Sunday, July 20, 2014

Interviewing Tim Farron at the Social Liberal Forum conference

Listening to Tim Farron’s Beveridge Memorial Lecture at the Social Liberal Forum (SLF) conference yesterday – the New Statesman has reproduced the full text – I was puzzling to work out who he reminded me of.

Then I worked it out.

Take this passage:
So, while the right argument for HS2 is about capacity not speed, the argument for HS3, 4, 5, 6 is about speed. A high speed link between Hull and Liverpool, through Leeds, Bradford and Manchester; from the West Country, from East Anglia to the Midlands, from Wales to the Midlands and the north, from Carlisle to Newcastle; connecting our great towns and cities to one another; connecting East and West as quickly and as seamlessly as we connect north and south, that is where our focus must be and we must start right away. 
It could almost be a passage from Jeremy Browne’s Race Plan – Britain needs modernising and massive spending on infrastructure is the way to achieve it.

It is reassuring to find leading figures of the economic and social liberal wings of the party sounding so similar, but there is an important difference here.

Jeremy is very much a London-as-a-world-city man, whereas at the heart of Tim’s analysis of Britain’s problems is that too much spending and wealth is concentrated in the South East of England.

Talking to him afterwards – in a bloggers’ interview kindly arranged by the Social Liberal Forum – he sees this concentration as being at the heart of the current housing crisis. There is plenty of land and even plenty of houses available outside the South East, it’s just that not enough people want to live there.

With massive spending on railways and broadband and regional airports we can stimulate development in the regions and take the pressure of the South East.

It’s not just investment that Tim wants to see for the regions: he also wants to see devolution of political power. In the interview – the other bloggers there were Mathew Hulbert, Caron Lindsay, Joe Otten, Mark Pack and Iain Brodie Brown – we discussed how this might be achieved. Should we go for devolution to regions or accept the more pragmatic solution of using existing cities and counties?

I asked Tim if he would be happy with neighbouring counties having different education systems. My reason for asking this was that, looking for somewhere quiet to work over the lunch break, I inadvertently found myself in a fringe meeting on education, called to launch a pamphlet by Helen Flynn, where Tim happened to be the guest speaker.

It was something of a celebration of the fall of Michael Gove and its heroine was the head teacher of Barrowford Primary School for her rather toe-curling letter. And, fairly or not, I gained the impression that those present had no great love of diversity in education.

When I asked Tim the question during his interview he said he would be happy to see different systems in different counties, but I am not sure his heart was in it. Still, he did make the important point that Michael Gove’s most far-reaching and questionable changes have been made in teacher training, not at the margins with free schools.

If I had been Jeremy Paxman, my first question about the speech would have been: “This is a leadership bid, isn’t it?” I am not sure how fair that would have been, but it was certainly how many members of the Social Liberal Forum saw it, jumping up to give him a standing ovation.

As to my own views, back in 2011 I wrote of him:
He is clearly a formidable campaigner, having turned Westmorland and Lonsdale into what looked very like a safe Liberal Democrat seat until the Boundary Commission got hold of it. He is young and personable, and he has other attributes that may be useful to someone standing for the leadership of the party in the future. He is Northern, did not go to public school and has not held ministerial office under the Coalition. 
So my feeling is that we should take Tim Farron very seriously. 
I still think we should, even if his oratory yesterday was not that impressive. Too many important lines were swallowed or thrown away. And he did not make the unpopular speech that I went on to ask for in that post.

Still, in singling out the way London dominates our national life Tim has identified an issue that is too little remarked and put himself on the right side of the debate.

It is also an issue that marks him out within the party and could mark out the party as a whole in a future election.
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