EXCLUSIVE: Liberal Democrat leader Tim Farron claims party can win back disillusioned voters across Kent
PUBLISHED: 06:00 18 September 2016
With Labour in turmoil, Mr Farron says the Lib Dems are best placed to challenge a polarising Conservative government
Tim Farron has issued a rallying call to disillusioned voters and politicians alike across Kent to help the Liberal Democrats become “the open, united opposition that this country needs”.
But while he speaks of revival, his party have so far failed to show any noticeable growth in support and after being obliterated at the polls at the 2015 general election, the open wounds caused by that are still weeping.
Yet his party are now the only one to sit firmly in the centre ground - so recently beloved by the floating voter.
Labour, under Jeremy Corbyn has deserted the site of their triple election successes under Tony Blair, while Brexit and Theresa May have seen the Conservatives take a sideways step back to their more traditional perch on the right.
The upshot is that many voters are finding themselves cast adrift from their preferred political positions. Where, the big question is, will they end up?
The natural answer was normally the Lib Dems. The reality now is that they have become a bit-part player in national politics.
Once the main opposition in many constituencies in Kent and the county council, today they are, in the eyes of many, something of a damaged brand; a result of Nick Clegg’s ‘we’re different’ claims before joining the Tories in power in a coalition and reversing decisions such as university fees.
After the 2015 election they emerged with a mere eight MPs.
Tim Farron’s profile has been modest too - but, speaking excludively to KoS this week, he insists it’s all to play for.
“We are winning votes, if you look at local elections since June we have a 100 per cent defence record and have made 12 gains and done so from the Conservatives, Labour and Ukip and our membership is stronger than it’s been any time this century,” he said.
“But we’ve got a Conservative government doing essentially what they want because the opposition is so non-existent, so we will step in and be that opposition.
“Our job has been to rebuild from what was a very tough result for us in the last election and there’s a long way to go but we’re getting there, we’re making gains and it’s clear we’ve turned a corner.
“We think business matters, the way to make the world work is not pure socialism, we think entrepreneurism is good.
“Clearly Labour have no economic plan but we do. We trusted the British people in the referendum but we need to get the best deals as possible, particularly for Kent with regards to migration and freedom of movement, and whether we have to pay tax on exports and imports.
“No bureaucrat has the right to impose what it thinks is the best deal, and it would be wrong for the public to simply be told what they are getting.
“The British people need to have their say here, just as they did about voting in or out.”
One of the few areas the party does seem to have significant support is Maidstone, and the Boundary Commission’s proposals to reshuffle constituencies throughout the UK, and make the county town a more compact, urbanised seat, could benefit the Lib Dems, Mr Farron said.
“Across the country the boundary changes look like they might actually help us, and Maidstone is much more likely to be an opportunity for the Lib Dems than it is at the moment.
“But I have to say the way they have been done is massively anti-democratic and the electorate figures are several years out of date.
“The motivation behind it, clearly, is to advantage the Conservatives and I would appeal to Theresa May to look very closely at this.”
The scale of the rebuild on Mr Farron’s hands cannot be overstated.
His predecessor seemed to become immensely popular overnight following the live televised debates of 2010 as Cleggmania swept across the nation.
His appeal was particularly strong with the younger generation, who appeared won over by his promise not to increase tuition fees at universities.
However, a swift U-turn and a rise in fees to £9,000 a year followed, condemning hundreds of thousands of students to a lifetime of debt.
Dropping from 57 seats to just eight was an emphatic indictment of how the public responded to Mr Clegg’s lies, and the Lib Dems were pretty much at rock bottom.
However, Mr Farron insists frustrated Remain voters in this year’s EU Referendum in particular can now look at the party as one that is progressive and looking to the future, rather than mistakes of the past.
“I voted against [the tuition fee rise] because I believe if you make a promise you need to keep it,” he admitted. “Sometimes compromise is what you’ve got to do, but I don’t underestimate the impact that has had on our performance in the last five years. Though the fact I am now leader, and I was against it, makes a difference.
“If you look at the figures, we’ve had a vast increase in membership since the referendum and of those new members almost 50 per cent are under 30.
“So I think people understand it happened, it was unfortunate, but young people want a strong opposition which Labour isn’t providing, and they can see we’re the only ones with a plan.”
