Surviving the storms
Tim Farron’s Commons office has a huge diary planner on the wall with the words ‘Presidential Visit’ highlighted at key moments. The entries refer not to Barack Obama’s latest state banquet, but instead to Farron’s own relentless campaigning schedule up and down the UK.
Indeed, it would be hard to find a politician less ‘presidential’ than the Westmorland and Lonsdale MP, his cramped quarters stuffed with party documents, leaflets and posters. Above his desk are four yellow lapel stickers, each with a slogan (often written more in hope than expectation) backing the last four Lib Dem by-election candidates.
It is of course the latest sticker – “I like MIKE” – that he’ll cherish most, given Mike Thornton’s impressive victory in Eastleigh against what seemed at times like enormous odds. In the campaigning sense at least, Farron shares Obama’s belief that politics can never be divorced from ‘community organising’ at the grass roots level. And that’s perhaps why he hangs onto even the beaten candidates’ stickers: for Tim Farron, there seems no such thing as a lost cause.
As the party heads for its spring conference, the party President knows it’s his job to boost morale and reassure the rank and file that the daily Coalition compromises are worth it. Activists in Brighton will still probably express unhappiness over secret courts. Yet on the other hand, they will celebrate another victory in curbing Tory plans on the NHS, this time on competition.
Overall, what could have been one of the gloomiest gatherings in recent memory will now be of the most celebratory. And Eastleigh is the real reason.
In the wake of the by-election, Tory MPs lamented that the Lib Dems were like ‘cockroaches’ able to survive any disaster, be it Chris Huhne’s speeding debacle or the Chris Rennard affair. But Farron points out that it was he who first used the insect comparison in his 2011 party conference speech, and today he’s happy to reprise it. “We’re a bit like cockroaches after a nuclear war, just a bit less smelly: we are made of sterner stuff,” he says.
Farron says Eastleigh would have brought either “triumph or disaster”, and with triumph combining with improving poll ratings and membership numbers, he boasts that there is “a genuine sense of underlying recovery in the Lib Dems”. And Eastleigh, he adds, was not just a case of a well-established local party holding firm.
“I have never been involved in a by-election, with the possible exception of Brent East, which was very much [about] Iraq, where there was so much of a national agenda. We absolutely didn’t hide away from being in Government. We made the fair tax agenda right, front, and centre. There was no question of us trying to hermetically seal ourselves against the outside world and it just being all dog poo and paper. It was just as much about national issues as it was local.
“It’s been very interesting as well that it certainly looks as though the majority of Labour inclined voters in a Lib Dem-Tory marginal will still consider the Liberal Democrats a party to switch their vote to irrespective of Coalition…which means that the Conservatives’ hopes that they would pick up a load of seats from us because Labour people wouldn’t vote tactically – I think that will probably be disproved.”
The next test comes in May, with a string of local elections across what Farron describes as “Tory-facing shire” seats, and he sounds confident.
“It offers us quite a few opportunities. Quite a lot of our held seats are shire seats, mine being one of them, I suppose Eastleigh another. It gives us a reminder that, I would say, probably two-thirds of our Parliamentary seats will have local elections in them in this year.”
Tracing a survival instinct back to the bloody merger of the SDP and the Liberal Party in 1988, Farron says the Lib Dems are proof that “hardship…is a galvanising thing”.
And if you’re a Lib Dem, then nothing is taken for granted. “Although you fight very hard for your ideals, you sort of hold office, the trappings of it, lightly, and there’s a sense of – I don’t want to sound too hippyish here – inner peace about it all. There’s no kind of ‘Gordon Brown clinging on for dear life’, it’s about what you can achieve in the time you’ve been given. Your average Lib Dem is pretty phlegmatic about where things are, and most people who have been around for more than a decade have seen it worse.”
Never afraid to attack the Tories, Farron says David Cameron ought to learn the hard lesson of Eastleigh too.
Convinced that the voting public “reacts quite well when Nick and the Party, without being destructive, differentiate themselves from the Conservatives”, he also believes the Tories should learn from their Coalition partners: “It does remind people that, let’s be honest, our agenda is more popular than theirs. There’s lots of ‘man in the pub’ stuff that they think resonates, about Europe and what have you. Actually it doesn’t. What really matters to people is whether they’ve got a job. The fair tax agenda is critical.”
