Along with other top Liberal Democrat blogs, Liberal Vision will be interviewing both candidates for Party President, after which we will make an endorsement. This week Tim Farron.
Some of the highlights from this interview include:
- How we can be distinctive, spikey, and achievement-centred to avoid being the Oxford United of British politics
- What Liberal Democrat ministers are doing behind the scenes
- Compulsory insurance for social care to replace the free personal care for the elderly?
- What Paddy Ashdown got wrong on Labour and Menzies Campbell on the Michael Brown money
- Why Chris Fox is like Kenny Dalgish and Tim’s experience of sacking well-paid people
- Tim embraces evidence-based medicine over homoeopathy
- Employment rights for gays in churches, a “relatively minor issue” compared to homophobic bullying by “thick macho blokes”
- Tim’s leadership ambitions versus being the heir to Simon Hughes
One of the first things that grabs you about Tim, apart from his infectious enthusiasm, is the sheer physicality of the way he communicates; something like the Karate Kid meets Alexandar the Meerkat. As his passion for a topic rises, so do his arms, whilst his head and eyes dart around the room, perhaps looking for eagles. At one point, both arms outstretched, head hung down, I assume hunting for scorpions, he almost achieved the perfect crane…
Tim’s position in the race is difficult for Liberal Vision. On the one hand his politics tend to the left, on the other, as we have noted he is “An excellent MP, impressive campaigner, a great team player and all round nice guy (with seemingly impossible levels of energy!)“.
Is that enough to be the President of the Party? To help you decide here is Tim:
LV: In one sentence why should people who read our blog back your campaign?
TF: Because they want the Liberal Democrats to win, and because the party’s separate identity is absolutely critical. If we’re not protected by a proportional system, if we’re seen as an appendage, we will not convince people there is a reason to vote for us. The President needs to articulate what the Liberal Democrats are for, not what Tim Farron is for, but what the Liberal Democrats are for.
LV: Richard Grayson wrote this year that the Liberal Democrats are “unideological, under-factionalised and leadership-loyal”. Does that describe your bid for the Presidency?
TF: It doesn’t. Not being overly factionalised is a good thing, many divisions in the party… orange bookers… social liberals… are completely exaggerated. In respect of leadership loyalty… compared to other parties… what we are is a very polite party, and a family. Our willingness not to take our leaders at face value and criticise them is legendary.
I am party loyal, and I’m loyal to my leader because (a) it’s a polite and collegiate thing to do, (b) he’s the right leader, I backed him. Even if I didn’t think he was the right leader I’d back him because discipline is important, but I do.
The critical thing in all this is the party must be united, but give out signs of being independently minded, spikey, and different to the party it is in coalition with.
LV: Is our party generally left, right or centre?
TF: We don’t tend to use left and right as it puts people in pigeon holes. In a progressive, modern, non-statist sense, I would say we are on the side of the oppressed and the exploited, and the powerless or relatively powerless. That must surely put us broadly on the centre-left, but it doesn’t mean we are obsessed with big government. Much of what this government is being forced to do by necessity we could do by choice where it is about empowering communities.
The Big Soceity makes Liberal Democrats jibber a bit, because it doesn’t sound like our idea, and sounds like charitable replacement for the state. But what is community politics?
LV: So if we’re centre-left today, where will be at the end of your Presidency?
TF: Our platform at the general election was broadly correct… progressive, sensible and intelligent. All the parties went into the election with manifestos that couldn’t cope with the reality of the economic situation, ours was the least unrealistic… but you asked me about the left/right thing, and I really want to back away from that, it’s such a false construct.
We’re broadly in the right area but not getting credit for doing the right things. For example, I discovered two hours ago Vince Cable prevented the Treasury from cutting Basic Skills, a training programme for young adults with literacy problems run through Further Education colleges, and Vince saved it, possibly at the expense of some of the Higher Education funding. I wonder how many people know that. I wonder how many people know that Steve Webb managed to triple discretionary housing benefit to correct some of the unfairnesses that will come out of the housing benefit cut. So there’s all sorts of good stuff that we’re doing about fairness, that we’re not getting any credit for.
So I don’t want to shift the ideological balance of the party, it’s based upon what the members of the party think, the real problem is we’re not getting credit for what we’re actually doing, and part of my job will be to drag out of our 18 ministers the fine things like that that they’re proud of and say it louder, clearer, pithier…
LV: So pithily where we are now but doing it better?
TF: Yes, so looking back to things like our tuition fees policy, 50p top rate of tax, Iraq, whatever you think about the politics and positioning of them, they beauty of them is that it gave people a sense of what we stood for and they were good things to vote for. Take also our experience in Scotland, I don’t remember all the little stuff, or even that we were in coalition, the impression left with me and the other 3-400,000 English people in the north getting Scottish TV every night were three things, no tuition fees, free personal care, and free eye and dental tests. That’s what we need.
