Who the new Lib Dem president really is. And why.

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:

  1. the almost indistinguishable front benches;
  2. the Tory right;
  3. 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.

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3 Responses to “Who the new Lib Dem president really is. And why.”

  1. Rachel Stalker says:

    Thanks for this, Jonathan.

    I see Tim Farron as someone who is representative of a very large section of Evangelical Christians who – contrary to popular belief – belong more comfortably on the left than on the right of British politics. This explains much of what he stands for – and also why he would be more comfortable as a Lib Dem than as a Labour MP.

    This strand of leftwing evangelicalism has strong core beliefs about religious liberties, freedom of expression, thought and conscience. The Lib Dems have (naturally) been stronger than Labour on this, but post 9/11, policy developments took a turn that politicised – and in some cases, radicalised – many naturally apathetic Christians who would otherwise completely eschew any association with the “religious right”.

    Given that Labour, under Ed Miliband, are already reviewing the civil liberties agenda, I would like to see this review cover these issues. Labour really shouldn’t be on the wrong side of this debate: we are, at our core, a party of liberty. As Katharine Glasier said on the formation of the Independent Labour Party.

    “On January 13th, 1893, the Independent Labour Party sprang into being, and, as a child of the spirit of Liberty, claims every song that she has sung – in whatever land – as a glorious heritage. Life, lover, liberty, and labour make liquid music. The Labour Party is in league with life, and works for liberty that man may live. The Socialist creed of the ‘One body’ is a declaration that liberty grows with love, and that therefore life is love’s child.”

    If the Labour Party were able to recapture this spirit and this language then we’d go a very long way indeed to seeing people like Tim Farron cross the floor and become Labour MPs – a sight that very many of us would absolutely love to see.

  2. Welsh Agenda says:

    It seems he was one of only four Lib Dem MP’s who voted against the Equality Act.

    Clearly any claim he might make about being opposed to inequality and injustice is a lie, his record shows otherwise.

  3. A View from Cumbria says:

    A very insightful and articulate analysis of the Westmorland phenomenon de nos jours.

    As someone who has viewed Farron from the right there is much I would agree with, but unfortunately like Gareth McKeever, Tim’s 2010 Tory opponent you have played Tim on a field of the Lib Dem’s own choosing.

    It is a convenience of TV politics to diminish party machines, particularly agents. I have seen and interviewed many agents and super-agents, albeit for the Tory party. Tim’s first and greatest asset is his agent Paul Trollope. In the Tory Party Paul would have been promoted out of the constituency. The Lib Dems do not seem eager to make the same mistake.

    But, when Trollope is not at his side Farron is much weaker. For evidence of this look no further than the anti-Thatcher rant. Jonathan, you might agree with Tim on the Thatcher legacy, BUT right of centre Westmerians, living in the council houses they worked damned hard to purchase do not.

    Next, has anyone every listened to what Farron actually says ? He is little short of useless in any situation where he has not set the agenda, such as Any Questions.

    A problem my local party has in dealing with Tim is the certainty of the national hierachy within the Tory Party that Tim’s ability does not come close to matching his ambition. The Tory Party was delighted to see Tim as President and hopes he will make Leader. This is not because they admire him ! For the local party that means there is virtually no external support. In deed, external interventions seemed to be directed at increasing Tim’s majority before 2010.

    One of the key reasons Labour councillors, and Tory councillors were swamped by the Farron machine was the silence of the Westmorland Gazette to any criticism of Farron. I have heard him talk twaddle, and worse. I have heard his supporters big up his entrance at a scary religious revivalist meeting as the second Immanuel. This never gets into the Gazette. Hence his astonishment when the Daily Mail printed verbatim his anti Thatcher comments.

    And as all this goes on, Farron’s muppets in control of South Lakeland District Council have made a complete bollocks of every aspect of administration. There is to be no free parking for commuters travelling into Kendal. There are no bogs in Kendal. The Local Development Framework is widely acknowledged as a shambles. Out of Town development has killed the centres of Kendal, Windermere and the other larger towns. And yet, in spite of incredibly hard work from opponents, Tory and Labour the Lib Dems are by and large re-elected. A recurrent element of electoral statistics is that their opponents invariably achieved votes which would have easily secured election almost anywhere else.

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