But where David Cameron promised to appeal to the “common ground” in the wake of the by-election, Tory minsters hit the airwaves to attack the European Court of Human Rights, immigrants on benefits and NHS tourism. Farron shakes his head.
“Either he [Cameron] doesn’t control his party or he didn’t mean what he said. You don’t just borrow the language of the extremists.”
Farron suggests that the Eastleigh campaign shows the Conservatives the pitfalls of using a hardline immigration and Europe message in a 2015 election campaign.
“Lynton Crosby is a very capable man, he’s a very effective man, don’t get me wrong. But I think the political baggage he brings with him in his tool bag, it kind of underlines where I think Cameron has gone wrong. Gone wrong for the country ideologically but also for himself and for the Tory Party. Because there was a moment where he could have become a properly Coalition, liberal Conservative centre right Prime Minister and quite a statesman and quite a unifying Prime Minister, but for a variety of reasons he’s become a very weak Prime Minister and in the grasp of his Right, not even the intelligent Right, actually.
“And I think that will cost him. What David Cameron has not understood, what William Hague got so wrong, is that saying things that the man in the pub tends to chime with doesn’t win you an election. Because those people when they’ve sobered up realise it sounds ridiculous. The other thing is UKIP prove that their vote is not just about Europe at all. It’s a general discontented, broadly right wing but not exclusively, protest vote. So Cameron is fighting the wrong issues.”
It often seems that as a non-minister Farron has licence to not just attack the Tories but also to question some of the Lib Dems’ priorities in office. He was outspoken about tuition fees and the 50p tax cut. And in the past week he’s upset the party leadership perhaps a little more than he’d bargained for: by coming out strongly on behalf of the women alleged to have been harassed by former party chief executive Lord Rennard.
Farron said the party had ‘screwed up’ with its internal processes. He also said that “there’s every chance we let these women down”. Both statements proved popular with many party activists and supporters, but seemed to prejudge the party’s own internal inquiries and were frowned on by some close to Nick Clegg.
Conference will be held against the awkward backdrop of the Rennard allegations, and Farron says he “would like to us to have a look at the agenda and at how conference is organised to make sure we are sensitive to that issue”. However, he insists that the Lib Dems “won’t derailed by it”.
In part, he argues, that’s because the story is not an issue on the ground. “I think 99 per cent of the people out there just don’t care, it’s not been raised,” he says. “I’ve done a lot of door knocking both in Eastleigh and in my patch this last week. It was mentioned to me once, and that was in sympathy.”
But regardless of who may be reading up on Rennard, Farron reiterates his claim that the Lib Dems “screwed up” their internal handling of the allegations.
“It was probably not the most delicate word to have used, but the point is [that] as an organisation… we certainly appear to have let people down one way or another by not having provided a duty of care or ensured ways in which these issues could have been raised properly, sooner,” he argues. “The most important thing is not to go into institutional self-defence mode. The important thing is to make sure you go into protecting the innocent mode and making sure you learn from them, because you won’t learn anything if your first priority is to make sure you have a good PR day.”
As for those Lib Dems, such as Lord Greaves and Lord Stoneham, who have attempted to down play the seriousness of the allegations, Farron is unimpressed by their “very unwise” comments.
“I think we would be very foolish if we ended up with everybody being censured for every comment that they made but… I just think a bit of discipline, not particularly in the interests of the party but in the interest of due process and dignity, would be a good thing.”
The timing of the Rennard story prompted some Lib Dems to suggest that parts of the media were taking revenge for the Lib Dems’ full backing of statutory press regulation. Farron agrees. “If your politics are such that you’re not in the pockets of very powerful people, and the Tories are, then it should come as no surprise that we will be judged more harshly than they will be by the people who own those newspapers. That’s just life. It’s not a surprise.”
With the Rennard stories dating back to a pre-Government age for the Lib Dems, just as David Laws’ expenses and Chris Huhne’s speeding points had done, are the Lib Dems’ past sins being exposed now they’re in office?