LV: Are those what we believe, or what we do?
TF: They’re things that we do that exemplify things we think are right. An issue for example I want to make some running on is social care. We can’t do free personal care for the elderly, not without a massively expensive, progressive and probably compulsory form of insurance up front. I think we need to do that in an all-party way, and we may need to be the ones are prepared to say the difficult thing. Like the penny on income tax it’s about asking people for more money for something they know to be right, buying peace of mind and social equity with an up-front investment. The reverse of tuition fees in one sense, actually paying for something you need up front, but free when you need it.
People want goodies but also respect politicians who are honest about the mess we’re in and have some solutions. It’s not though for me as President to invent policy, but to articulate what we are for, and what we’re actually achieiving.
LV: So will you see yourself at the centre of debates, facilitating?
TF: Yes, I think ministers should fly kites, I don’t think the President should. I think the President should interrogate people who are doing good things to get out of them what those good things are.
As a low-level example and lesson I learned, with all the good honest campaigns department stuff we do in Westmoreland, and more, the penny dropped this might come across as all talk no action. Where’s the beef. So we did two things. First we ensured all our campaigns focused on an outcome, secondly we looked at what we had done, and amongst all the noise there were achievements, we just hadn’t been pulling them out. We need to be achievement centred.
Ministers have the same problems as Cabinet Members in local Councils. You’ve been a campaigner all your life, suddenly you’re an administrator, and you can go native. You need to look outwards to what your job means to the electorate. What is the impact on them? My job (as President) then is to drag out of them what someone in Liverpool or St. Albans can put on a Focus Leaflet.
LV: O.k., the traditional focus leaflets usually talk about saving ‘something’, your constituency website you promise to defend South Lakeland from health cuts, post office closures and promise high quality education for all. What share of the pain of cuts will you support in South Lakeland?
TF: I think people are of a mind to understand we’re in a right mess. I think it’s important that progressives don’t join those in opposition in being in denial. There is nothing progressive about paying billions and billions of pounds on debt interest. There is then an appetite and preparedness for cuts (amongst the public).
For example I know my national parks are prepared for 30-40% savings.
LV: Does Danny (Alexander) have no loyalty? (Prior to being an MP Danny was the Director of Communciations for a national park)
TF: (laughs)Well… there’s all sorts of things that could be done there to make this a win. We could for example democratise national parks, hand them over to local authorities, and save a lot of money in the process. But to return to the point I think there is a preparedness for savings, but the impact on the vulnerable and schools (for example), is going to be very significant, and we need to make sure in the spending round that we protect those.
We have to think cleverly about how we achieve new things through all this, not just campaign against it in South Lakeland. As an example one thing we did was campaign for a new cancer unit, where the government door was unlocked, but we got it open.
LV: As a cheeky example of a specific cut, should homoepathy on the NHS be cut? (Tim was criticised for signing an EDM in 2007 welcoming NHS homoeopathic hospitals)
TF: In my personal opinion, yes. Loads of people see it as great value, but if there’s a choice for example between Aricept being accepted for Alzheimers sufferers or homoeopathy, which… there are some proofs it has a positive impact, but it’s not a priority, so I wouldn’t cut it altogether, but I would limit it compared to treatments based on hard scientific proven achievement.
LV: What do you see as the differences in emphasis and responsibilities between the President, Party Leader, Deputy Leader, and Chief Executive?
TF: Partly they’ve changed as we’re in power. The Leader is the Leader and is the public face of the party. But isn’t normally in Government, and now that he is has less time and is bound by collective responsibility. So in an acceptable way he been compromised as the face of the party externally and in the House of Commons.
So it is now Simon Hughes job (as Deputy Leader) to stand up and ask questions in PMQs on the big issues of the day. He is the untainted and unrestricted partisan face of the party in Parliament and out there on the green afterwards explaining.
Obviously there are some overlaps with what I want to do in respect of explaining our distinctive position in the country as a critical friend to the coalition.
The President is there to raise morale and be proactive, working with the press office and Chief Executive, so we start the week thinking, what are the three things we want to have said about us in a positive way, as opposed to just defending.
LV: Just to be clear, Simon in Parliament, the President in the country?
TF: Broadly true. It’s wrong but understandable that 99% of the media live in a 200m range of Westminster, but it is an advantage that I can pick up the phone to Laura Kunesburg and Michael Crick, but that does mean there will be overlap, although I will also be the person in Liverpool and Edinburgh making the case for the party, articulating what we’re for. I want to find new opportunities to make people feel proud of the Liberal Democrats, getting on the radio politely disagreeing with the coalition and proving there is no chance of the party being assimilated.
