Why I’m supporting Tim Farron for Lib Dem leader

by Stephen Tall on May 22, 2015

Tim-farronI have a pretty appalling record when it comes to voting for party leaders. So you may be best to note the headline, which is after all the nub of what follows, and read no further.

The first time I voted was in Labour’s 1994 leadership contest: I chose Blair and Prescott as my dream ticket, and so did my then party. I think that’s when I peaked, at least in terms of choosing winners.

The next time I had a leadership vote, in 1999, I was a Lib Dem: I voted for David Rendel (on the naive grounds he did best at the hustings I attended). Seven years later, I chose Ming Campbell (I think I realised my mistake almost as soon as he did). And the last time, in 2007, I opted for Chris Huhne (because it was about time the Lib Dems had a bit of a bastard at the top). If, knowing these facts, you think still my views are worth bearing in mind, then read on… at your own risk.

So first question: why is a stout defender of Lib Dem centrism who’ll still happily bandy about the term Orange Book liberalism (ie, me) supporting the candidate who most readily identifies with left-liberalism (ie, Tim Farron)?

My first answer, and this matters, is that I like him. He’s an honest, heart-on-his-sleeve, lifelong liberal, who lives and breathes my party’s philosophy, and has done since he was 16. I’ve heard him speak a few times, and have always felt lifted, energised, inspired. That’s a rare gift. When someone has it, you can do worse than elect them your leader.

That doesn’t mean I agree with Tim all the time. I don’t and I won’t. He’s more of a tax-and-spender than I’d be. For example, he supports the 50p top-rate of income tax whereas I think it’s an inconsequential economic irrelevance — a symbolic totem that raises very little revenue but limits the political space to tackle unearned wealth.

Tim also has a touching faith in glitzy, expensive, state-sponsored infrastructure projects (ironically something which unites him with Jeremy Browne on the party’s other wing) remarking at last year’s party conference that “we should be planning not just HS2, but HS3, 4 and 5 too!” Whereas I think the massive price-tag is a huge opportunity cost, and we’d be much better off spending half the money on upgrading the current rail system.

So, in voting for Tim, I’m under no illusion I will always like the direction of party policy under his leadership.

But he is exactly what the party needs right now. Lib Dems have suspended our disbelief at the election result. It was so crushingly bad it’s knocked all the stuffing out of the party. Sure, we’ve got an extra 13,000 members — that’s terrific and a warm welcome to them — but (no offence intended) I’d swap them for 13 extra MPs.

The plain fact is the party has now to begin a long, slow, painful climb back. Absent some John Major-eque collapse by the Tories (which can’t of course be ruled out) c.20 MPs is the summit of our hopes at the 2020 election. Given the boundary changes to come, we may be doing well simply to hold on to the eight seats we’ve got.

We certainly won’t be in a position to go into coalition government again in the forseeable, even if the party were willing to vote for it (very unlikely). But, then, that also means I don’t need to worry about disagreeing with Tim on our tax-and-spending policies too much.

Tim’s drive, determination and campaigning nous are going to prove essential to breathe new life back into the party. “We should be encouraged by the fightbacks of the past but nothing is inevitable. We might fail,” notes one senior Lib Dem. This is true and a valuable warning.

In the past, the Lib Dem vote has been swollen by protest voters wanting to give Labour and the Tories a kick in the shins. The public now has many other anti-establishment parties to turn to, all of them less contaminated by a recent spell in government, and with more strikingly populist messages: Ukip’s anti-immigration dog-whistle, the SNP’s pro-nationalism placebo, the Greens’ anti-austerity posturing.

We need a leader who doesn’t look like the latest Westminster SpAd-turned-MP to trundle off the conveyor belt, who has the authenticity to connect with voters, who can speak-from-the-hip and sum up Lib Dem values simply and compellingly. That Tim can do by the bucket-load.

What I’ve written above may, I realise, run the risk of suggesting I think Tim’s wrong on everything, but sod it, vote for him anyway because he’s the Lib Dems’ best/last/only hope of electoral recovery. I’d be lying if I said there wasn’t an atom, a grain, a soupçon of truth in that. And, as it happens, I think that’s a valid consideration if, like me, you think liberalism needs a successful political party to make its case to the public. However, it’s by no means my overwhelming consideration in being happy to endorse Tim.

Tim is a gut-instinct liberal: how can the individual best be empowered? is the question that drives him. It was summed up by his comments on last night’s BBC1 Question Time, passionately defending the principle (though not always the practise) of trade unions: “There is not a free market if you have big employers against atomised employees.” Collective bargaining is the personal pooling of individual sovereignty: it evens up the power imbalance, makes negotiations fairer. There is a parallel here, of course, with the UK’s membership of the European Union (the popular defence of which will be a crucial role for the next Lib Dem leader): we are stronger together than when trying to plough our own lonely furrow.

His liberalism isn’t always popular within the party — three years ago, I stuck up for Tim when he spoke out against the Advertising Standards Authority (for banning an advert by the Healing On The Streets ministry in Bath) on free speech grounds. He’s come under similar fire for having expressed concerns that the same-sex marriage legislation did not take sufficient account of conscience clauses.

I think the liberal arguments on these issues are more finely balanced than some of his critics allow: I think the state is right to outlaw discrimination in the public sphere; but not to try and outlaw bigotry in people’s private lives. I’d much rather know who the sexists and homophobes and transphobes are so that they can be persuaded to change their minds, and boycotted if they don’t, than have them forced by law to suppress their beliefs. In any event, nothing of what I’ve seen, read or heard from Tim suggests to me he will be anything other than a principled champion of liberal causes.

And there are going to be a lot of those liberal causes needing championing in the next few years: pro-immigration, anti-welfare cuts, pro-internationalism, pro- a reformed-more-democratic EU, pro-housing, pro-human rights, pro-drugs reform etc etc. Tim is, without doubt in my mind, the best person to lead our campaigning on all these issues and more. I hope he wins.

You can find out more about Tim’s campaign, and sign up to support him, here.


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