Tribalism, Tim Farron, and what Richard Grayson doesn’t say

I was intrigued to see that Professor Richard Grayson had written an article about Liberal Democrat tribalism. Grayson, a former Liberal Democrat who joined Labour three years ago, is an intelligent person with insights to share on this subject. It is also true that there *are* incredibly tribal people in the Liberal Democrats, who swing between regarding Labour as a bunch of doctrinaire spendthrift lunatics and seeing them as hard-right sell-outs. I have seen people say that the Liberal Democrats can never go into coalition with Labour because they are uniquely tribal, unlike the pluralist Lib Dems – they don’t seem to see the irony. So I was a little surprised to see that Grayson had singled out Tim Farron for criticism.

Grayson’s argument rests on two incidents, both of which are now over four and a half years old. The first relates to a vote at the 2008 Autumn Conference in Bournemouth which dedicated the Liberal Democrats to a policy of cutting £20bn from existing public expenditure and shifting towards other Liberal Democrat priorities – a large chunk of which was, indeed, meant to be directed towards cuts in income tax (I think I am right in saying that the intention at that stage was to reduce the basic rate rather than increasing the threshold, although the details were rather vague). Grayson clearly sees this as a pivotal moment in the rightward shift of the party, the moment when we became a party devoted to shrinking the state rather than (as in the Ashdown and Kennedy years) advocating greater investment in public services. Furthermore, he sees Tim Farron’s intervention as crucial in making sure it was passed. According to that logic, then, Farron is directly responsible for the Liberal Democrats’ support of the Conservatives’ fiscal policy.

There are a few problems with that argument, however. For one thing, although I wasn’t (quite) a member at this point (I think I joined in the October), I wonder whether Grayson exaggerates the influence of Tim, who by this stage had only been an MP for three years and held no portfolio of significant importance. More fundamentally, Grayson’s narrative leaves out the small matter that, shortly after the conference vote, the collapse of Lehman Brothers precipitated the greatest recession since the 1930s. This is significant for us in that Make It Happen was a dead letter almost by the time it was written – economic and political events had overtaken it completely. In the following years, Liberal Democrat policy swung towards broad support of Alistair Darling’s policy of Keynesian expansion of public spending, and the £20bn number was quietly dropped. The support for tax cuts became a fiscally neutral ‘tax switch’, raising green levies and taxes on high earners. The 2010 manifesto again proposed this ‘tax switch’, but this time also set out plans for a moderate pace of deficit reduction while keeping the flagship commitment to eliminating tuition fees. Only during the Coalition negotiations did Clegg sign up to the Conservative deficit reduction plan, and only after a couple of years in government was it clear that income tax cuts were going to be paid for by cuts elsewhere rather than a Mansion Tax or, in David Cameron’s words, ‘green crap’. In other words, it is impossible to draw a straight line between the Bournemouth conference and Coalition economic policy, except for the continued interest of Nick Clegg in shifting the party in favour of cutting Income Tax and public spending. For that reason, dragging up a seven year old Conference vote seems a little quixotic.

Grayson’s other bone to pick with Farron is related to his rejection in 2010 of working on a Labour Party policy working group. Grayson sees this as a demonstration that he isn’t really interested in pluralism, but I think that this is unfair. I suspect that I differ from him on how exactly politicians should work across party lines – he is clearly a generous soul who believes that any invitation offered should be accepted, and that if you don’t then you have slapped aside the hand of pluralism. My view is that you work across party lines on a pragmatic basis where you have common goals – as a social liberal, that often means working with the Labour Party. Intellectually, I think there is enormous value in discussing policy ideas and philosophy across party divides, creating a cross-fertilisation of ideas without which party dogma quickly becomes stale. Compass has generally been good at this on the left. And there is also a value in getting to know MPs from other parties socially – as well as facilitating the intellectual cross-fertilisation I mentioned above, it helps ease the formal interactions between them. Several observers have said that Nick Clegg found it difficult to relate to Gordon Brown during the Coalition negotiations in 2010, whereas he found himself at ease with David Cameron, with whom he had a fair amount in common.

Working within formal party structures, however, is always going to breed suspicion. Grayson fails to mention that by this point Farron was the Party President, and that he would be working with Labour MPs to develop Labour policy. This would have been an level of co-operation at a high level between two parties last seen in British politics between the Liberals and SDP, and completely unknown when the two parties are on opposite sides of the House.  Perhaps Ed Miliband was genuinely seeking some kind of pluralist arrangement. Even if so, Farron’s supposition that he was trying to play Lib Dems off each other or recruit them to Labour was not unreasonable, especially given that Miliband’s electoral strategy was based almost entirely on hoovering up 2010 Lib Dem voters. I suspect that, rather than demonstrating partisan hackery, Farron was instead being shrewder than Grayson himself. He was also demonstrating a basic level of political loyalty which is really the currency of the Labour Party. To put it in other words, it is difficult to imagine Ben Bradshaw serving on a Liberal Democrat policy group without being burnt at the stake by his constituency party. If Miliband was genuine, he was certainly being cack-handed about it.

Grayson finishes by saying that many Labour members suspect Liberal Democrats as being soggy Tories. I can certainly understand that point of view, given some of our actions and rhetoric in government. As he says, the likes of Danny Alexander will hardly warm the cockles of the average Labour member. But the thing is, Danny Alexander is no longer an MP. On the other hand, Tim Farron, a man of the left, is our Leader. Might it not be best for Grayson – who obviously has a more sophisticated and accurate view – to try and point that out to his fellow Labour members? It would do a lot more for relations between the two parties, which Grayson wishes to improve, than misrepresenting Tim Farron based on years-old incidents.

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