Success story: Tim Farron at the Lib Dem party conference 2013. Photo: Getty
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Tim Farron, the Lib Dem with a difference

Enter Farron’s office and you soon notice the signs of his success – an award for best MP on one side, a prize for most social tweeter on another. It’s a far cry from his party as a whole.

Tim Farron is that increasingly rare political creature: a Liberal Democrat whose standing has improved since 2010. Enter his parliamentary office and you soon notice the signs of his success – an award for best MP on one side (he represents Westmorland and Lonsdale), a prize for most social tweeter on another. In the four years since the formation of the coalition government, the 44-year-old Lib Dem president has steered a shrewd course between loyalty and dissent. As a non-minister, he has been free to rebel on defining issues such as tuition fees, NHS reform and secret courts while remaining untainted by accusations of plotting.

When I begin our conversation by mentioning the fate of Lord Oakeshott, who was forced to resign after attempting to bring Nick Clegg down by leaking unfavourable polling, Farron offers a more-in-sorrow-than-in-anger response. “I really like Matthew Oakeshott. I might be one of the very few people who still does. It was just unbelievably crass and foolish,” he says. “I hope there can be some way back for him.”

If coalition has been good for Farron, it has not for his party. Since 2010, the Lib Dems have lost a third of their members, 1,500 of their councillors, all but one of their MEPs, nine by-election deposits and as much as two-thirds of their previous opinion-poll support. One of the few consolations is the likelihood that the next general election will result in another hung parliament, offering the Lib Dems the chance to act once again as kingmakers. But while Clegg has ruled out support for anything short of full coalition, Farron argues otherwise. “When you go into negotiations with another party you have to believe – and let the other party believe – that there is a point at which you would walk away and when the outcome could be something less than a coalition, a minority administration of some kind. That is something we all have to consider.”

When the Lib Dems entered government they chose not to take ownership of entire Whitehall departments, a decision now widely viewed as a mistake. Farron sees wisdom in an alternative approach. “When you’re a smaller party, identity is everything . . . so if you pick two or three or four departments and you run them really well, then you’ve got a clear message to send to the electorate.”

For progressives, one of the biggest disappointments of the present coalition has been the near-absence of constitutional reform. Farron tells me that Lords reform has to come “immediately back on the table” in future coalition negotiations and suggests that proportional representation for local government should also be a priority. “What we should definitely do, which is what happened in Scotland, is to bring in STV [the single transferable vote] in multi-member wards for local government. There is absolutely no reason whatsoever not to do that, because the constituency
link argument doesn’t work; your average councillor is in a multi-member ward.”

I end by asking Farron the question he knows is coming: will he stand for the Lib Dem leadership the next time there is a vacancy? He is the bookies’ favourite and, according to a recent Liberal Democrat Voice poll, the members’ favourite to succeed Clegg. Farron replies, “I think anyone who is thinking about themselves at a time like this is incredibly selfish . . . I want Nick to lead us into the general election and beyond.” To translate: he’s ruling nothing out. 

George Eaton is political editor of the New Statesman.

This article first appeared in the 18 June 2014 issue of the New Statesman, Islam tears itself apart

Photo: Getty
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The rise of the green mayor – Sadiq Khan and the politics of clean energy

At an event at Tate Modern, Sadiq Khan pledged to clean up London's act.

On Thursday night, deep in the bowls of Tate Modern’s turbine hall, London Mayor Sadiq Khan renewed his promise to make the capital a world leader in clean energy and air. Yet his focus was as much on people as power plants – in particular, the need for local authorities to lead where central governments will not.

Khan was there to introduce the screening of a new documentary, From the Ashes, about the demise of the American coal industry. As he noted, Britain continues to battle against the legacy of fossil fuels: “In London today we burn very little coal but we are facing new air pollution challenges brought about for different reasons." 

At a time when the world's leaders are struggling to keep international agreements on climate change afloat, what can mayors do? Khan has pledged to buy only hybrid and zero-emissions buses from next year, and is working towards London becoming a zero carbon city.

Khan has, of course, also gained heroic status for being a bête noire of climate-change-denier-in-chief Donald Trump. On the US president's withdrawal from the Paris Agreement, Khan quipped: “If only he had withdrawn from Twitter.” He had more favourable things to say about the former mayor of New York and climate change activist Michael Bloomberg, who Khan said hailed from “the second greatest city in the world.”

Yet behind his humour was a serious point. Local authorities are having to pick up where both countries' central governments are leaving a void – in improving our air and supporting renewable technology and jobs. Most concerning of all, perhaps, is the way that interest groups representing business are slashing away at the regulations which protect public health, and claiming it as a virtue.

In the UK, documents leaked to Greenpeace’s energy desk show that a government-backed initiative considered proposals for reducing EU rules on fire-safety on the very day of the Grenfell Tower fire. The director of this Red Tape Initiative, Nick Tyrone, told the Guardian that these proposals were rejected. Yet government attempts to water down other EU regulations, such as the energy efficiency directive, still stand.

In America, this blame-game is even more highly charged. Republicans have sworn to replace what they describe as Obama’s “war on coal” with a war on regulation. “I am taking historic steps to lift the restrictions on American energy, to reverse government intrusion, and to cancel job-killing regulations,” Trump announced in March. While he has vowed “to promote clean air and clear water,” he has almost simultaneously signed an order to unravel the Clean Water Rule.

This rhetoric is hurting the very people it claims to protect: miners. From the Ashes shows the many ways that the industry harms wider public health, from water contamination, to air pollution. It also makes a strong case that the American coal industry is in terminal decline, regardless of possibile interventions from government or carbon capture.

Charities like Bloomberg can only do so much to pick up the pieces. The foundation, which helped fund the film, now not only helps support job training programs in coal communities after the Trump administration pulled their funding, but in recent weeks it also promised $15m to UN efforts to tackle climate change – again to help cover Trump's withdrawal from Paris Agreement. “I'm a bit worried about how many cards we're going to have to keep adding to the end of the film”, joked Antha Williams, a Bloomberg representative at the screening, with gallows humour.

Hope also lies with local governments and mayors. The publication of the mayor’s own environment strategy is coming “soon”. Speaking in panel discussion after the film, his deputy mayor for environment and energy, Shirley Rodrigues, described the move to a cleaner future as "an inevitable transition".

Confronting the troubled legacies of our fossil fuel past will not be easy. "We have our own experiences here of our coal mining communities being devastated by the closure of their mines," said Khan. But clean air begins with clean politics; maintaining old ways at the price of health is not one any government must pay. 

'From The Ashes' will premiere on National Geograhpic in the United Kingdom at 9pm on Tuesday, June 27th.

India Bourke is an environment writer and editorial assistant at the New Statesman.

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