Tim Farron – Full Interview

LR: Can you describe the liberal project without using any jargon whatsoever?

TF: I guess it’s about giving people — all people, absolutely all people — the ability to live their lives the way that they would choose, and then to understand what those things that stop people choosing are. And they are all kind of barriers. And there can be legal barriers, there can be very often barriers about your upbringing, but barriers also about housing, poor housing, inequality, poverty are big barriers to you being able to make good choices, education, and all of those things. So it’s why I think that the liberal project is about giving people the ability to be everything they can be.

LR: What, in that case, is unique about our message? I can imagine several other politicians might say something similar.

TF: I think we’ve got a comprehensive understanding — which the others don’t — of the things that fetter freedom, and what fetters your freedom is what fetters your freedom; it doesn’t matter what the source is. It can be an overbearing government that intrudes in your private life and over-regulates to the point that it makes it impossible to make appropriate choices, but it can be poverty, it can be a large corporation that makes it very hard for you [as a business]. You can be a business playing fair and all the rest of it and then a large corporation, like a multinational supermarket let’s say, comes in, doesn’t abide by the same rules that you do, uses its muscle and puts you out of business. So it’s an understanding of what are the sources of power that undermine the power of the individual — and it can be the state, it can be private, it can be corporate, it can be all sorts.

LR: On that, if the supermarkets competing is putting you out of business, but the customers are getting cheaper milk at the other end of it…

TF: Well, it depends if you’re playing on a fair playing field. If you’re able to do that because you’re using your monopoly power to screw your producers, and almost deliberately to put any competitors out of business, then I think that is something we should be concerned about. For a free market to be free, it needs to be refereed in some way. Gravity is the biggest invisible force in the marketplace — more accretes to that which is big already — and so laissez faire and free market are not the same thing, and we should be very careful in that respect. Having said that, the state can make massive errors when it does try to make those things right, but clear monopolies and market rules are very important to get those things right. Yes, a small provider might just be inefficient and dreadful — that’s quite possible. More often than not that’s not the case and what they’re up against is just somebody who’s much more powerful than they are, not necessarily better.

LR: What do the terms left and right mean to you, and what should they mean to the party?

TF: Honestly, I don’t think they mean very much. The sense that on one side there’s a group of people who believe in unfettered capitalism, and on the other side believing in a completely state run attempt at utopia, and some in the middle with this notion of a Butskellite mixed economy, that’s an outdated set of concepts. So I think from my perspective it is only useful in terms of where other political parties are on the spectrum and for us to try and understand them a little bit. But I think I eschew it completely, and I almost always refuse to buy into the title. I’m sure I slip into the lazy language sometimes, when you’re trying to assess where somebody is — “Oh, y’know, Andy Burnham’s the soft left candidate for Labour” — but it’s lazy, even when I use it in that respect, even in a party like the Labour Party that does embrace that language. I much prefer to talk in terms of being a liberal, and then trying also to grapple with what social and economic liberalism are, and, generally speaking, to try and say that they’re pretty well two sides of the same coin.

LR: We have a challenge don’t we, if voters are thinking in left/right terms, where do we fit?

TF: I don’t think the electorate think in those terms at all, but I think they do think in binary terms, and in any context they do. So in East Dunbartonshire, Jo Swinson wasn’t either the left or the right candidate, but she was the unionist candidate. And, let’s be honest, my not-desperately-scientific assessment of some of our defeats on May 7th was that I felt, and lot’s of people feel, that it was the SNP-Miliband fear that drove people to the Tories, and that’s why we lost seats. [However], a slightly closer inspection shows that that was only part of the story and a slightly bigger reason was the loss of the non-Tory coalition in those places. So you’d see the Tory vote going up by 1500 or 2000 in these Cornish seats, and the Lib Dem vote drop by 7000. And when I say the non-Tory coalition I don’t mean necessarily a ‘left’ coalition, I mean people who voted Ukip; it’s Green, Labour, Ukip, and in Brecon it was Plaid as well, for example. So this is not necessarily a whole bunch of Guardian readers thinking, “Oh’ I’m not tactically voting for that lot any more” — there was a little bit of that — but it was more about people feeling that we weren’t, for whatever reason, or a range of reasons, the party to vote for to ‘stop the beastly Tories’ in that area. And that might not sound like a massive ambition — being the party to ‘stop the beastly Tories’ in area X — but it gave us probably 30 more seats than we’ve currently got, or it could have done, and so we need to be aware of that positioning if we’re going to win any of the seats we lost.

