Interview: Tim Farron MP – Liberal Democrat President

19 March 2011

The Lib Dem President talks to TCS about Marx, education cuts and coalition

Now that deputy leader Simon Hughes has been lured into the Coalition’s net as its ‘advocate for access to higher education’, Tim Farron is the most senior Liberal Democrat outside the government. He kept to his party’s pledge to vote against any rise in tuition fees, and is now seeking to carve out the distinct identity of the yellow blob in a largely blue government palette.

‘It would make all the difference in the world if the Sun, the Express and the Times were taken over tonight by some filthy rich Liberal Democrat!’ Farron exclaims. He leans back in the chair of his Westminster office, scratching his tousled blond mop.

‘The narrative would change within a week. The problem is that the two papers which backed us in May, the Guardian and the Independent, have gone into infantile, Trotskyite mode, chucking bricks at us instead of dealing with the cognitive dissonance.’

Most would call the marked contrast between radical pre-election rhetoric and the post-election realities of a Conservative-led coalition more than a mere ‘cognitive dissonance’. Rewind back to the Liberal Democrat conference before the 2010 election. The animated Farron, addressing the party faithful, was musing on the prospects of the Conservatives. ‘What kind of lunatic would decide to put the high priests of free market fundamentalism back into government now?’ he asked. That ‘lunatic’, it seems, was Nick Clegg.

If Farron is at all dismayed by the sight of his colleagues canoodling with the Tory ‘high priests’ in the corridors of power, he shows little sign of it. We meet the cheerful, spirited Lancastrian in his office overlooking the Houses of Parliament, where he talks frankly about navigating the twists and turns of coalition.

Has his attitude towards the right softened, given his party’s new bedfellows? It appears not. ‘The Conservative party has always been on the side of the powerful private interests. It has vacillated between the consensual, one-nation style and the more rabid, free-market Thatcherite approach. You get wide-eyed ‘bonkersness’ on the free-market side. There’s a view that there’s something wonderful about freedom let rip, its just nonsense!’

Farron is quite obviously not, as he puts it, ‘some kind of Tory lapdog’. Born to a single mother in ‘significant poverty’ in the 1980s, he cites outrage at Margaret Thatcher’s ‘attacks’ on northern communities as one of the reasons he joined the Liberals.

Interestingly, he also distances himself from the right’s recent efforts to pin the blame for the deficit squarely on Labour’s shoulders. He claims that the roots of the crisis lie not in the New Labour years but in the ‘rabid Thatcherite’ policies of the 1980s. ‘What we’re dealing with now is the collapse of the Thatcher-Reagan experiment, the aftermath of utterly unrestricted greed. If you want to blame Labour for one thing, it’s that they carried on Thatcherite economics in 1997. That’s the biggest single failure Brown made.’ A critique more likely to be heard in Fabian circles or the pages of the Socialist Worker than the Westminster office of a Liberal Democrat, one might have thought.

That said, the Labour party is clearly not close to Farron’s heart. ‘I’ve always thought they’re a thoroughly conservative party,’ he grumbles. He mentions Labour front-bench support for the Tories’ 1988 ban on the promotion of ‘the acceptability of homosexuality’ in schools.

The last government, he contends, was ‘ideologically vacuous…based upon the pursuit of power for nothing other than power.’ Does he have a message for disillusioned Lib Dems considering joining Labour, though? He repeats the question aloud, as if about to ridicule such an absurd notion. Something stops him though, and as he begins to answer a serious tone has entered his voice, while his normally twinkling eyes have narrowed.

‘Anyone with a memory better than a goldfish will remember they spent thirteen years behaving like Tories. That shouldn’t be forgotten simply because they’ve spent the last eight months behaving like bloomin’ Trots.’

‘Trots’, in case you’re wondering, is derogatory shorthand for supporters of Trotskyism, a variant of Marxism. I point out it is the second time he has used the phrase – no fan of Marx, then? ‘Marx’s analysis of the world is pretty spot on, actually,’ comes the surprising reply, and his playful Lancashire lilt returns. ‘It’s just the “what next” and the assumption of perfect solutions that’s nonsense,’ he concludes.

Precisely which part of the Marxist critique of capitalism Farron does subscribe to we may never know, as I foolishly failed to ask. Presumably he does not believe in that bit about the state being a device for the ‘naked, shameless, direct, brutal exploitation’ of the masses by the bourgeoisie. Not while the Lib Dems are in government, anyway.

I put it to him that my grandmother, at least, sees the coalition’s agenda in that light. Given the VAT rise, cuts to working tax credits, disability and housing benefit, Sure Start, EMA, and countless other vital public services on which those most in need rely, does she not have a point? Does anyone genuinely believe we are ‘all in this together’?

He breathes in deeply with an air of resignation, and proceeds to rehash the government line, with his own demotic twist. ‘Hang about. We have to get the deficit under control. We desperately need to plug the gap. Austerity is always toughest on the poor, it just is. There is some waste in the public sector, but admittedly four-fifths of the money we’re saving is from things we do think are very worthwhile. We are where we are. Higher taxes, cuts in public services, a little bit of inflation, they’re not nice.’ He leans forward and enunciates each word slowly, as though addressing my grandmother. ‘I did not enter politics to do any of these things.’

