by Jonathan Todd
For all Nick Clegg’s slightly vague talk of “giving the party with the biggest mandate the chance to govern” it wasn’t hard, given opinion polls, to see a Tory/Lib Dem government as a potential outcome throughout the general election. I warned Westmorland and Lonsdale that they might vote Liberal Democrat and end up with such a government. They didn’t listen. I was less surprised by the government we ended up with than the extent to which the motivations of my Liberal Democrat opponent, Tim Farron, recently elected president of his party, seemed so close to those of Labourites.
He professes “anger at the injustice” of Margaret Thatcher. At hustings he’d offer impassioned rhetoric on whatever social problem was most germane. Whether this was the struggles of hill sheep farmers or global warning, he challenged market iniquities. His stump speech tells of watching a repeat of Cathy Come Home as a teenager and being so compelled to do something about the injustice he’d witnessed that he decided to use his pocket money to join a political party instead of buying a Smiths single. While he was far more profligate in Biblical quotations than me, at hustings we battled to colonise the language of poverty and oppression.
Farron’s constituency once belonged to Tory grandee, Michael Jopling, whom Alan Clark famously recorded saying of Michael Heseltine that “his trouble is that he had to buy his own furniture”. Jopling stood down in 1997, bequeathing Tim Collins a majority of over 16,000. Collins was defeated eight years later by a candidate fired by rage at a Prime Minister in whose government Jopling served.
Farron first contested the seat in 2001, when Collins was a shoo-in. The next year he switched jobs to work in the constituency and at some stage – long before it was thought a potential site of a Tory “decapitation” – he settled his family locally. All of this suggests reserves of self-belief and a willingness to play the long game.
He may sometimes sound like a lost member of our tribe, but part of the reason for Farron turning a safe Tory seat into a solid Liberal Democrat one has been a ruthless crushing of Labour. His annihilation of me came after all Labour councillors had been vanquished. As considerable Tory support remains in the more rural parts of the constituency, which have recently formed the backdrop to Rob Brydon and Steve Coogan’s The Trip, he has assiduously worked wards that were once Labour.
Good Labour councillors have been crushed by Farron’s machine. While it would delight me to see these councillors returned to office, Farron represents a different kind of Liberal Democrat from, say, David Laws. In effect, they are now in different parties.
As Tim Montgomerie observes, this is a governing ensemble in three parts:
- the almost indistinguishable front benches;
- the Tory right;
- the left of the Liberal Democrats who, in their hearts, would still have preferred a deal with Labour.
Farron is one of the leaders of the latter and Laws seeks – with, for example, his crass dig at Ed Miliband for buying a round of teas – only to help the former.
The difference between being a human shield happily (Laws) and begrudgingly (Farron) may seem trivial when you are protecting a prime minister as destructive as she who inspired Farron to go into politics. But there is significance in the distinction. The willing human shields will be appealed to by Cameronites like Nick Boles who intend the Tory/Lib-Dem alliance to endure beyond this parliament. Longevity in this axis is to be feared by Labour.
Immediately upon becoming Lib Dem president, however, Tim Farron dismissed the notion as “absolutely stark raving mad”.
Labour might build upon this by following the advice offered by Liberal Democrat David Hall-Matthews in Renewal:
“There might be more to be gained for Labour by trying to woo the Lib Dems – or at least by highlighting their (huge) differences from the Tories, rather than condemning their similarities. It would be a disaster for the left if a 2015 balanced parliament created the possibility of a clear Lib-Lab majority but five years of mutual carping had poisoned the well”.
It would be in tune with the post-tribal sensibilities of the public for Labour to be upfront about where we can agree with the Liberal Democrats and where we can’t. This should uncover a considerable basis of common ground, potentially on issues like a land tax and a second chamber elected by full PR, which the Lib Dems share with Labour and which neither can share with the Tories. The election of a social democrat like Farron as president and quotations like that from Hall-Matthews indicate that there are plenty of Liberal Democrats looking for common ground. For them, perpetual governance by the Boles-Law class is almost as nightmarish as it is for us.
We shouldn’t forget, and should continue to resist, the damage that Farron has wrought on a CLP. We should be suspicious of his ambitions (having been told he was crazy to think he could beat Collins, he may now secretly think he can lead the Lib Dems to be the largest leftist force). We should expect him to over-egg the progressive credentials of the Liberal Democrats.
But we should probe these credentials fairly and seek – rather than firing endless rounds into the human shields – to build bridges and back-channels with those of Farron’s bent. This will expose the greatest enemy: David Cameron. And we may even discover that Farron got Stockholm syndrome not six months ago but soon after watching Cathy Come Home.
Jonathan Todd is Uncut’s economic columnist and was Labour’s Parliamentary candidate in Westmorland and Lonsdale at the 2010 general election.