett told me. “The proponents of the challenge made it seem like he was the underdog being attacked by the establishment.”

Smith, who repeatedly framed himself as the “unity candidate”, struggled to escape the shadow of the “corridor coup”. That many of his supporters had never accepted Corbyn’s leadership rendered him guilty by association.

“The coup had an enormous galvanising effect and an enormous politicising effect,” a Corbyn source told me. “For a great number of people who supported Jeremy last year, there was a feeling, ‘well, we’ve done the work, that’s happened, now over to him.’ What the coup meant for a lot of people was that this isn’t about Jeremy Corbyn, this is a people’s movement, which we all need to lead.” The Corbyn campaign signed up 40,000 volunteers and raised £300,000 in small donations from 19,000 people (with an average donation of £16). Against this activist army, their rivals’ fledgling effort stood no chance.

“At the launch rally, we had 12 simultaneous events going on round the country, livestreamed to each other,” a Corbyn source said. “We had a lot of communication with people who were big in the Sanders campaign. In the UK context, it’s trailblazing.”

On 12 August, after previously equivocating, Smith ruled out returning to the shadow cabinet under Corbyn. “I've lost confidence in you. I will serve Labour on the backbenches,” he declared at a hustings in Gateshead. In the view of Corbyn’s team, it was a fatal error. “He shot apart his whole unity message,” a source said.

Smith, who initially offered Corbyn the post of party president, was rarely booed more than when he lamented Labour’s divisions. As one of the 172 MPs who voted against the leader, he was regarded as part of the problem, rather than the solution. By the end, Smith was reduced to insisting “I wasn’t in favour of there being a challenge” - a statement that appeared absurd to most.

As well as his leftist credentials and unifying abilities, Smith’s other main boast was his competence and articulacy. “HIs USP was that he was this media-savvy guy,” a Corbyn source said. “As a result, he threw himself up for any and every media opportunity and made tons of gaffes. We just made sure people were aware of them.”

The most enduring gaffe came early in the campaign, on 27 July, when he spoke of wanting mto “smash” Theresa May “back on her heels”. Though Smith initially defended his “robust rhetoric” (“you’ll be getting that from me”), by the afternoon his campaign had apologised. What was explained as a “rugby reference” dogged them for weeks. “It played into the hands of how Corbyn wanted to depict us,” a Smith source told me. “It was really hard to shake off.”

More unforced errors followed. Smith suggested getting Isis “round the table”, in anticipation, many believed, of Corbyn agreeing. But the Labour leader baulked at the proposal: “No, they are not going to be round the table”. Corbyn’s communications team, more organised and agile than in 2015, denounced Smith’s remarks as “hasty and ill-considered”. As with “smashed”, the Labour challenger had achieved rare cut-through - but for the wrong reasons.

Smith’s rhetorical looseness became a recurring problem. At a rally on 23 August, he appeared to refer to Corbyn as a “lunatic”. In an interview with the Daily Mirror, he said of meeting his wife: “1,200 boys, three girls and I pulled Liz. So I must have something going on. That must be leadership.”

Earlier in the campaign, Smith’s team denied that the candidate referred to the size of his penis when he quipped of his height: "5ft 6. 29 inches - inside leg!” The guffaws from his supporters suggested otherwise.

We used to have a gaffe counter,” a Corbyn source told me. “I think it got up to 30 by the end.”

Smith’s team, meanwhile, despaired at how the Labour leader’s own missteps failed to dent him. The discovery that Corbyn had in fact secured a seat on a Virgin train, contrary to initial impressions, did little lasting damage. “It’s priced in, the bar is much lower for him,” a Smith source complained.

Incorrect claims, such as Labour being level in the polls before the coup attempt and Corbyn giving 122 speeches during the EU referendum campaign, were believed by many of his supporters. “How do you rebut bullshit?” a Smith aide asked. “If you respond, it becomes a story.”

So frequently had Labour MPs condemned their leader that extraordinary charges were soon forgotten. On 22 August, shadow business minister Chi Onwurah wrote in the New Statesman that Corbyn’s treatment of her and Thangam Debbonaire could constitute “racial discrimination”.

If this had been any of my previous employers in the public and private sectors Jeremy might well have found himself before an industrial tribunal for constructive dismissal, probably with racial discrimination thrown in,” she argued. But within a day, the story had moved on.  

For Smith, fleeting momentum was achieved through significant endorsements. On 10 August, the GMB backed his campaign after becoming the only trade union to ballot its members. The following week, Labour’s most senior elected politician, Sadiq Khan, endorsed Smith. Unlike Andy Burnham, the London mayor believed he could not remain neutral during this profound schism. Smith was subsequently also backed by the Scottish Labour leader, Kezia Dugdale. Neil Kinnock and Ed Miliband trumpeted his cause. Yet such declarations counted for little. “It’s like the Remain campaign and the Archbishop of Canterbury,” one Smith ally told me, suggesting that Labour members, like Leave voters, ”weren’t listening” to such grandees.

But in the view of Corbyn’s team, the rebels profoundly “underestimated” their opponent. “He’s a nice guy but he also has an inner steel and won't flinch from a challenge. The Obi-Wan Kenobi comparison is very accurate when you work up close with him. He’s also extremely intelligent and has a great grasp and retention of detail. It showed in the debates.”

“I have to say, I felt pretty sorry for Owen at several points,” another Corbyn source reflected. “Whatever it was, his ambition or being pushed into it, it didn’t seem like it was the right time for him. He hadn’t worked out what he was about and why that fitted with the times.”

***

Those Labour MPs who long warned that an early challenge to Corbyn would prove futile have been vindicated. “Party members are always loyal to the incumbent,” a senior source astutely noted. In the case of Corbyn, a lifelong campaigner, who many contended was “never given a chance”, this traditional fealty was intensified.

“Most of the people backing and funding him didn’t think Owen was going to win,” a Corbyn source said. “Their aim was, one, to reduce Jeremy’s mandate and, secondly, to map the selectorate.”

Having won a second leadership contest - an unprecedented achievement for the Labour left - the leader’s supporters insist their ambitions do not end here. “We’ve got to think incredibly seriously about how we win a general election in a totally changed landscape,” a Corbyn source told me. “This campaign has been showing how to do it.” But a Smith aide warned that it was a “massive strategic error” to make electability, rather than principle, the defining test of Corbyn. The leader, he suggested, could withstand a general election defeat provided he simply affirmed his values.

Beyond regarding a split as worthless, Labour MPs are divided on how to proceed. Some want another leadership challenge as early as next year. Rather than seeking to narrow the selectorate, they speak of recruiting hundreds of thousands of new members to overpower the left. “There are lots of people out there who want a credible, electable, centre-left proposition and we have not given them enough of a reason to sign up,” a former shadow cabinet minister told me. “Who has an offer and the charisma to be able to bring in new people? That has to be the question the next time round.”

Others believe that backbenchers should follow Thumper’s law: “If you can’t say something nice, don’t say anything at all.”  A senior MP argued that MPs should “just shut up” and “let Jeremy crack on with it.” The imperative, he said, was to avoid MPs “taking the blame for us getting thumped in a snap election”. Some are prepared to move beyond neutrality to outright support by serving under Corbyn.

The Labour left and their most recalcitrant opponents both confront challenges of electability. The former must demonstrate a path to victory despite Corbyn’s subterranean poll ratings. The latter, who boast so often of their superior appeal, must face a remorseless truth. Until they are electable in the party, they will never be electable in the country.

George Eaton is political editor of the New Statesman.