LR: You’re saying we’re not the Labour Party, we’re not the Conservative Party, we’re not the party you want but we’re closer to you than the party that might otherwise win. That’s being in the middle, isn’t it?

TF: I don’t think so. Let’s be honest, under first past the post we have to be in a position where we can build a case to win a number of seats, and at the moment we are in the margin of error of not having any MPs at all, and so we have to do that. Our great problem in the election just gone was that was all our message was, “we’re not as bad as them, we’re not as bad as them”, and that is a pretty compelling message to get you a second preference in an AV election, and we don’t have that system, as you might remember. That being the case, us being a counterpoint to another party just isn’t going to help us in the slightest bit. It doesn’t help us in terms of winning votes, it also doesn’t help us in here [points to his heart] because if we don’t believe that we’re valuable, then why bother? Why not just do as Polly Toynbee and Danny Finkelstein say and go and clear off in our own separate directions and just put the for sale sign up.

So (a) we must have some issues that are distinctively ours, and (b) we have a discipline in the form of the Welsh national election, the Scottish parliamentary election and the London Assembly election next year which means that with the need to win list seats there is a need to give people a reason to vote for us, as opposed to “Kirsty is a good thing and only Kirsty can stop the Tory” — that’s a great message, a very powerful message (as we saw in the election just gone, having simple messages that you get within five seconds and make your move from there to there, you want that) so the message I have just given you is a really good message in Brecon — “Kirsty’s brilliant, Tories bad, Labour and Plaid can’t win” — that’s good, but we also need to get 15 per cent so that Peter Black gets re-elected, or whatever it is he needs, something like that. We also need to be making sure we get that kind of percentage vote so that Willie wins and so Caroline and Stephen, or whoever is on the list in the Assembly elections, win here in London. And that’s a good discipline because it means that you have got to have something to say that isn’t just tactical and to my mind I need us to be able to build a very clear message in the eyes of the electorate of what we are.

The problem is we are going to have to be really quite audacious now because we’ve got just over 1 per cent of the MPs, we will soon stop mattering at all. There is a sort of residual post-coalition interest in us, there’s the fact there is a leadership election, [but] apart from that, why bother with us? And I take heart — it’s a terrible thing to say — I take heart a little bit from Farage, who just brassed it out: he’s got one MP, most of the time he’s had no MPs, he briefly had two MPs, but his Parliamentary presence is irrelevant to the fact that he has just gone out there and by virtue of just claiming the entitlement, being a voice for the section of the electorate that he feels he speaks for, and I don’t want to learn too much from Farage, you’ll be pleased to hear, but I also don’t want to be so arrogant that I’m not prepared to look at what others do. So I’m not going to copy him, but I think he’s a reminder that it’s entirely possible to buy your place in the landscape, and you’ve just got to be clear about [certain things]. So nobody knows, I don’t know, what Ukip’s position is on local government reform, or on land value taxation, I don’t understand what their policy is on transport, but I’ve got a pretty clear idea what they think about immigration, and that they’re just against the system.