“Or we weren’t a threat [before],” Farron quickly replies. “I’m not trying to, sort of, share the blame round here or anything like that, [but] if we were to properly scrutinise what happens in other political parties I’m pretty sure you’d find plenty to talk about. The point is people don’t pay attention to us. Whereas the other parties have had a level of scrutiny, constantly, and therefore the bank of interesting stories for them is not always full because they are always being withdrawn, our bank of interesting stories, because no one was interested in dipping into the bank, has sort of built up gradually over time.”
Critics say that one of the reasons the Rennard affair spiralled so quickly was that the Lib Dems have their own ‘women problem’, with few female MPs and ministers. And for all Farron’s potshots at the Tories, he also knows that the Lib Dems’ newest MP Mike Thornton is another white, middle aged, middle class, male candidate. When are there going to be more diverse Lib Dem candidates?
He says that the Lib Dems simply don’t have the safe seats needed for all-women shortlists or A-lists to work.
“I’ve got some slight liberal concerns about rigging selections, but to be honest with you they are outweighed by the need to make sure there is diversity, so if those options were available to me I would use them. And in the European Parliament that’s exactly what we did do where we have, I wouldn’t call them safe seats, but in most regions we will get an MEP so we staggered the lists to make sure one was topped by a man and one by a woman and we got some ethnic diversity as well. So we did achieve that there.
“So how do you get to be a Liberal Democrat MP? It’s not as if you can be flown into a safe seat because there aren’t any. So how do you become one? By being a nutter and working your socks off and doing the traditional Liberal Democrat grassroots building-up-a-seat-from-nothing process.
“And so what we’ve done is try to address that belatedly, I would say, but we are doing it. And over the last two years we’ve made real strides with this thing called the Leadership Programme. Essentially we are trying to breed and train a bunch of nutters, absolutely dedicated and who have the skill set and understanding that what it takes is not just doing a good hustings. It’s not just about being able to do a nice TV interview, it’s actually about having the immense fighting spirit to raise a case that you never thought you could raise, to build an infrastructure that seemed impossible to build and all the rest of it.”
Despite success in Eastleigh, one clear result of the Rennard affair is that lot of people have been forced to think of life after Clegg. With Huhne out of the way, isn’t the path to the party leadership now a lot easier for Tim Farron?
“You assume Tim Farron wants it...it’s not seemed the most attractive prospect this week…we need good colleagues. Mike Thornton will turn out to be a very, very good MP and he will do more than just be a backbencher, we’ll see a lot of him because I’ve never seen anyone develop so quickly in three weeks. But we really miss Chris.”
So is his position ‘never say never, but I’m not focused on the leadership’?
“I’m not at all. There are more important things in life. The party is in a critical state. We may well be cockroach-ish, but we shouldn’t take that for granted. One day someone will stand on us if we are not careful. We shouldn’t assume our survival is guaranteed. Nick’s a good leader, a very, very popular leader within the party and nobody else has had to withstand the kind of pressure that he has and the scrutiny, and whoever was in that position would have to be dealing with all that and I think he’s dealt with it brilliantly. I think there are a lot of twists and turns to go.”
Farron on....the Chancellor
“George Osborne is the Chancellor of this Government. But all of us think that we’ve got at least three candidates for Chancellor of the Exchequer who could do a better job. We are very blessed, we have more economists than we need.”
Farron on....media attacks on Lib Dems
“We have never been through anything like this before. Clegg played a blinder in the leaders’ debate and the following day everything was Nick Clegg’s fault. We had a little bit of it just for a short period of time over the Kennedy resignation but even that doesn’t compare to this. Some of it is kind of reminiscent of how the Clintons were treated at times.”
Farron on....cutting welfare to save defence
“If you really think that having another a go at people who are the poorest in this county in order to protect one particular budget, that seems morally wrong.”
Farron on....the Leveson lessons from Rennard
“Where I think there is an issue and where I think Leveson does come up again is the door-stepping of alleged victims in a pretty aggressive way. There is some further post-Leveson evidence for the need to reform as a result of this - nothing to do with how Nick is written up or anyone else, but how individual victims have been treated.”
Farron on....Labour's Mansion Tax Vote
“They’ve been opportunistic, they’ve been mischievous. That doesn’t mean we shouldn’t consider it as an opportunity.”