The Stage Awaits
He may have spent last year’s Liberal Democrat conference in the glare of the media spotlight, but 12 months on Tim Farron is not afraid to openly discuss the challenges – and opportunities – which face his party
Tim Farron is in training for the Liberal Democrat party conference. Fresh from a morning run across Hyde Park, the Party President is looking lean and ready for the five day gathering in Brighton. Stamina for the week ahead is essential. At last year’s conference in Birmingham, Farron endured a hectic few days in the media spotlight as the assembled press decided that he should be crowned as the next leader-in-waiting. His every word was analysed for hidden meaning, and his every move followed.
A year on, he insists that the drama was not by his design. “I’m not quite sure what happened last year, as to where that all kind of came from”, he says, recalling an “uncomfortable” experience. One man, however, knew exactly what he was going through: Nick Clegg, himself crowned as leader-in-waiting during Sir Menzies Campbell’s tenure at the top of the party.
“In the midst of all that last time around Nick and I had a brew in a quiet room and it was lovely, because he said ‘I know how it feels’ because he had exactly the same thing. He was not quite physically attacked by Elspeth Campbell but nearly. It means everything you say gets seen through the prism of what they think you mean rather than what you’re actually trying to say.”
So, a year on, where does he stand on that same question: ‘Do you want to be Liberal Democrat leader?’
“I mean, I’m not saying I would never do it but I’m always suspicious of people who are overly personally ambitious because you kind of think what’s the point really? But if there’s a job to be done it will depend on what the lie of the land is and then… I certainly wouldn’t rule it out”.
This year, Farron seems to have slipped down the pecking order, with Business Secretary Vince Cable emerging as the bookies’ favourite. Another whose star his risen is Energy Secretary Ed Davey. “Ed would be very, very good, he’s a good Energy Secretary and I like him. He’s a good campaigner as well”, is Farron’s candid assessment. “I think we’ve got plenty of people who are capable of doing the job but, well, you know, it may well be we skip a generation.” To Duncan Hames, perhaps, or maybe his wife Jo Swinson? “Absolutely, yeah, absolutely – either of them”, Farron enthusiastically replies.
However, despite his open praise of the would-be leaders in the party ranks, Farron makes plain that the party’s attention should not be on leadership chatter. And he adds a warning to anyone weighing up the incumbent’s chances of survival.
“Let’s be honest: the party is not in the appalling mess that people think it is, but we face a serious, serious threat and anyone who is concentrating on their own personal future at a time like this is recklessly selfish.”
But what about Farron’s immediate future? We meet on the day of the government reshuffle: would he take a ministerial job if it were offered?
“It would be a ‘no’ but only because I’ve got a job. I’m the Party President. It’s not in government and I wouldn’t want it to be. I think it’s important that you’ve got somebody who is outside the Coalition, who is of the party, nationally, who belongs to them, not to this place.”
At last year’s conference the President gave a barnstormer of a speech, defending the Coalition but appealing to the party members still uncomfortable with their Tory partners. The follow up sounds like it could be equally provocative. “We’ll see what happens. I mean, obviously I have to look at the mood at the time… but I think I’m really keen that we articulate what we are for ideologically. I’m a radical liberal and I think it’s important at a time like this that people feel very clear about what we stand for and what we’re going to go forward and be saying next time around.”
He believes that the construction of the “good bit about the Budget”, namely the introduction of an income tax for the less well off following Lib Dem pressure, is the “blueprint” for Coalition relations.
Farron’s big belief is that the party can only help the nation – and itself – if it wins the argument on the economy within the Coalition. He says that changing health and safety regulations and tinkering with the minimum wage won’t get the economy off the floor.
“The answer is more demand in the economy and that means more tax cuts for the least well off, not squandering cash on wealthy people who will then go and save it or spend it abroad. And you have to find ways of releasing money into the economy.
“I want us to be much more intelligent about quantitative easing. Why don’t we just do it through social housing bonds? Just giving it to the banks is un-targeted and goes into the hands of the wealthy really. If it’s about build, build, build houses for families, for young people, people at the lower end of the property scale, you will do a wonderfully important thing anyway and you will help kick start the economy.
“We need to be talking a lot more about how we just tackle the economy from a very common-sense Keynesian point of view.”
In other words, be bolder in coalition – and spell out the alternative if the electoral landscape changes in 2015. Because, says Farron, where full coalition was unavoidable in 2010, in 2015 a new option may be on the table if no party wins a majority.
“I always thought ‘confidence and supply’ was, for this Parliament at least, not a good option because you kind of get, you know, none of the power and all the blame. I think in the future ‘confidence and supply’ might be an option. Post-2015, because we’ve now got fixed term Parliaments and in a calmer economic period, then having a minority administration would be possible, entirely possible, but it wasn’t last time because you knew that David Cameron would call an election in October and he would have won it.”