Now, I want us to be a lot more intellectually credible than that, but I think that we’re in a position that we’re going to be known for more than three things, and we need to be getting out there and making people feel that we’re on their side. I don’t want to dictate to the party what we should do, but I think if I become leader a leader should lead, and to lead is to choose, and I’d choose three areas that really stand out to me. One is housing, the other is what I would just call civil liberties but it’ll be focussed on specific issues that actually have got traction, [because] there’s no point if you’re in our position in trying to invent a story that isn’t a story, and obviously the Human Rights element is there and extremism orders and a lot of the immigration nonsense we put it with that too, that gives us an area we can be very distinctive. And the third one is climate change, and we’ve got to be able to say things that are just not too worthy and get you in your gut. And all those three things appeal to a section of the electorate that has been positive towards us. The 17,000 new members [are] a sort of interesting focus group, because we’ve done nothing to get them other than lose heavily, and I was with a bunch in St Albans last night, and they are absolutely liberals. They’re not uncritically supportive of what we did in coalition, but they’re broadly quite proud of what we did in coalition, and feel that we got unfairly done over and are very, very keen to put their principles into action, and those [three] areas are definitely some of the things they are concerned about.

LR: Sometimes there seems to be a bit of ambiguity within the party on where we stand on things, and the party doesn’t seem to agree with itself half the time. How do we settle that internal debate, if we do?

TF: Obviously there are different opinions within the party and there are some people who revel in there being different opinions in the party because they like it. I always think there’s a sense of almost jealousy within the party of the other parties because they have factions, and we want to be a big grown-up party so we can have factions too, and it’s just a bit silly. I’ve noticed various factions ebb and flow over the years. I mean the social liberal/economic liberal thing today, that’s a relatively new construct. It was SDP/Liberal, and people look back now and say Liberals right, Social Democrats left, that’s not how it was, it was actually the opposite. And you’ve got people who are from a generation when it was community politics versus the Westminster elite, and it really was an elite because they had the same number of seats as we’ve got now and a lot fewer peers. So I just think that’s the nature of any organisation. My general solution is twofold. One is just to be very open and to listen, and not to try and ‘defeat’ people within the party. One of the great errors I think we have made within the last number of years and within a number of leaderships, and I don’t think it’s down to the leaders, perhaps the people around them, who have wanted to be terribly macho, who have wanted to have that ‘Clause Four’ moment every bloody week — absolutely pointless. And then the whips office ringing round MPs and Lords saying, “Oh you must turn up or X will get through otherwise” — (a), it probably didn’t matter anyway, and (b), you probably didn’t need to have the fight. We need to have debate, but we also need to have consensus. The other bit is, in terms of my local party, and just generally how you operate, I’ve always been of the view that we need rests, we need to look after one another and ourselves. However, the best way to maintain unity and to keep everybody on board is centrifugal force. By campaigning and energy you keep people on the same page. And the minute you start looking inward and you stop focusing on campaigning and winning elections and trying to present the party to the outside world in an energetic way is the minute you then start falling off. So centrifugal force is the answer.

LR: What lessons do we need to take from our time in coalition, both positive and negative? And what’s your position on going into coalition in the future?

TF: The lessons are that it’s worth going into power, because what a difference you can make. Lesson two is that we have got out of coalition the sense that the Lib Dems are competent at governing, which is not something we had before. And very, very, very important given how opinion is in the country is a sense of us having economic and fiscal credibility and we mustn’t throw those away; they are very important things. Lessons on the negative side… There was the article in the Journal of Liberal History called The Black Widow Effect, in 2012 by Tim Bale. If you know what black widows do to their partners after mating you can see the point that was being made, that it would end in tears. It was all about how junior partners in coalition get a right stuffing. My sense is that there are some things we could have done things differently so that our stuffing might have been less royal, but not many. I think the mood music at the beginning didn’t help. [Tuition] fees, obviously.

We have other experiences of coalition in this country, in Scotland in particular. There are two things I think that worked for us there. The landscape was more favourable to us, so that’s a given, and who we went into coalition with at the time made more sense because we were not fighting Labour, most of our seats were against the Tories. But [there were] two main differences there. Difference one, we had really strong retail policies that we won in the coalition negotiations right at the beginning which everybody knew and which chimed with what people wanted, which were [tuition] fees and free care for the elderly. And whatever bad decision and ups and downs there might have been during the eight years in coalition, everybody thought, “well they’re not poodles, they’re not lapdogs, because look they got those things”, and everybody knew somebody who benefitted from either of those policies. But the second key thing is they had proportional representation. David Howarth is a great guy, a wonderful thinker, and right on 99% of things but I think he is wrong to say we should never go into coalition with the Tories again. I think the point is that we should never go into coalition with anybody again unless we get a guarantee of PR, because we will just get annihilated, and that’s got to be your ultimate red line.

