Farron suggests the Lib Dems will need to toughen their EU referendum stance

At an NS fringe event, the party president said the Lib Dems should "consider very hard" whether to name a date for an in/out vote.

The Liberal Democrat high command is pleased with the way their conference went. There were challenges to the leader’s position that were conspicuous enough to give the impression of a lively, democratic debate and unsuccessful enough to cement the view that Nick Clegg is in absolute command.

One policy that wasn’t much queried from the floor was the line on a European referendum. At the moment, the Lib Dem position is to be pro-EU but also pro-reform and in favour of a referendum in the event of some new treaty being signed that changes the balance of power between London and Brussels. (That also serves as a précis of the Labour position.) But will the line hold? There is some doubt in all parties that Nick Clegg and Ed Miliband can plausibly get through next May’s elections to the European parliament, still less a general election, without a referendum pledge of equivalent certainty to the one that Tory back benchers extracted from David Cameron at the start of this year.

Tim Farron, Lib Dem President, appears to share some of that doubt. I interviewed him on stage at a conference fringe event and the referendum question came up. This is what he said:

"The polling indicates that an in/out referendum – I am a fairly confident, would be won. I don’t think any other referendum on Europe would be but an in/our referendum would be won for hard, pragmatic, economic reasons. We mustn’t be overly shrill about it and we musn’t say ‘we will lose 3m jobs tomorrow if we leave the EU’ because that’s not credible’ …but you’ve already got Nissan saying we would not be in the north-east of England if you were not in the European Union."

I suggested to Farron that the pro-EU argument is constantly held back by the perception of cowardice in the face of hostile public opinion – that europhiles are seen as elitists who are afraid to ask the question in case the "wrong" people give the "wrong" answer. A pro-EU campaign can’t effectively get off the ground, I suggested, until pro-EU politicians are ready to say, in effect: "we aren’t afraid, we’ll have that referendum, we’ll win, bring it on!" Farron’s response was revealing:

"I have a lot of sympathy for that position. I spent a mere three months in the shadow cabinet when I was first appointed to it by Nick because I felt that, on the Lisbon Treaty – I thought we’d lose a referendum – but you can't tell people you don’t trust them. The party’s position is very much in favour of a referendum. I think it's right not to set a date. I think there may be some political wisdom in setting a date but there’s no practical wisdom, because you’ve given your hand away."

But that is the view now. Will the Lib Dems really get through a campaign without a referendum pledge? Will Nick Clegg get through leadership debates when Cameron is saying his is the only party that trusts the people?

"Our line is that there should be a referendum on Europe and we haven’t named a date and I think we probably need to look at that. A referendum is inevitable and we should go and win it. I don’t want to set a date for when it should be but I think we should probably consider very hard if that’s something we want to do because actually if we do that then Tories are in a really bad position. The only advantage Cameron has got is to say there will be a referendum. The minute other people say, ‘yeah there will be a referendum’, Cameron’s in a position where people are saying ‘which side are you going to vote for?’ and his party is split down the middle and they will be like cats in sack. … It’s a very tenuous position he’s in and he must realise that. I predict it won’t last."

That sounded to me as if the Lib Dem position on a referendum is very much up for negotiation.

One final thought: A Ukip source tells me the party is very eager for the Lib Dems and Labour to match Cameron’s referendum pledge. Why? Because Nigel Farage recognises the potency of Cameron’s claim that a Tory government in 2015 could be the only chance Eurosceptics get for a vote on EU membership and that could squeeze the Ukip vote in 2015. Once everyone has a referendum in their manifesto, potential Ukip voters will be freer to bring their anti-everyone, plague-on-all-your-houses instincts all the way into the polling booth instead of "coming home" to the Tories at the last minute. In that analysis, matching Cameron’s line on Europe could be in the crude electoral interests of Labour and the Lib Dems, bolstering the Ukip vote to deprive Cameron of a majority. Whether that is reason enough to do it – the cynicism would shine through and that is hardly a good look for either Clegg or Miliband – is a different question entirely. 

The EU flag flies in front of the European Parliament in Strasbourg. Photograph: Getty Images.