So, a confidence and supply deal with either Labour or the Conservatives is possible after the election? “Yes, it’s entirely possible”, Farron replies, pointing to Lib Dem gains with SNP and Labour minority administrations in Scotland and Wales. “I’m not saying we should do, I’m saying there’s an extra thing on the menu this time round because of fixed term Parliaments.”
But if he had to do a deal, it’s obvious which party the left-leaning Farron would prefer to work with. He admits his heart beats on the left, and he has begun work to “counsel” Labour MPs back to health. “They need a bit of psychotherapy…we just need to calm them down”, he jokes, suggesting that Labour MPs lurched from being “Tories” in government to “student Trots” in opposition. “Why can’t we talk to each other? There is a progressive history between us, we come broadly from the same stable a century or so ago, so by talking to Labour we do have people who are pro-constitutional reform, some people who are genuinely positive about the environment… and many of them do understand that their leadership has been very stupid in their position towards us over the least two and a half years. We didn‘t choose the Tories over them; we reacted to the arithmetic.”
And, he adds, working with Labour now could yet achieve the Lib Dem holy grail of electoral reform. “Just trying to bring them back in to some sort of decent dialogue I think is the best chance of getting electoral reform and constitutional change in the next generation. It will depend on some kind of Cook-Maclennan style progressive, you know, compromise that might be built outside of government and might be delivered at a later stage when one of us is in government. So I think it’s important we talk to them.”
When asked how bad things are for the Lib Dems right now, Farron jokes that one recent poll put the party two points higher in the polls than when he was a PPS to Ming Campbell.
“What I do know is Cameron’s problems are massively greater than Nick Clegg’s for a variety of reasons. First of all there’s pretty much unanimous love and respect for Nick within the party as a whole and within the Parliamentary party.
“I actually think that David Cameron’s project, if we take it at face value, is one which would be a worthy one, which is to modernise and moderate the Conservative Party. This summer, it’s clearly failed miserably and I think there are at least 50 Tory MPs who would have him for breakfast tomorrow.”
Farron points out that the media struggled to find a Lib Dem to criticise the leader this summer. “I don’t want to be mean about people but clearly somebody from the BBC went all the way through the Parliamentary party, couldn’t find a single person to slag off and ask for Nick Clegg to resign, went through all the Lords that anybody had ever heard of, still failed and eventually ended up with Lord Smith of Cliftonville.
“Even I didn’t know him…I had to Google him. When I found out... good track record in the party, joined in 1948, an honourable soldier and all the rest of it. But I’d never heard of him, so the fact that you had to go down – and it’s a terrible thing to say about a human being – to the kind of fourth division of the Liberal Democrats to find someone to say he should go, where I could find you half a dozen Premier League Tories who say Cameron should go, and if I tried hard enough two or three who would say Miliband should go..so the answer [to the question of the state of the Lib Dems] is, ‘not that bad really, but difficult’.
“And I think we are foolish, very stupid and deluded if we don’t recognise the next election is the hardest we’re going to fight for at least 20 years.”
One area where Farron is candid about the toughness of that fight is on tuition fees. He voted against the Coalition and now wants to make sure the party limits the damage in 2015. Part of that means calling the current policy what it is: a Graduate Tax.
“A line in the manifesto about what we will do about fees is obviously something we should definitely be looking at. We should be looking to ensure the higher education funding system is fair – and not just fair but seen to be fair.
“Perceptions are everything, so we need to do something perhaps to address that. I appreciate there’s not tonnes of cash but something around a graduate tax, a graduate contribution system where we rid ourselves of the nomenclature of loans and of debt would be something I would like to do, but I’m not in the position of being able to reveal the manifesto yet.
“The Tories wouldn’t have a word with tax in it. But if you have pay something on a regular basis, that’s what it is. So you may as well make it fair and you may as well divorce it from the whole notion of debt which we ought to have done. There will not be an absence of tuition fees in the next party manifesto, I’m certain of that.”
However Tim Farron’s conference turns out, at least there’s his annual turn at the Glee Club, a surreal late night Lib Dem variety show, to provide light relief.
Farron, who once sang in a band described as a “fourth rate version of New Order”, traditionally does a take on the Ting Tings’ That’s Not My Name. This year he may unveil a new act. “I think I’m bored of the Ting Tings. I might have to write something else. That’s about 27th on my list of priorities so it might not happen…”
The conference tune may be undecided, but whatever it may be, Tim Farron seems to have a knack of hitting the right notes when the Liberal Democrat membership get together.