Tuesday, 21 September 2010

Tim Farron: "Our ministers are selling the coalition, someone has to sell what the Lib Dems are for"

Whilst I was at conference, I got the chance to talk at greater length with Tim Farron, MP for Westmoreland and Lonsdale and a candidate for the Presidency of the Liberal Democrats. Tim is also someon
e I have campaigned alongside for many years as we entered the Party at about the same time. Here is what he had to say for himself.

The Presidency has changed massively because we are in power and have the Deputy Prime Minister running the country. We need someone who can get out there, inspire people and sell our message. We need to counter the Labour narrative that we are somehow a bunch of soft southern Tories. I have 24 years of activism in the Lib Dems and I’m someone who is active and progressive and on that wing of the party, but also someone who is a team player and a loyalist.

The job of being Party President is totally different now. It’s not about being a mayor and it’s not about fiddling about in Cowley Street too much. It is about getting out there and inspiring people to support the Liberal Democrats. I want to make the hairs on the backs of peoples’ necks stand up because they believe we are saying the right things. Our ministers have to sell the coalition. Someone has to get out there and sell what the Liberal Democrats are for.

I think I have belonged to the party for longer than the other three candidates put together. I’ve been a member since I was 16, I’ve been a councillor, I’ve been a student activist. I’ve been a failed candidate in rubbish seats and I’ve been a failed candidate in a seat that I should’ve won. I am the grassroots candidate and I am the non-establishment candidate. The way I’ve been able to put forward a narrative in Westmoreland is because I haven’t been part of the Westminster bubble. I want to be a representative of the party within the Parliamentary Party to make sure their voice is heard.

All these roles are what you make of them. The Deputy Leader is Deputy Leader of the Party in Parliament and Simon is doing a superb job of that. The President’s job is to lead the party in the country and be the public face of the party in the country but also be the voice of the members and plugged into the grassroots, totally and utterly without grandstanding so that if the party thinks that the leadership are not doing the right thing that they are flaming well told. I’ve got the access to do just that and to make sure that they know what the party is thinking and if they are making compromises in Parliament then they know if they are not taking people with us.

I don’t want to overstate it, but unless we are incredibly sharp, inspirational about our politics and distinct about what we are for, rather than the coalition, then we do risk having our identity completely blurred and our electoral standing severely threatened.

The Chairman of the Conservative Party gets a seat in the Cabinet, but being the President of the Liberal Democrats would rule out a ministerial post for you. Does that bother you?

I’ve kind of made that choice. I don’t want to sound arrogant or presumptuous but there might be a reasonable chance that I might become a minister at some point. I made the choice that this would be a better use of my skillset, inspiring activists to action, making people feel good about being Liberal Democrats and leading people from the front than I am sat behind a desk talking to civil servants. So yes, I am making the sacrifice of not being a minister - at least for the duration of my term as President.

Do you think that this is a stepping stone to becoming Leader of the Party?

This is a job in its own right. The Presidency has evolved and now we have a Leader in Government, occupied with doing his own things, there is a role for someone, I say humbly, of my skillset to do what I want to do to sell, inspire and lift the party and to recruit people to the party. Believe it or not, I am not all that personally ambitious. I’d be very happy for all sorts of reasons if Nick Clegg led the Party for so long that by the time the post became vacant I was far too decrepit to even think about it.

Are you happy with the way Cowley Street is working at the moment?

As someone who worked in the public sector for 13 years before I became an MP, I know that restructuring is something that happens when anyone comes in at the top and frankly that is a vain thing to do. Every time you restructure you bleed as an institution and as individuals. My job is to make sure we have a period of calm within Cowley Street and to make sure that people there are supported and feel wanted, led and encouraged.

What there will be is an energising of the Campaigns Department and the Press Office so that they are able to go on the attack and not the defensive. My job is to lead from the front and particularly send us on the attack.

Is what we really need a decent by-election?

A by-election would do us no harm. I wish no one any ill - apart from perhaps Phil Woolas. Many of us remember that great night in Littleborough and Saddleworth in 1995 - Blackburn won the League and then we won the by-election. This would be our chance to recreate that. It is a seat we should have won in the General Election and we were unfortunate to miss it. The literature put out against our candidate was appalling. There has got to be a good chance we win the case. If so off we go and work our socks off.

Who is the bigger challenge now, Labour or the Conservatives?

It depends where you are. My honest answer is that whatever you might feel personally, if you are in a seat where 97% of the electorate has voted for one of the two parties in the coalition then you are probably getting a relatively easy ride. I do have constituents who are concerned about it but basically the coalition is quite popular in places like Westmoreland. It’s only people like me who get anxsty about it, even though I’m sure we are doing the right thing.

If you are defending a Liberal Democrat seat against a Labour challenge then it must be much much harder. But we have to be positive about it and not defensive.

I think our threat is going to come from Labour at the moment but if you are up against the Tories and you are in second place, why would you vote for us rather than the other coalition party. That’s why we need to be being incredibly distinct about what we stand for and what we have done which is different.

There are lots of big and little things that we are doing in Government that we are getting no credit for. I use the example of Steve Webb tripling discretionary housing benefit. Nobody knows that, but he did. These are things that we have achieved and there is a whole list of things that we have stopped the Tories doing like tax cuts for millionaires. I think we have to be bold without being rancorous about saying those things and putting them into the simple Focus leaflet format that we are used to.

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