Rafael Behr is political columnist at the Guardian and former political editor of the New Statesman

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Why the Liberal Democrats by-election surge is not all it seems

The Lib Dems chalked up impressive results in Stoke and Copeland. But just how much of a fight back is it?

By the now conventional post-Brexit logic, Stoke and Copeland ought to have been uniquely inhospitable for the Lib Dems. 

The party lost its deposit in both seats in 2015, and has no representation on either council. So too were the referendum odds stacked against it: in Stoke, the so-called Brexit capital of Britain, 70 per cent of voters backed Leave last June, as did 62 per cent in Copeland. And, as Stephen has written before, the Lib Dems’ mini-revival has so far been most pronounced in affluent, Conservative-leaning areas which swung for remain. 

So what explains the modest – but impressive – surges in their vote share in yesterday’s contests? In Stoke, where they finished fifth in 2015, the party won 9.8 per cent of the vote, up 5.7 percentage points. They also more than doubled their vote share in Copeland, where they beat Ukip for third with 7.3 per cent share of the vote.

The Brexit explanation is a tempting and not entirely invalid one. Each seat’s not insignificant pro-EU minority was more or less ignored by most of the national media, for whom the existence of remainers in what we’re now obliged to call “left-behind Britain” is often a nuance too far. With the Prime Minister Theresa May pushing for a hard Brexit and Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn waving it through, Lib Dem leader Tim Farron has made the pro-EU narrative his own. As was the case for Charles Kennedy in the Iraq War years, this confers upon the Lib Dems a status and platform they were denied as the junior partners in coalition. 

While their stance on Europe is slowly but surely helping the Lib Dems rebuild their pre-2015 demographic core - students, graduates and middle-class professionals employed in the public sector – last night’s results, particularly in Stoke, also give them reason for mild disappointment. 

In Stoke, campaign staffers privately predicted they might manage to beat Ukip for second or third place. The party ran a full campaign for the first time in several years, and canvassing returns suggested significant numbers of Labour voters, mainly public sector workers disenchanted with Corbyn’s stance on Europe, were set to vote Lib Dem. Nor were they intimidated by the Brexit factor: recent council by-elections in Sunderland and Rotheram, which both voted decisively to leave, saw the Lib Dems win seats for the first time on massive swings. 

So it could well be argued that their candidate, local cardiologist Zulfiqar Ali, ought to have done better. Staffordshire University’s campus, which Tim Farron visited as part of a voter registration drive, falls within the seat’s boundaries. Ali, unlike his Labour competitor Gareth Snell and Ukip leader Paul Nuttall, didn’t have his campaign derailed or disrupted by negative media attention. Unlike the Tory candidate Jack Brereton, he had the benefit of being older than 25. And, like 15 per cent of the electorate, he is of Kashmiri origin.  

In public and in private, Lib Dems say the fact that Stoke was a two-horse race between Labour and Ukip ultimately worked to their disadvantage. The prospect of Nuttall as their MP may well have been enough to convince a good number of the Labour waverers mentioned earlier to back Snell. 

With his party hovering at around 10 per cent in national polls, last night’s results give Farron cause for optimism – especially after their near-wipeout in 2015. But it’s easy to forget the bigger picture in all of this. The party have chalked up a string of impressive parliamentary by-election results – second in Witney, a spectacular win in Richmond Park, third in Sleaford and Copeland, and a strong fourth in Stoke. 

However, most of these results represent a reversion to, or indeed an underperformance compared to, the party’s pre-2015 norm. With the notable exception of Richmond’s Sarah Olney, who only joined the Lib Dems after the last general election, these candidates haven’t - or the Lib Dem vote - come from nowhere. Zulfiqar Ali previously sat on the council in Stoke and had fought the seat before, and Witney’s Liz Leffman and Sleaford’s Ross Pepper are both popular local councillors. And for all the excited commentary about Richmond, it was, of course, held by the Lib Dems for 13 years before Zac Goldsmith won it for the Tories in 2010. 

The EU referendum may have given the Lib Dems a new lease of life, but, as their #LibDemFightback trope suggests, they’re best understood as a revanchist, and not insurgent, force. Much has been said about Brexit realigning our politics, but, for now at least, the party’s new normal is looking quite a lot like the old one.