Jeremy Browne's attack on Labour shows how the Lib Dems are divided on their future

While Tim Farron heaped praise on Ed Miliband, Browne says that Labour is "intellectually lazy" and suffering from a "leadership void".

With another hung parliament looking increasingly likely in 2015, the Lib Dems' thoughts are turning to a second coalition. But as the interviews with Tim Farron and Jeremy Browne in this week's NS show, the party is sharply divided over whether a partnership with Labour or the Tories is the more desirable outcome. 

When I spoke to him last week, Farron lavished praise on Ed Miliband, telling me:

First of all, he’s a polite and nice person. I think he is somebody who is genuinely of the Robin Cook wing of the Labour Party, from their perspective what you’d call the 'soft left'. Somebody who is not a Luddite on environmental issues, somebody who’s open minded about modernising our democracy, somebody who’s instinctively a bit more pluralistic than most Labour leaders and a bit more internationalist as well. 

He mischievously added:

And they’re other things too. For all that I think he could have done a lot more on the AV campaign, he did at least have the backbone to come out and back it. He wouldn’t share a platform with Nick [Clegg], so he ended up with me, poor thing. I like the guy.

As the Lib Dem president knows, should Miliband refuse to form a coalition with Clegg in 2015, he could well end up with him again. 

But Farron's admiration for Miliband is not shared by Browne, the Home Office minister and an Orange Book ally of Clegg, who told Rafael that Labour is "intellectually lazy, running on empty" and suffering from a "leadership void". Rather than acclaiming Miliband as a model progressive, he praised David Cameron for identifying "the big issue of our time" in the form of "the global race". Perhaps most significantly, he said of Labour: "I just don't think of them as equipped to run the country". 

With their interventions, Farron and Browne are offering diametrically opposed visions of their party's future. According to the former, the Lib Dems should unambiguously remain a party of the centre-left, committed to the restoration of the 50p rate of income tax and the eventual abolition of tuition fees, and seeking common ground with Labour. But in the view of the latter, the party’s best hope lies in transforming itself into a British version of the German Free Democratic Party: economically liberal, fiscally conservative and instinctively closer to the Conservatives than Labour.

At present, the Lib Dems are trying to obviate this divide by stating that they will simply align with the largest party. Farron told me that "the electorate will decide who's in power" and that "the chances of us having a choice [of coalition partner] are as close to zero as to be not even worth contemplating". But in an election that could be the closest for decades, it is conceivable that both the Tories and Labour could be in a position to form a majority government with Lib Dem support. As Clegg's europhile party knows better than most, it is not uncommon in other European countries for the second-placed party to take power (Willy Brandt’s SPD administration in Germany and the current Swedish government are notable examples). If the Lib Dems do have a choice of coalition partner in 2015, the party's ideological divisions will burst into the open. 

Home Office minister Jeremy Browne said of Labour: "I just don't think of them as equipped to run the country". Photograph: Getty Images.

George Eaton is political editor of the New Statesman.

Photo: Getty Images
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I'll vote against bombing Isis - but my conscience is far from clear

Chi Onwurah lays out why she'll be voting against British airstrikes in Syria.

I have spent much of the weekend considering how I will vote on the question of whether the UK should extend airstrikes against Daesh/Isis from Iraq to Syria, seeking out and weighing the evidence and the risks.

My constituents have written, emailed, tweeted, facebooked or stopped me in the street to share their thoughts. Most recognised what a difficult and complex decision it is. When I was selected to be the Labour candidate for Newcastle Central I was asked what I thought would be the hardest part of being an MP.

I said it would be this.

I am not a pacifist, I believe our country is worth defending and our values worth fighting for. But the decision to send British Armed Forces into action is, rightly, a heavy responsibility.

For me it comes down to two key questions. The security of British citizens, and the avoidance of civilian casualties. These are separate operational and moral questions but they are linked in that it is civilian casualties which help fuel the Daesh ideology that we cannot respect and value the lives of those who do not believe as we do. There is also the important question of solidarity with the French in the wake of their grievous and devastating loss; I shall come to that later.

I listened very carefully to the Prime Minister as he set out the case for airstrikes on Thursday and I share his view that Daesh represents a real threat to UK citizens. However he did not convince me that UK airstrikes at this time would materially reduce that threat. The Prime Minister was clear that Daesh cannot be defeated from the air. The situation in Syria is complex and factionalised, with many state and non-state actors who may be enemies of our enemy and yet not our friend. The Prime Minister claimed there were 70,000 ground troops in the moderate Free Syrian Army but many experts dispute that number and the evidence does not convince me that they are in a position to lead an effective ground campaign. Bombs alone will not prevent Daesh obtaining money, arms and more recruits or launching attacks on the UK. The Prime Minister did not set out how we would do that, his was not a plan for security and peace in Syria with airstrikes a necessary support to it, but a plan to bomb Syria, with peace and security cited in support of it. That is not good enough for me.

Daesh are using civilian population as human shields. Syrians in exile speak of the impossibility of targeting the terrorists without hitting innocent bystanders. I fear that bombing Raqqa to eliminate Daesh may be like bombing Gaza to eliminate Hamas – hugely costly in terms of the civilian population and ultimately ineffectual.

Yet the evil that Daesh perpetrate demands a response. President Hollande has called on us to join with French forces. I lived in Paris for three years, I spent time in just about every location that was attacked two weeks ago, I have many friends living in Paris now, I believe the French are our friends and allies and we should stand and act in solidarity with them, and all those who have suffered in Mali, Kenya, Nigeria, Lebanon, Tunisia and around the world.

But there are other ways to act as well as airstrikes. Britain is the only G7 country to meet its international development commitments, we are already one of the biggest humanitarian contributors to stemming the Syrian crisis, we can do more not only in terms of supporting refugees but helping those still in Syria, whether living in fear of Daesh or Assad. We can show the world that our response is to build rather than bomb. The Prime Minister argues that without taking part in the bombing we will not have a place at the table for the reconstruction. I would think our allies would be reluctant to overlook our financial commitment.

We can also do more to cut off Daesh funding, targeting their oil wells, their revenues, their customers and their suppliers. This may not be as immediately satisfying as bombing the terrorists but it is a more effective means of strangling them.

The vast majority of the constituents who contacted me were against airstrikes. I agree with them for the reasons I set out above. I should say that I have had no experience of bullying or attempts at intimidation in reaching this decision, Newcastle Central is too friendly, frank, comradely and Geordie a constituency for that. But some have suggested that I should vote against airstrikes to ensure a “clear conscience” ’. This is not the case. There will be more killings and innocent deaths whether there are UK airstrikes or not, and we will all bear a portion of responsibility for them.

A version of this article was originally sent to Chi Onwurah's constituents, and can be read here