‘The centre-left is vacant territory’

Heading a party of only eight MPs, Cumbrian MP Tim Farron remains defiantly optimistic. He talks to Gary Ryan about the homeless, coalition deals, Corbynmania and more

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The tragedy, reflects Tim Farron, is that it took being out of government and an electoral near-death experience for voters on the doorstep to understand how vital a role the Liberal Democrats played as coalition government partners in 2010-2015. 

Sitting in his office in Westmorland and Lonsdale – the Cumbrian constituency he has held as MP since 2005 – the new leader of the Lib Dems portrays them as the party continually holding back the Tories.

“Over the last five months, we’ve seen the threat to sell off affordable housing, the undermining of the entire green energy policy that was there beforehand, which is going to cost thousands of jobs, the cuts in tax credits for low income people, the shocking approach to the refugee crisis, the threat to the Human Rights Act. What have all these things got in common? Well, they’ve all happened since May and, by definition, they’re things that wouldn’t have happened if we were still in power.

“It’s taken being out of office for it to become blindingly obvious what we did stop and why we mattered.”

In July, Farron was elected leader of a party nearly wiped out in May’s election, reduced from 52 MPs to a measly eight. It seems an unenviable job – if Nick Clegg was the man who signed the Lib Dems’ death warrant by doing a deal with the Conservatives, is Farron simply in charge of driving the hearse? His impenetrably cheery mood defies the scale of the fightback ahead, with his spirits buoyed by a 25 per cent surge in membership since May and more council byelection wins than any other party.

“Things can change very quickly,” he says. “Bear in mind that 12 months ago the SNP was looking beleaguered, then suddenly they grew like topsy and we have a situation where Scotland has gone from having six SNP MPs to it being sadly effectively a one-party state. I’m prepared for the long haul, but I’m not of the view that it needs to take 10-15 years.”

“I spent my pocket money on a postal order to join Shelter. It continues to drive me.”

Despite the rise of Jeremy Corbyn, Farron feels he now captains “the natural party of opposition”. Despite being seen as the left-wing, rebel candidate in the Lib Dem leadership race, he wants the party to make a land-grab for the centre ground vacated by Labour.

“The Liberal Democrats now potentially have a historic role to play and I’m determined to accept it,” he says bullishly. “I’ll have no truck with the nasty personal assaults on Jeremy Corbyn, but I’m bound to observe that the Labour Party have collectively chosen to adopt an economic approach which is – being entirely blunt – not even remotely credible. Progressive parties whose economic policies are fantasy either never get elected or get elected and make things worse and create more austerity.

“The progressive liberal centre-left in the country is totally vacant territory and it is the only space from which any party other than the Conservatives will ever win a general election. I’m audacious enough to say ‘we’ll have it’ and that we’re now the only plausible alternative.”

Last month, he said he had been acting as an “agony uncle” to Labour MPs despairing of Corbynmania. “It’s not for me to go around being a home-wrecker for long-established Labour MPs,” he laughs today. “But I am certainly someone who wants to be a home-provider for people who are Liberals. People may say our situation is beleagured electorally. Do you know what? I think the Labour Party is not much better at the moment and we’re in a position now where we look a more attractive prospect. I don’t expect any particular defectors and I’m not fishing for them specifically but certainly lots of people are talking to me.”

When his party was in government, Farron was openly critical of the coalition, and voted against tuition fees, secret courts and the bedroom tax. After the latter, one senior figure was moved to ask: “Which bit of the sanctimonious, god-bothering, treacherous little shit is there not to like?” He is unrepentant about coalition and does not rule out another deal should the 2020 election result in another hung parliament.

“If you are in politics and you don’t want to be in power, and just want the comfort of opposition, that’s pretty shameful. Opposition is terribly comfortable but to want it when you could do some good if you were in power, you need to have a word with yourself. There would be no question of us entering another coalition if there wasn’t a guarantee of the delivery of electoral reform very early on in the parliament – something we desperately need to be a modern, decent democracy.”

He’d be prepared to work with Corbyn’s Labour as well, providing he agrees to proportional representation.

A father of four of a working class background, Farron was born in Preston. It was watching Cathy Come Home – the 1960s television drama about a family’s descent into homelessnesss – at 14 years old that sparked his political interest.

“It broke my heart. I spent my pocket money on a postal order to join Shelter. It continues to drive me. I was involved in a homeless shelter when I was at Newcastle University [studying politics]. You often hear middle-class society talk about moving house being the most stressful thing you can ever do and think: ‘You don’t know the half of it.’ Why is it stressful? The uncertainty, the instability, the cost – those factors are a daily reality, not a once in a decade problem, for millions of people in Britain.”

With rough sleepers having increased, are they not mascots to coalition failure?

“My general observation is that austerity is not something this previous government chose. Austerity is what happens when your international financial system collapses. You should point the finger at people in the late 1970s and early 1980s who massively deregulated our financial markets and led to the collapse that happened.

“Having said that, there are plenty of things I wish we could have done. I remind myself that the coalition government was the first since the 1970s that saw a net increase in social housing – by a piddling amount, but it was still an increase. We spent five years making Britain a fairer place than it would have been without us, but that doesn’t mean I don’t feel a sense of anger and frustration that we could have done more.”

Farron’s religion has generated controversy. Baptised at 21, he lapsed before recommitting to Jesus at 30. It’s being used as an attack line: Stonewall noted his patchy track record on gay rights votes, Channel 4 News suggested the word of the Bible was incompatible with the views of the party as a whole and Labour’s Angela Eagle called him an “evangelical Christian who… knows how much it will embarrass his own party”.

“I guess I’m doing some kind of public service if she’s attacking me, at least it stops her attacking her own leader,” he responds dryly. “They wouldn’t have elected me if they were embarrassed by my faith. Gladstone and Charles Kennedy’s Christianity are well-known recorded facts. It’s not as though I’m a trailblazer.”

Does he separate his faith from his politics? “I’d say it has a massive impact. It teaches me that everybody has equal value – it makes me unspeakably angry about the refugee crisis, because I think how easily the boot could be on the other foot. If we are just a random collection of atoms, then I have no more right to be considered of value than this filing cabinet I’m sat next to. If we owe our existence to a god who considers us all to be equal then it means something, and impacts on the way I see other people.”

Photo: Dave Radcliffe

Tim Farron on…

His teenage band

“We were terrible but I loved being in a band. I’m a pop music anorak. I still buy a lot of music. I don’t do a lot of downloading – I still think it’s right to own a physical entity. When you get to my age, I’m sure I’m paddling in a shallower pool when it comes to listening to new things, but I’m particularly enjoying Everything Everything at the moment. I love Wild Beasts – not just because they’re from Kendal. And I’m eagerly awaiting the new Swim Deep album. I think they’re great. Any moment now I should be getting that – they’re amazing. Dennis Healy said that politicians should have a hinterland: pop music is mine.”

The north

“We don’t take the north for granted. I think that Labour does. We need a fairer society where you spread the wealth between north and south. One of the big problems for Britain is London being too big and too important for London’s own good. It’s about time we invested properly in the north, so I’m angered by the fact the Northern Powerhouse is pretty low powered to say the least. What we need is investment in proper east-west rail – HS3 – from Liverpool to Hull and all points in between, and serious infrastructure investment in broadband and housing. I’m a liberal who believes in active government that makes things happen and makes the north punch its weight.”

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