by Stephen Tall on March 9, 2013
I interviewed Lib Dem president Tim Farron for the February issue of the party magazine, Ad Lib. Here’s what I wrote… together with a few quotes at the foot that didn’t make the final cut…
I meet Tim Farron – the party’s un-spun, down-to-earth, heart-on-his-sleeve president and über-campaigner – in his Westminster office. A vast grid, running almost the entire length of one wall, pin-points Tim’s campaigning activities over the next few weeks. It’s hard to imagine his well of enthusiasm ever running dry.
Yet the previous night he had lined-up with the Conservatives – alongside most, but not all, his backbench Lib Dem colleagues – to vote for the Government’s Benefits Uprating Bill which will increase welfare payments by a below-inflation 1% for each of the next three years. For someone who was politicised by Cathy Come Home, Ken Loach’s gritty TV docu-drama about homelessness, how does he feel about such Coalition compromises? How many times have his ‘red-lines’ been crossed?
On thick and thin red lines
“All of us are dealing with the culture shock of being in government. We over-use the phrase, ‘red line’. We have to accept some compromises we just don’t like. But I’m sure of this: it was a damn sight thinner red line on welfare than the Tories originally proposed because we were there. I went through the lobby with the Government because I knew we’d fought tooth and nail to stop it being an awful lot worse.
“We’re in a much stronger negotiating position if we have few red lines, though our anti-tuition fees stance should have been one of them. But I’ll say this: every one of my red-lines was crossed every day for 24 years when we were in opposition.”
He’s dropped the F-word: fees. Tim was one of 21 Lib Dem MPs who voted against the increases in 2010 – in line with the party’s policy and that infamous NUS pledge, but in defiance of the abstention written into the Coalition Agreement. Don’t expect to read too much about it, though, if you live in his Cumbrian seat of Westmorland and Lonsdale: “loyalty to colleagues is important to me, so how I voted won’t be plastered all over my leaflets”.
The ’75-seat by-election strategy’
The party will, he says, have to stand by its record: “We’re not going to be able to pretend we’ve not been in government for five years.” Yet Tim has been quoted proposing a ’75-seat by-election strategy’ in 2015: bespoke campaigning in our 57 seats, plus a few other top targets, trading on the party’s record of action on the ground. “Incumbency is critical. The Lib Dem brand has been tainted. But the one part that remains intact is our brand of being local community politics campaigners, that we care about human beings. ”
Isn’t this a defensive position for a party which one day wants to be in national government on its own account? “The reality is we have to survive. Our electoral system defaults to the Lib Dems winning a dozen seats. It’s vital we defend our position so we don’t go down the plughole.” He compares it to the first general election at which he was old enough to vote. “In 1992 we faced an existential threat after the merger. We had to defend our position. And we punched above our weight, taking Bath, North Devon, North Cornwall and Cheltenham, bucking the national trend. And in 1997 our vote fell by 1%, yet our number of seats more than doubled.”
If all this sounds hyper-local, Tim is determined the Lib Dems must win the air-war, with a clear national message of ‘a strong economy, a fair society’. “We inherited a failed economy and we have to make sure it improves.” He blames the mess we’re in on the legacy of both the Tories and Labour. “Margaret Thatcher was a strong leader but her reign brought in free market fundamentalism – which was in fact just the championing of oligopoly – and then Labour just souped it up. Labour are still more blamed for the cuts.”
“We should pledge to restore the 50p rate at the next election”
He reserves his most severe comments for George Osborne, slamming the decision to cut the top-rate of tax for those earning more than £150,000 from 50p to 45p. “Cutting the top-rate was a stupid thing to do. It probably raised up to £3bn a year. We should pledge to restore the 50p rate at the next election. It’s not enough to be fair, you have to be seen to be fair.” He’s no keener on the Chancellor’s rhetoric against claimants who ‘keep their blinds down’ while others head off to work: “We’ve seen a continued reduction in unemployment even during this last year. Many people are working for less money. It disproves Osborne on ‘shirkers’ – people are proving they want to work and want to stay off benefits.”