LR: So that’s legislation on PR for Westminster?

TF: I think so, and there are ways you can achieve that by the way, and I think we should start doing that in this parliament. So the idea that we build a consensus for a Great Reform Act. And you bring all the parties, anybody out there who’s interested, into the same place. And I’m talking Ukip, any sensible Tories we can find, Labour, ourselves Greens and preferably loads of people outside of party politics who think that it is a disgrace that 25% of people voted for three parties that got 10 MPs between them and that you’ve got a government with 100% of power on just shy of 37% of the vote. I think there are a load of people who think that. I’m absolutely committed to single transferable vote in multi-member constituencies but if as the result of some kind of cross-community convention like that we end up hammering out some compromise which is a different system I might live with that. And the idea would then be that all those parties would then need to go through their own processes and choose to put that agreed compromise position in their manifesto in which case we’re in a position where there is a mandate in the next general election for that.

LR: But in a scenario like 2010 where the country desperately needs stable government, are we going to say that we’re not going to give it to them because we want this one thing, PR, that the electorate don’t care about?

TF: First of all I think we did the right thing by the country in 2010, and a very damaging thing by the party. Even if we had done things a bit better, it would have still been very damaging for the party. And I really think, amongst the reasons all these new people have joined the party, is that they think we face an existential threat. And they may be right, there is no guarantee of our survival; it is essential but it is not inevitable. So it is absolutely essential for Britain that there is a liberal voice, and us not killing that liberal voice is very important.

I voted for the coalition, and even knowing what I know now, it would be difficult to persuade myself to do what Charles [Kennedy] and John Leech did, and vote against. But I think we are in a situation now where knowing what we know now, we absolutely have to hang fire on that. Now there are other things one can do: allow somebody to govern as a minority, particularly with a fixed term parliament, all those things are entirely possible. The 5 years in power was great for the country, in many ways great for our legacy, but also possibly fatal, and if in 20 years time there isn’t a Liberal party, we’ll wonder if that five years was worth it. We need to make sure that we do not kill the party, and it is important to remember that we nearly died before — in particular in the 50s — when Megan Lloyd George left us, that left us with 5 MPs, 4 of whom did not win their seats in a three-cornered contest, they were there because of pacts. Grimond alone actually won his seat properly on merit. We were that close to just not existing, and we need a Liberal party.

LR: With the large SNP representation in Scotland, what do you see as the future for the UK and what does that mean for devolution in England?

TF: First of all, if we were to have a Great Reform Act, I’d love it to be more than just PR, but I suspect banging heads together on more than that one issue might be very tough — there’s lots of other things to talk about: party funding and indeed devolution.

In terms of how we approach Scotland in particular, I think many of us just feel a sense of anger in a lot of directions. I feel anger at Cameron for putting us in this position, for his absolute abject lack of statesmanship on the morning after the referendum. Maybe he really is an evil genius and did it deliberately, because that created him the narrative to win the general election. I don’t think he was. He was just desperate to keep Farage off the airwaves at 7 O’Clock in the morning and that potentially led to the breakup of the UK — snatching defeat from the jaws of victory. I’m really, really, really cross with Cameron. If I thought he was being clever I could understand it, but he was not: he was being an idiot.