We are asked to consider the alleged alternative scenario. ‘The key issue is whether you can get the markets to have confidence in what you’re doing. We have done that with the dramatic and you might even say draconian deficit reduction plan. If we’d ended up with the markets lacking confidence, interest rates would have gone through the roof, there would have been 100,000 new people on the unemployment figures every month, and we could have been on 4.5m unemployed by 2013. There’s nothing socially progressive about cutting quite nastily but not enough to make a difference, which is basically Labour’s policy.’

Non-economists, of which I am one, can hardly pass judgment on the plausibility or otherwise of Farron’s parallel universe. The same goes for assessing his claim that the scale of the cuts is absolutely necessary and will get us swiftly on the road to recovery, rather than risking ‘undermining economic growth’, as Ed Miliband has argued. Cutting too deeply and too fast is for him a ‘dangerous and reckless gamble with our economic future’.

This is perhaps one issue where deferring to higher authorities more knowledgeable and probably less biased than oneself seems the least worst option. The IMF, the European Commission, the World Bank and the OECD all believe the government’s deficit reduction plan to be ‘essential’. It is difficult to deem one’s own knowledge and judgement superior to those of such institutions. The subject on which it does seem fairer and even crucial to attack the government, however, is the way in which the cuts will fall. The respected think tank the Institute for Fiscal Studies has concluded that those least able to shoulder them will be hardest hit, which Ed Miliband has rightly condemned. Nonetheless, as crucial as opposing the government may be, is Labour offering a convincing alternative?

It is hard to answer with a concrete ‘yes’. Miliband is quite fairly taking his time in re-establishing a positive vision for Labour. However, he has reneged on a promise made during the leadership campaign to set out an alternative spending review. Some have claimed there is a £59bn black hole in his spending plans. Where is the proof that the coalition could cut less quickly and deeply, backed by economists as respected as those of the IMF or the OECD? Failing that, where are proposals for alternative sources of revenue to the punitive coalition cuts? On these Miliband is quiet, preferring instead to merely ‘chuck bricks’ and pretend all would be rosy in Labour-land.

The moral high ground of all-out opposition holds great allure, one that both the opportunistic politician and the indignant voter cannot resist. Liberal Democrats should know that better than most. If Farron wants to save his party, his most pressing task now is to stem the outflow of members now being assiduously courted by a liberal-sounding Ed Miliband. He must do more to ensure Lib Dem ministers are putting a brake on the worst of the Tories’ plans, and make clear to his disillusioned rump that they are doing so.

Farron reels off some of the major policy wins: taking the lowest earners out of taxation altogether, a pupil premium apparently directing education funding to the poorest, increased capital gains tax, the AV referendum, elections by PR for 80 per cent of the House of Lords, significantly liberalized control orders, and probable improvements to paternity leave benefit. All well and good, but it is hard to avoid the niggling suspicion that in the long run, these may seem mere icing on a poisoned Tory cake.

It is indeed essential that we oppose many of the government’s atrocious, and tragically under-reported, cuts to vital local services on which low-income families, the disabled, the elderly, the young and other vulnerable groups truly depend. Nonetheless, as Miliband reminds us, it should not be forgotten that this is a ‘Conservative-led’ government in which the Liberal Democrats have only a backseat. Opportunities to influence its course from within are to be encouraged, not disregarded in sanctimonious disdain. Far better dirty hands than empty hands, Farron maintains.

Of course, the Lib Dems cannot remain forever aloof and untarnished on the opposition benches. It may be exciting to be a glorified think-tank, pure in the rhetorical pursuit of its lofty ideals, but politics is about power, policy and the art of the possible. As Sartre once asked, why sharpen a knife if you do not intend to use it? A party is and should only ever be a means to an end. However, when the Lib Dem presence in government appears to be aiding more than alleviating the Tories’ assault on the most crucial parts of the welfare state, the justification for coalition grows weaker and weaker. Perhaps Labour’s allegations last year, that senior Lib Dems had been in favour of a deal with the Conservatives from the outset, were not so far from the truth after all.

Farron shakes his head. ‘The Labour narrative, that we’re nothing more than a bunch of pale Tories, is incredibly damaging. A lot of it is about communication, selling our wins. The media are not interested in that story. Part of my job is to talk more loudly.’

In the perhaps unlikely event he succeeds, the Liberal Democrats may just survive this parliament as a credible if diminished force on the centre-left. If that happens, the party would do well to choose a leader who is not tarnished by association with broken promises and a lovey-dovey relationship with David Cameron. If it is perceived at the next election that a vote for the Lib Dems is necessarily a vote for the Tories, the notorious breed of bearded, lentil-eating leftie Lib Dems will soon go the way of the dodo.

It is not easy to see right-of-centre Nick Clegg sauntering seamlessly from Cameron’s side to Miliband’s. As acclaimed conservative blogger Tim Montgomerie notes, the Lib Dems need someone who is ‘likeable, seen to be open to working with Labour, free of close connection with this government and who voted against tuition fees.’

Enter Tim Farron? I ask if he has his eyes on the leadership. He looks somewhat solemnly out of the window, pausing for thought. ‘Clegg is great and he needs support, not undermining. I don’t fancy it at the moment.’ But would he rule it out? His eyes twinkle. ‘I would like there not to be a vacancy for many years, and then we’ll see. You never say never.’

Tom Belger

Image: Press Office