When Ashdown and Blair were cosying up in the 1990s we plausibly could have been assimilated. That was about blurring the boundaries and setting up something new, that’s not going to happen with the Conservatives today.
LV: So Paddy got that wrong?
TF: Yes, I think he did get that wrong, it went far too far, it could have led to good things and meant things we will now secure in the next 12 months could have happened 15 years ago, but it was dependent on Blair who was unambitious and not committed.
But on the coalition we can say these are the things we have achieved by working together, here is where we disagree, and here is what you will get if you vote for more of us and we secure a majority.
LV: Difference with the Chief Executive?
TF: The Chief Executive is the manager of the party. In a sense Chris Fox is the Vice-Chancellor, I’m the Chancellor. I’m not going to get involved massively in day-to-day stuff, I trust my manager. I’m Jack Walker to Kenny Dalgish… but without the money… I want to enable my managers to manage and back them up… but not to be like a Chancellor who gets wheeled out at ceremonies… a negative way of characterising the job of the President is they’re like a Mayor… I’m a resource for Cowley Street, being an attack dog for the press office, something they desperately want.
Given my public sector experience I don’t want to be the new bloke coming in and saying ‘change everything now’, restructuring is unnecessary.
LV: Indeed one of your pledges is “no pointless overhaul of Cowley Street on my watch.”
LV: Just on that point though, the President is the Chair of the Federal Executive, which makes you the Chief Executive’s employer. Heaven forbid anything negative might happen in that relationship, but you might have to go back on the pledge, so is it a wise pledge to make, or is it an aspiration?
TF: Well it’s both, I think we have an excellent Chief Executive and heads of department, I know them through campaigns and working in the party over the years, there’s nobody there I have anything less than full confidence in, and Ros (Scott), who needs to be given immense credit, with Chris Fox did do restructuring that was absolutely necessary, and without that I wouldn’t have been able to make that pledge. And if it does go horribly wrong, my last job was to be deputy registrar of a university, essentially doing the Dean’s dirty work. I do sacking of well-paid people if I have to.
LV: So how would you have handled the Michael Brown scandal?
TF: Well I’d love to say I wouldn’t have taken the money. I’m good at raising money, and the more you do it the more you learn that some money doesn’t come free, they might be dirty or want services in exchange. I think I have the experience and maturity to say no and there are plenty of other fish in the sea. But I could have easily made the same mistake.
LV: To be clear the difficulty in that scenario for the President, was not taking the money, but dealing with the aftermath. Either people excellent at their jobs making a huge error, or being unfairly accused of doing so.
TF: If I were Chief Executive at the time I might have done the same thing. I hope I wouldn’t; I’ve experience of dealing with such things and wouldn’t have been starry eyed about it. I’m not saying Chris (Rennard) was but… In respect of dealing with it afterwards, I saw it quite closely as Menzies PPS, the one thing that was never countenanced was that we might pay it back. I wonder whether I might have decided to go out there and see just how possible it was to raise that kind of money from somewhere else and pay it back. We could have looked at that.
We took the money and spent it in good faith, and in some ways were right not to pay it back, but we assumed we would never be able to pay it back so it wasn’t even worth looking at it. Why didn’t we ask people with lots of money for lots of money and see what happened.
LV: Do we need an A-list?
TF: I don’t think so. In respect of the quality of people we have as candidates we have great PPCs, I sometimes pull their leg and tell them they are an A-list. And there are things like the Young Leaders IDA programme. I’m not sure any of the people who are now MPs have been through that, but I think PPCs could do with something like that. The problem is IDA pay for that, so where does the money come from?
LV: Do you think the A-list worked for the Conservatives and their particular diversity problem?
TF: Yes, I think it did, yes.
LV: So should we learn from that?
TF: Ignoring the principled objections we might have, all women-shortlists worked for Labour, Cameron and his entourage, characterised by the A-list, worked for the Tories. However the real thing that killed us on diversity was First Past the Post and safe seats, our candidates are at least as diverse as the other two parties and we don’t have safe seats.
LV: Underlying this question though is whether we look to other parties to learn from what they do well or only at ourselves?
TF: O.k. my view is I would suspend my ideological objectives to A-lists, all-women shortlists or all-BME shortlists frankly if they worked. I think though you do positive discrimination informerly and with targeting. I am confident for example that if we can find the right BME candidate for the next most winnable seat in Birmingham, we can find a group of people who will donate hundreds of thousands of pounds into that seat, as would the Campaigns Department. So my job would be to raise that cash, working with the Campaigns Department who would spend it.
