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24 July 2015

Sorry Tim Farron, there’s plenty of tribalism in the Liberal Democrats

Tim Farron smacked away the hand of friendship when Ed Miliband offered it, says Richard Grayson. 

By Richard Grayson

I was amused to see that Tim Farron is interested in co-operation on the ‘left’, especially with Labour, and that he hopes the next Labour leader will not be a tribalist.  Five years ago, when I was organising such dialogue with a Labour leader who was most certainly not tribal, Tim said that only ‘an insane progressive’ would take part

If he has changed his mind, then I welcome that.  However, it is a shame that he could not have taken a similar view five years ago when there was a real open door to dialogue.  I have known Tim since we were contemporaries as student activists and I communicated with him at the time about his response.  I was pleased when he told me that he regretted using the term ‘insane’, but he made it clear that he did not regard Miliband’s attempts to engage in dialogue with the Liberal Democrats as genuine pluralism but rather a cynical piece of opportunism aimed at recruiting Liberal Democrats to Labour.  He then set forth his view on how illiberal and anti-democratic he believed many in the Labour Party were.  Yet I knew, after a lengthy discussion with Ed Miliband, that this was a genuinely pluralist initiative from Ed, aimed at promoting co-operation on the centre-left with an eye on what might happen in 2015 and beyond.

Tim’s response seemed to me at the time to be a rather curious interpretation of pluralism.  Tim knows that there is much that Liberal Democrats share with many people in Labour, but to respond to an offer of discussion by saying that because you disagree with some people in Labour, you cannot talk to any of them, smacks of the tribalism of which Tim has so often been keen to pin on Labour. 

What actual risk was there from a discussion?  Indeed, if it had turned out to be an attempt at recruitment, it would have been exposed as such, and how could anyone have been obliged to join Labour?  As it happened, those who did take part, found that they had a number of discussions with a wide range of people, from Liam Byrne and Stephen Twigg to Andy Burnham. 

Sometimes these were one-to-ones, and others were small working group formats which were very similar to those taking place in policy circles.  Nobody ever asked me to join, there was a real spirit of open-mindedness, and a sense that Ed was attempting something bold and worthwhile.  For doing this, Ed was not without his Labour critics, and that was one reason why I felt we had to show that this kind of dialogue could actually happen.  That I joined Labour three years later was entirely separate from this process and reflected my sense that the Liberal Democrats were finished but that Labour offered some hope for progressive politics – a view I very much still hold.  Nobody else involved in discussions ever joined Labour.

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At the same time, I must voice some scepticism about the presentation of Tim as a figure of the “left” of the Liberal Democrats.  He has long been associated with left-wing causes back to student days, but he was very slow to see what was going on in the party.  Tim was not the only one.  Lots of us, myself included, did not quite realise what the Orange Book actually meant in terms of party positioning when it appeared in 2004, but by 2008 we had realised and took a stand at the September conference of that year on a document called Make it Happen, which was a general statement of party positioning.  At this conference, Nick Clegg and Vince Cable sought to shift what had been the position of the Liberal Democrats for the past decade on savings in the government budget.  This had been that where savings could be found, they should be used to fund Liberal Democrat spending priorities.  However, the leadership wanted to use savings to cut taxes, starting from a perspective that overall spending by Labour was too high – never a line the party had taken in Parliament since 1997 when in general the position had been to spend a little but more on key areas.  I was one of the organisers of the opposition to the leadership, which as its public face had Evan Harris and Paul Holmes, both then MPs and solidly centre-left.  For someone clearly on the left of the party, this would have been a good moment to support colleagues of like-mind.   Yet in the debate, Tim was recruited by the leadership to give a tub-thumping speech arguing that cutting taxes to give people more in their pockets was the way to go.  Always a good platform rhetorician, he argued that ‘Labour tax cuts have always been about comforting the comfortable, ours are about lifting the poorest out of poverty.’  It was a cheap point because none of us were for Labour’s tax cuts, but instead for funding policies, like cutting tuition fees or supporting social care, or investing more in health, which on other days Tim would have called for.  We were defeated, probably two to one, due in no small part to Tim’s speech, though he was not the only one who should have known better. 

Of course, there is an argument to be had around the progressive benefits of tax cuts for the poorest tax payers (though hey are by definition not the poorest in society), but Tim had entirely missed the big picture of what the debate was really about.  At this point, the pass had been sold on allowing the leadership to prioritise tax cuts not new spending in coalition negotiations.  So talk as much as he likes about voting against increasing fees, I am afraid that Tim was a crucial early supporter of the party’s fiscal policy which allowed precisely that to happen.

Out of this debate came the formation of the Social Liberal Forum which I helped to establish as a way of organising the centre-left more effectively in the party.  I must credit Tim here because he was one of the MPs who gave the SLF support from an early stage as a member of its advisory group.  However, come the coalition, Tim not only supported it but remains of the view that going in to coalition was the only option, despite now also saying that mistakes were made in how it was presented.  This is where Ed Miliband’s offer for dialogue could have played a part.  Showing that the Liberal Democrats wanted to talk to Labour while in government with the Conservatives could have been an important part of showing that the coalition was one of necessity (if you take the view that it was, which I do not).

When the new Labour leader is elected, I hope that whoever is elected will be open to new thinking from across the broad left of British politics.  But if they do ever appear to be tribal towards Liberal Democrats (or ‘liberals’ as they will probably call them), then Tim would be well to think about why that is.  The longstanding suspicion of many in Labour is that ‘liberals’ are actually a type of wet Conservative who will, when the chips are down, side with the Conservatives.  They will say that they can find plenty of evidence of in the last five years, and Danny Alexander’s recent ruminations on the budget suggest that that some Liberal Democrats want yet more.  Meanwhile, as Tim Farron has already shown, the tribalism is not only to be found in Labour’s ranks.  Next time he accuses Labour, he would do well to reflect on that. 

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