The recent turnaround for the Lib Dems is certainly a step in the right direction, but some serious momentum is needed if they are to mount a genuine challenge for seats in Kent to help claim a Commons majority. Mission impossible, many would suggest.
Mr Farron has previously suggested a breakaway centre-left party could be on the cards, and was this week coy on whether such discussions have taken place, but did admit his party was open for anyone wanting to challenge the Tories.
He echoed comments made to KoS by former Folkestone councillor Lynne Beaumont that even disillusioned liberal Conservatives could defect, though these were laughed off by Dover MP Charlie Elphicke.
“Observing people in the Labour Party, I regret the position they are in because it’s a tragedy for British democracy and people who have given their lives to the movement,” Mr Farron said. “My job is not to be a home-wrecker, but to build ambitiously, maybe audaciously, a strong opposition to the Conservatives, and that would mean we are potentially a home to people of other parties.
“There are plenty of people in the Conservative party who support business and want to maintain what is becoming a narrowing relationship with Europe.
“We will be all ears but it’s important to be respectful and you don’t achieve success in government by grandstanding over their grief.
“We will be the open, united opposition that this country needs.”
Still campaigning hard for membership within the European Union, or at least the best possible deal in terms of trade and movement of people, Mr Farron is also passionate about the refugee crisis.
Previous comments about it being a humanitarian issue first, and security issue second, are commendable, but for the people of Kent, it is easy for an MP, whose constituency in Westmorland and Lonsdale is some way off the frontline, to make idealistic comments.
Kent County Council, currently caring for 1,400 young migrants, said last week the government’s current voluntary dispersal system wasn’t working and that a mandatory arrangement needed to be put in place imminently to ease the strain on foster carers, social workers, school places, accommodation and healthcare.
However, Mr Farron claims he is well aware of the scale of crisis, and that more needs to be done to support not just the refugees themselves, but also those looking after them in the county and beyond.
“The government needs to take control,” he said. “What we have seen both when this began and as it got worse is a government that has turned its back on both [the refugees] and people in Britain who have been doing so much to help them. The pressure put on Kent has been immense because this government has failed to provide both the leadership and resources so that others take their fair share.
“I’ve visited reception centres in Kent and seen the great work that goes on and they are overwhelmed with compassion.
“If you live in and around where these people are fleeing death, the pressure on communities is so much greater, and we must stand with them and make sure we don’t just let the likes of Italy and Greece, who are struggling enough, have to cope with the lion’s share.
“If you don’t offer that support, people’s compassion begins to get worn down.
“I think most local authorities are prepared to step forward and take them if they are not being sold a pup and they keep getting resources, rather than it just being a bung to look after someone for six months.
“For the first few years, of course, these people cost money, but we see now from people that have arrived in the past, they work in all areas, running businesses, creating jobs, so they have paid that investment back dozens of times over.
“Helping these people, spending that money now and supporting them will pay dividends.”
The debate around grammar schools has again reared its head this week, and Mr Farron was quick to reiterate his stance that more such schools, as planned by the prime minister, would harm the education of thousands of young people in the county.
He said: “It’s massively important for the children of Kent that we don’t get any more because the evidence is incredibly clear that for every child that gets into a grammar school, there are half a dozen relegated to the second division of education.
“That’s not fair for any child. The test locks in their destination at a young age and squanders the talent of the overall majority of young people coming through.
“I understand, broadly speaking, they are popular with people who went to them [though former grammar pupil Mr Corbyn slammed the system in the Commons this week], but for me that’s equivalent to someone who is 80 and smokes 50 cigarettes a day saying ‘it hasn’t done me any harm’. You are the exception that proves the rule.
“If you want our young people to do the best they can, you make sure all our schools do well and telling them they are second best at 10 or 11 is not the way you do it.”
He also sided with campaign groups like SOS Kent which opposes the 3,600 lorry park earmarked for Stanford, and criticised the government’s methods in delivering the multi-million pound project, claiming it looks “a rushed attempt at a quick fix”.
The 46-year-old added: “There needs to be a longer term plan. It’s such an enormous challenge and if you are not careful it could get worse. I’m an outsider looking in and I suspect that’s the danger, that it happens too much and there’s not enough listening to local people.
“Kent is the gateway to the rest of the world and therefore it’s all the more important you should support the local communities and make sure they are not undermined.”