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Tim Farron: Lib Dems must not rule out support for a minority government

The party president contradicts Nick Clegg's position on a future hung parliament.

The party president contradicts Nick Clegg's position on a future hung parliament.
Liberal Democrat president Tim Farron at the party's spring conference in Brighton last year. Photograph: Getty Images.

In tomorrow's New Statesman, I interview Tim Farron, the Lib Dem president and both the bookies and members' favourite to succeed Nick Clegg as party leader. As when I last interviewed him, it was a fascinating encounter. Here are some of the highlights. 

Lib Dems must not rule out support for a minority government

In anticipation of another hung parliament, Nick Clegg and Danny Alexander have already pledged not to support a minority Labour or Conservative government. Clegg told the Sunday Times in April: "My party would not be interested in propping up a minority government without coalition. It isn’t a role I would see as right for myself or the Liberal Democrats". 

But Farron argued otherwise, suggesting that it would be careless for the Lib Dems to rule out any options. He told me:

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.

Those in Labour who are pushing for the party to opt for minority government if it falls short of a majority will take note.

On Lord Oakeshott: "I really like him ...  I hope there can be a way back".

It's hard to find anyone in the Lib Dems with a good word to say about Lord Oakeshott after his botched plot against Nick Clegg forced him to resign from the party, but Farron proved an exception. "I really like Matthew Oakeshott," he told me, adding that "I hope there can be a way back for him at some point". Farron's more-in-sorrow-than-in-an ger tone contrasts with that of Clegg, who remains understandably hostile towards the treacherous peer.

Here's the full quote:

I really like Matthew Oakeshott, I might be one of the very few people who still does, it was just unbelievably crass, foolish

I’m just so sorry he did it. Not that it came out so much, but that he did it in the first place, it was a completely unteamplayerish thing to do, and I like Matthew Oakeshott, I hope there can be some way back for him, but you can’t do things like that.

I was out canvassing with him [Oakeshott] in Southwark just four weeks ago, he’s a very good canvasser, he loves the party, he just did something that was very damaging to the party, and I hope there can be a way back for him at some point.

Coalition demands: Lords reform and PR for local government

One of the biggest disappointments of the current coalition for progressives has been the near-absence of constitutional reform, with House of Lords reform abandoned and the Alternative Vote defeated in the 2011 referendum. Farron told me that Lords reform has to come "immediately back on the table" in future coalition negotiations and suggests 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 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."

On Jeremy Browne: The Lib Dems must not become the FDP

The most striking answer to the question that has dogged Farron's party - What's the point of the Lib Dems? - has been provided by former minister Jeremy Browne, who has called the party to embrace an "unbridled, unambiguous" programme of free market liberalism. It is an approach that Farron rejects on both ideological and psephological grounds. He warned that "smaller states equal weaker citizens and more vulnerable citizens" and rejected the notion that "there’s a pool of centre-right voters who are just waiting for us and we should just forget about all these people who read the New Statesman and the Guardian."

In reference to the fate of the FDP, the German free market party, which lost all of its seats at the last Bundestag election, he said: "If he’s saying we should become the FDP it’s not gone that well for them."

Here are some more quotes on Farron's vision of the state, one notably close to Ed Miliband's.

"I think the notion that liberalism is delivered through a smaller state, isn’t so. I think smaller states equal weaker citizens and more vulnerable citizens, because the notion that all we need to be freer is to have the government out of our hair is simplistic when you think there’s much, much nastier forces that get in your hair when the government isn’t there."

"People don’t like paying taxes, there is an issue there, but I think if you look at the Liberal heritage. I don’t see a tension between economic and social liberalism. I am somebody who thinks that free markets are good, but what the Tories believe in is not free markets. The Tories believe in unregulated markets, which are not free. Free markets have a proper referee to keep them free, that’s normally the government or something set up by the government."

On whether he wants to be leader

I ended by asking Farron the question that both he and I knew was coming: will he stand for the Lib Dem leadership the next time there is a vacancy? He is both the bookies’ favourite and, according to a recent Liberal Democrat Voice poll, the members’ favourite to succeed Clegg. Farron told me: "I think anyone who is thinking about themselves at a time like this is incredibly selfish. Especially when we consider the people who worked their socks off for the party for months and years, many of whom sadly lost their seats in May’s election.  I want Nick to lead us into the general election and beyond."

To translate: he’s ruling nothing out.