The party’s flagship policy to help low-earners has been the raising of the income tax threshold: two million of the poorest paid now don’t pay any income tax. But will they feel any better off in 2015 given earnings haven’t kept pace with inflation? “The big perception risk is folk don’t notice it, that all we’re seen to be doing is mitigating,” he acknowledges. He supports raising the threshold further to ensure that no-one on the minimum wage (currently £12.5k pa) pays any income tax.
But Tim, a proud Keynesian, would go much further. “A lot of the money we spent on quantitative easing was very foolish, a waste. I’m all for the independence of the Bank of England but not for them freelancing. We should be looking for ways to give money to people directly.” Such as? “For example, through Housing Authority bonds to meet affordable housing need. Or even a couple of grand in the back pocket of everyone. I wouldn’t even means-test it.”
He also wants to see a renewed focus to help the self-employed – “many of them compassionate people earning very little” – through supply-side reforms. “What is it prevents small and medium-sized businesses from expanding? We need reforms to VAT. Health and safety is important, but there is disproportionate red-tape. The best route out of poverty is people being in work. We need to be the party of genuine enterprise – which is totally different to the Tories’ casino enterprise.”
Does he want to be leader? (Yes.)
I’m approaching the crunch question: he knows it’s coming. Does he want to be Lib Dem leader next time there’s a vacancy? For the first and only time he looks uncomfortable. “I don’t know. It depends when it is and what Mrs F says. I’m genuinely not that personally ambitious. But, as you can tell, there are some things that make me cross and I think could be done differently.”
He steers the conversation back to terra firma. First, the need to remember why the Lib Dems are different: “We’re in power with the powerful, we need to remember that. The Tories are full of people who are nice and pleasant – they can afford to be because they’re the people who’ve always run the world – but this party has always been marked out by our gut instincts… standing up for the bottom end of society, the powerless.”
And then, crucially, the need to start pounding the pavements. Now. “It’s really important we get out and enthuse. We make loads of excuses for not doing stuff, like recruiting members and doing residents’ surveys. Yet it’s really good fun when you get out and do them … last Friday and Saturday I knocked on the three friendliest people after a residents’ survey session and signed them up. Just flipping ask! Then reward yourself with a pint.”
An hour’s conversation couldn’t be condensed into 1,200 words. Here’s a few quotes which didn’t make the cut…
“We’re still the outsiders”
Tim commented that “Tough times breed good campaigners”. And that’s not such a bad thing: “I think that some complacency had set in. In 1992, we had 22 MP, 2 MEPs, no representatives in Scotland, Wales, London. Then, after 1997, we had more elected people, more staff, there was an ‘industry’ behind us, almost a sense of “we quite like being like the other parties”. The loss of Short money has reminded us we’re the outsiders.”
On campaigning techniques
“We’re not using Connect enough, it’s a real campaign tool. It’s a real priority for me.”
“On new media we’re upping our game – hugely important, locally and nationally. When I was first elected in 2005, 90% of my correspondence was by snail-mail, 10% by email. It’s now the reverse. But that means Focus leaflets are more powerful now because they are competing with less and less snail-mail on the doormat.”
On the 2010 campaign
“In January 2010, if you’d offered me a result which saw 57 Lib Dem MPs elected I’d have bitten your hand off. Nick Clegg stole the change mantle from David Cameron and saved 20 seats.”
“Cleggmania distracted the party. People believed the polls.”
“Ian Swales’ Redcar seat was 326th on our list of target seats – if we’d won all the ones above it we’d be in government on our own account.”
Nick Clegg’s future
“What we’ll have next time is someone who’s been in power for 5 years. The apology has had an impact – though it’s not a game-changer – and in the end it’s up to the people you apologise to if they choose to forgive him.”
The TV debates
“There should definitely be 3×90 minute debates during the campaign – the cat’s out of the bag on that one.” But they won’t always work to our advantage: “our position on Trident and immigration, though I think they’re absolutely right, definitely frightened a few horses last time”