01.06.17 Originally published by the Guardian
“Hair-shirt, muesli-eating Guardian readers”. That’s what Tim Farron called us. Big words from a man whose party languishes at 8% in the polls. He accused Theresa May of taking her supporters for granted – well sure, but what do you call this? I’m not one to judge a political figure on a one-off television performance. It is, after all, not Britain’s Got Talent. But Farron’s behaviour on the BBC debate is symptomatic of an underlying and quite incurable condition: he’s a career politician. He will say whatever it takes to rescue his party from oblivion.
The Liberal Democrats betrayed a generation in coalition with the Tories. We couldn’t trust them under Nick Clegg and nor can we trust them under Farron, who came off in the debate like a – compelling, admittedly – used car salesman.
I was in my first year of university in London when the unthinkable move was made towards tripling university tuition fees and scrapping the education maintenance allowance (EMA). Clegg promised to vote against it, but we should have known what was coming.
Even with EMA, my mum had struggled to finance my sixth-form education. As the eldest in my family, I was haunted by the prospect that these reforms would elbow all my younger cousins out of higher education. On 24 November 2010, tens of thousands of young people took to the streets to hold the Lib Dems to their promise, to give them the confidence to keep it. I was among them. And they betrayed us.
Clegg talked the talk, but when it came to walking the walk he never managed to get so much as one foot in front of the other. Tuition fees were only the beginning. They slashed pensions. The leadership – criticised for links to private healthcare interests – lay down for the Health and Social Care Act that began the dismantling of our NHS. They couldn’t even decide where they stood on GCHQ mass surveillance of all our phone calls and emails, and sharing them with the US. So much for the pure-of-heart liberals.
By 2015 they were still making excuses for that first betrayal, even though Cameron’s policy director James O’Shaughnessy said Clegg was actually “keen” to raise fees and his apologies were “crap”. “I was absolutely between a rock and a hard place,” Clegg claimed. But even if that were true, it’s all relative. I’ll tell you who was actually between a rock and a hard place: the teenagers who knew enough about what this meant for them and the future of our country that they went marching toe-to-toe with riot police; the 15-year-old kids I saw crushed between panicked crowds and Whitehall railings as police horses charged unprovoked into the crowd. It was frightening, coming back after that. But we held the line anyway because we knew it was right. And we deserve a leader who will do the same.
There are many indicators that Farron is not that leader any more than Clegg was. His slippery flip-flopping on LGBT rights has been a recurrent red flag. After much interrogation, of course he’s now saying what a viable politician is expected to say in 2017. But as an LGBT woman I am insulted by his sudden vote-fishing around our community. His impassioned speeches on the refugee crisis may have also endeared him to a dwindling support base, but rhetorical commitment to human rights and civil liberties is no good unless you’ve got the courage to challenge their root causes here at home. The Lib Dems still show no signs of confronting the politics of austerity in any meaningful way, after breaking a sweat to justify it seven days a week for five long years in power. And we know now that it’s the damage that austerity has inflicted on our living standards and public services that has created such fertile ground for the politics of division and hatred.
Meanwhile, they talk the talk on privacy and civil liberties. But Farron’s administration would never have the courage to challenge the “war on terror”, which has justified total government surveillance and bullied our doctors and teachers into playing border security for the Home Office, frightening pregnant migrant women out of seeking prenatal care and making children of colour feel unwelcome in our schools. What’s the point of saying you value diversity when you can’t summon some outrage over that?
Of course, a politician who actually means what they say, well, that would be an entirely new kind of politics. That would ruffle tabloid feathers and cause a real fuss. Honesty is supposed to be unelectable these days. It’s not about policy but personality and fashion choices – about credibility in the eyes of a corrupt system. And Farron is a creature of that culture. He did well in the BBC debate because he knows how to perform. But when the votes are in and the cameras are off, we deserve more than a performer. We deserve conviction, consistency and respect, not someone who’ll turn on us “hair-shirt, muesli-eating Guardian readers” at a moment’s notice to score a cheap point.
I’m voting in a general election for the first time in my life next week. I’m voting for the guy who was out there with us in the cold autumn of 2010, speaking to the students when it was unpopular to do so and telling us we had the power to change things while the rest were preparing to turn their backs. Farron says the NHS is “personal” for him, and I believe him because it’s personal for all of us. But where was he when Jeremy Corbyn was turning out time and again on the picket lines in the wet and cold for our nurses and teachers – and for the lives of people around the world – back when there were no cameras to pose for and no votes to win? That’s the only kind of politician I’m prepared to trust.