And I’m cross with nationalism. I’m always cross with nationalism. It offends me. The SNP will be very cross with me for saying this, but I feel it’s anti-English. And as somebody who lives close to it, and who goes to Scotland a lot, I know that unless you are an English person validly in favour of independence you’re treated like you’re dirt, you really are, and it’s not a comfortable place to be any more if you’re not [in favour of independence], if you’re English. However, these Nats down here [in Westminster], I think they are a breath of fresh air. And I also think there is no mileage whatsoever — it is an ungodly thing and it is an illiberal thing — to go around hating people and we need to kill them with kindness, if you like. So the idea that the SNP are all terrible people isn’t true, and we need to understand that a lot of their votes came from people who just felt that Westminster didn’t understand them, that they wanted a better society, a fairer society, they weren’t getting it from Westminster. It wasn’t necessarily anti-English sentiment — a lot of it is, but it wasn’t mostly — and that they don’t like the Tories anyway, the Lib Dems had gone in with the Tories and Labour have taken them for granted. And it’s hard to argue against that. I think we’ve got to make sure we engage the SNP and don’t lock them out. I think that’s quite important. Us perpetuating the myth that there was something illegitimate about voting SNP in the general election, which we went along with, that was damaging. We shouldn’t have done that. Reaching out to those people, and actually proving that they’re not different to us and we’re not different to them is very, very important.

In terms of a constitutional settlement, I’m not for some stitch-up. The wisdom of moving a constitutional settlement on so we try and solve the West Lothian question is very important, and as liberals we believe in that constitutional reform. We shouldn’t let the right, the Tory right, steal our clothes from us on that one. And neither should we shove it into a back-of-the-fag-packet deal which is there just to help the Tories. I think there is less clamour for devolution than journalists and people in Westminster think. People want what works. I think we’re interested in devolution to cities to a degree, although I’m critical of the amount of it. We have brilliant elected mayors in Dorothy [Thornhill, Mayor of Watford] and Dave [Hodgson, Mayor of Bedford], but more generally elected mayors, with one or two exceptions, they’re not a good thing. They personalise politics and they actually undermine the representation of individual communities. The reason why Dorothy and Dave are so fabulously successful is that they are community politicians who go against that. But you look at a lot of the mayors, they just override elected councillors and ignore large numbers of communities in their patch. So we’ve got to be very careful about how we go about that. It’s got to be a bottom-up process.

And also, the West Lothian Question, who asks that often? I am not somebody who is obsessed with neatness in politics, that we should have a symmetrical settlement. We don’t now with Wales, Scotland and Northern Ireland, why should we with England. It should be about what works. Prescott’s experiment, which might have worked if it was done less ham-fistedly, his experiment does kind of prove that if you just draw a line on a map people don’t feel excited by it, and what you do is just give powers to that body that are in some ways not a devolution from Westminster but a centralisation from local government up, then people aren’t going to vote for it.

LR: What’s the role of the state in protecting people from themselves?

TF: Generally speaking, the state shouldn’t be protecting people from themselves. But we do need to understand that all of our individual liberties have an impact on other people and it’s just drawing the line between that and the point where it actually compromises somebody else’s liberty. So when it comes to for example drugs, and I generally speaking take a fairly liberal, evidence-based approached to how the law should be on those things, we do also need to understand the impact on crime, on health and other things. And, for example, as a liberal looking at issues to do with smoking, for instance, I thought that was quite an interesting debate in the 2005 parliament, where Greg [Mulholland] and I were on opposite sides. I ummed and ahhed about whether or not to vote for a ban on smoking in public places and could see an individual liberty argument on both sides, and in the end I just made a judgement on what’s going to do the most good, and sometimes it is a grey area and you’ve just got to make those sorts of choices.

LR: What are the limits of the state? And if you were to come up with a list of things that should be privatised or nationalised, what would they be?

TF: From the 1980s onwards, which is an obvious time to start, there are certain things where you’d want to retain more community, government control than we currently do. The most obvious one to my mind is within telecommunications, where the operators should have been in private hands all the time, but the network should have been public, because we have a situation now where, for instance, the chief reason that we are lagging behind the rest of the world on broadband is because BT has the world’s best copper network and isn’t all that bothered about upgrading because, who’s it competing with? So I think most infrastructure needs to be in central hands on behalf of everybody, but the operation of that infrastructure [should be privatised]. We accidentally fell into this way with the railways, and the railways are not perfect but it’s not a bad model, the network is owned by the public, and the operators are private, and I think that’s a pretty good model for all those infrastructure outfits.

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