Interview with Liberal Democrat Party Leader Tim Farron
After five years in coalition the 2015 general election left the Lib Dems with only eight seats in the Commons, their lowest number for a generation. Since then, British politics has changed dramatically; not just a majority Tory government making a play for the political centre-ground, but a forthcoming EU referendum and, of course, the earthquake that has been Jeremy Corbyn’s election.
Here Farron emphasises the need for “sensible, moderate, progressives” in UK politics, claiming that Labour can no longer deliver. He also talks passionately about the importance of inspiring young people to get into politics and what being liberal means for him, both economically and socially.
- Why is it important for young people to get involved in politics?
I joined the Liberal Party, as it was then, when I was 16 years old and to me, young people’s involvement in politics is key to a well-functioning democracy. However, young people’s involvement in party politics is in massive decline and I’m stressing that we must not make the mistake of thinking that young people are only involved in young people’s issues. We must, collectively as politicians, recognise the need to inspire people; nobody, and that goes for young people too, gets involved in politics unless you inspire them to do so. People vote on the basis of habit or calculation, but they join a party because somebody gets them in their gut.
- What would you like to see come out of the EU referendum?
A good, fair a decent campaign and at the end of it, the UK remains within the European Union.
- Do you think with Labour to the far left, the Lib Dems have better prospects at the next general election?
Our job is to not worry about other parties. Our job is to lay out a purely liberal case and talk about the issues we want to. So drug reform, more funding for mental health, more services, better transport etc.
- How do you feel about the Tories trying to move closer to the centre? And how far do you think they have done so?
I think if you look at the green agenda, to take one example, what you say is just not true.
The cuts to Feed-in Tariffs (FIT) are staggering at 65%. This will shrink the currently thriving solar industry by over half its size and put 19,000 jobs at risk, according to the government’s own predictions.
It also throws into jeopardy the government’s ability to meet climate change targets, despite coming so soon after the global agreement in Paris where Britain took a leading role.
The change will see FIT subsidies for solar reduced to just £12 million a year for the next three years.
- What are your feelings about Corbyn and his new “kinder politics”?
For my party, the Liberal Democrats, it potentially changes everything. A massive space in the centre-ground of British politics for sensible, moderate, progressives who are opposed to what the Conservatives are doing, but cannot bring themselves to support a party of the hard left.
- You voted in favour of the bombing Syria. If you were PM, what would you be doing right now?
The government must be absolutely clear on what Syria and Iraq will look like post-ISIL, and what post-conflict strategy (including an exit strategy) they propose to give the best chance of avoiding a power vacuum. This must be linked to a region-wide diplomatic framework which will outline steps for ending the wider conflict in Syria.
- Finally, what does being a liberal mean to you, socially and economically?
I fully count myself as a Beveridge liberal, mostly because he believed in ambitious government that could improve the lives of its citizens.
So I want us to say that we should reclaim Beveridge’s ambition, his sense of mission of looking beyond what might be deemed possible towards what we believe is necessary. I want to reflect on the Beveridge consensus which was of course superseded 35 years ago by the Thatcherite consensus.
We should shoulder Labour out of the way and fully reclaim the Beveridge consensus as being liberal by its birth, but we should then also seek to reclaim the free market from the Thatcherites.
Liberals of every shade should support the free market – but the Thatcherite consensus that has had its hold to an extent on all of Britain’s parties is fundamentally anti-free market. Laissez-faire and the absence of regulation, the privatisation culture in the broadest sense, is a betrayal of the free market. It is the triumph of the oligarch and the monopoly, it is the defeat of the little guy, it is the roadblock to innovation, it has led to the economic disaster that in government we are trying to fix.
So a new consensus will rest in large part on this party being the party of freedom in every sense, including freedom in the market place.
A new consensus must adopt the spirit of Beveridge and Keynes, and to my mind that spirit is one of ambition, an inspired and inspiring confidence that government can make a difference; that in the face of huge challenges, politics and economics can provide positive solutions to make things better, that government should roll up its sleeves, not wring its hands.