LV: I’m going to ask an unfair diversity question. The Public Whip site reporting your voting record in 2008 says “Tim Farron MP voted strongly against the policy Homosexuality – Equal rights”, does this misrepresent your position?
TF: It does yes, in a nutshell there were two amendments which related to employment regulations in the Equalities bill. I took the view the bill was 99% good, 1% New Labour fussiness. I took the same line as Peter Tatchell, which… let me give you an example, most religions are about self-denial of one form or another, your choices over sexuality being one form. How illiberal is it to say to any religious organisation that you can’t discriminate amongst the people who hold office on their commitment to the beliefs of the organisation.
LV: Let me give you a specific example, the Bishop of Hereford who Stonewall named bigot of the year in 2007 on the basis an employment tribunal ruled he had discriminated against a youth worker on the grounds of them being gay. Do you think he should have had the right to do that?
TF: I think you have a right to select people in your organisation on the grounds they subscribe to the basic tenants of your organisation. And actually to be honest I often have a right go at people within the church because of their view on people’s sexuality. The church is massively obsessed with sex, there are other spheres where we are capable of sin, I wish they wouldn’t be quite so judgemental.
LV: But don’t such exemptions (for religions) undermine equalities legislation?
TF: No I don’t think they do. What I think we need to do is champion the right and freedom of people to be true to their convictions. To be honest I think it’s a relatively minor issue. Part of me thinks was it worth all the stick for having done what I thought was the right thing. But I think in a free society we should be free to offend and have a duty to be offended.
So I got stick from Stonewall for that one, and loads of stick from the Christian institute for voting for the abolition of the blasphemy laws. My views on both those subjects come from exactly the same place which is we can sometimes confuse what tolerance is all about. It’s not about everyone agreeing, but putting up with people you don’t agree with. So the characterisation is wrong for all sorts of reasons, not least because one of the reasons I went into politics was that I thought two of my (gay) friends being bullied was appalling. And they weren’t bullied by churchy folks, but thick macho blokes.
LV: On your campaign facebook site on October 7th an enthusiastic supporter asks “why not leader instead?” and your team answer on your behalf “I’m crossing one bridge at a time! ”
TF: (laughs) I noticed that and I think I removed it very quickly afterwards (still there). I will have words (smiles). (Are you Charles Kennedy in waiting?) No I’m not. If we do so well in this coalition that I end up being decrepid whilst Nick Clegg is still Leader, I’ll be really pleased. I’m not massively politically ambitious, really, really am not, so it never coming up would be the perfect outcome.
LV: On a related topic, you have left liberal politics, you’re a sensational local campaign hero, a Christian, you’re secular, and have a relentless enthusiasm, do you see yourself as the natural heir to Simon Hughes?
TF: (laughs) Does that worry you? Now then Simon is a very good friend and has been for long before I entered this place. He came to my wedding in 2000, and my prize on being the first Liberal Democrat to get elected to NUS national executive in 1989 was to go for tea with the august then shadow education secretary. I backed him for Leader both times he stood.
But… I am somebody who is very organised, very much a team player, is not dogmatic about my dogma. I think I am very effective person in terms of achieving things and seeing them through. I don’t take on more things than I can do which is why my manifesto for this job is not massively extensive. They are things I can actually do. Those things may or may not make me distinct from Simon.
Some of the things Simon does really well I would also like to do really well. For example the Daily Mirror said “Tim Farron knows where the G-spot of the party is”, so (like Simon) understanding the culture of the party and where it has come from, an affection for the Liberal Democrat family are important. For the President, speaking to the Leader about how the party is feeling and vice-versa, knowing what the party will put up with and I want to able to communicate those things to Nick and the ministers on a weekly basis.
LV: One year of glory, over 100 years of not quite making it, having had their year of glory do you think the Liberal Democrats can do better than (your team) Blackburn Rovers?
TF: (laughs) Yes, and if we can stay in the premiership after all this it will be fine won’t it. The analogy is good up to a point. We could end up in a situation where the analogy is something like Oxford United who climbed to the top then ended up in the non-league within a decade. Or we could do a Blackburn, move up and stay there, that’s the prize. The risk is we have the glory and end up with a dozen seats which is entirely possible.
To avoid that we need to do constructive panic, what got me my majority. Once you’ve understood the threat, you have to have the steel to confront it and tackle it. Our threat is being seen as an appendage to the Tory party, and failing to gain protection by losing the AV referendum. To stay in the premiership we need articulate passionate campaigning that keeps our troops with us and keeps their morale up, getting clear messages as to what we’re for out there. So yes let’s do a Blackburn not an Oxford.
LV: Tim Farron, thank-you very much for speaking to Liberal Vision