Liberal Democrat president Tim Farron at the party's spring conference in Brighton last year. Photograph: Getty Images.
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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.

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.

George Eaton is political editor of the New Statesman.

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How did I, obsessed with non-places, not know about the Trafford Centre?

My wife had booked us all in to a showing of the latest Bond film at the IMAX Cinema at the Trafford Centre. “Why the Trafford Centre?” I taxed her. She looked at me as if I were a complete ass, but refused to enlighten me. 

Last year I bought a copy of J G Ballard’s last novel, Kingdom Come, a dystopic tale of the near future in which bored suburbanites descend into anomic violence as they retreat inside a giant shopping mall. Predictably, I bought my copy at the Bluewater shopping mall in north Kent, on the outskirts of London. Bluewater held the title of Britain’s biggest shopping mall for a number of years and it is surpassing large: a huge circular corridor that has become a destination. I asked a police officer where the Waterstones was and discovered she was a good old-fashioned bobby-on-the-beat – her beat having been, for seven years, to walk slowly around and around . . . Bluewater.

But I wasn’t fettered by Bluewater’s surly gravity, any more than I was galvanised by rampant consumerism. Novel purchased, I took a cab over the soaring Queen Elizabeth II Bridge to Essex, where I alighted at Bluewater’s twin establishment: the Lakeside shopping mall in West Thurrock. I headed for the Lakeside branch of Waterstones, where I . . . well, you guessed it: I returned my copy of Kingdom Come. This surreal little exercise was undertaken for the BBC Radio 4 documentary Malled: Sixty Years of Undercover Shopping, and I’ve detailed it here purely in order to illustrate this point: I have more than a passing interest in shopping malls.

This is why the events of a fortnight ago, when Family Self went up to Manchester for what is termed, I believe, a “city break”, seemed quite so bizarre. My wife had booked us all in to a showing of the latest Bond film at the IMAX Cinema at the Trafford Centre. “Why the Trafford Centre?” I taxed her. “It’s in Trafford, which is five miles from the city centre.” She looked at me as if I were a complete ass, but refused to enlighten me. My revelation came later, when we were wandering the rococo halls of the Trafford Centre, marvelling at the lashings of gold leaf applied to the serried columns as our soles slapped on the Italian marble flooring. My wife couldn’t believe that one such as I, obsessed by what the French philosopher Marc Augé has named “non-places”, didn’t know about the Trafford Centre.

But I didn’t – it was a 207,000-square-metre hole in my map of the world. I knew nothing of the bitter and protracted wrangling that attended its inception, as successive planning applications were rejected by ever higher authorities, until our Noble Lords had to step in to ensure future generations will be able to buy their schmutter at TK Maxx and then sip their lattes at Starbucks without having to brave the harsh Lancashire elements. Did I feel small as my savvier spouse led me through these storied halls? You bet your waddling, wobbling, standing-still-on-the-travelator bum I did. How could I not have known about the great central dome of the Trafford mall, which is bigger – and statelier – than that of St Paul’s? How could I have been unaware of the Orient, Europe’s largest food court, with its seating for 1,800 diners, served by a plethora of exciting outlets including Harry Ramsden’s, Carluccio’s and those piquant bun-pushers, McDonald’s?

Actually, the Orient completely bowled me over. The Trafford Centre’s imagineers point to the nearby Manchester Ship Canal as influencing this wholly novel and utterly weird space, which is formed by a sort of Möbius strip of 1930s ocean-liner design, being at once superstructure – railings, funnels, tables arranged to simulate the deckchairs on a sun deck – and interior. However, nothing like this ever cruised by Runcorn. Not that I object to this, any more than I objected to the cluttered corridor full of orientalism – noodle bars, sushi joints, all-you-can-eat Chinese barbecues – that debouched from it and led us back into the weirdly glistering main retail areas, with their ornamental griffins and neoclassical columns bodged up out of medium-density fibreboard.

The Trafford Centre’s imagineers also make great play of design features – such as the aforementioned griffins – that are meant to tie the humongous mall to its hinterland (these are the heraldic symbols of the de Traffords, who used to own hereabouts), and to the north-east’s proud industrial heritage. But this is all ornamental balls; the truth is that the Trafford Centre’s ambience is so sumptuously wacky, it could quite reasonably be twinned with Las Vegas.

While the rest of the family went in search of retail opportunities, I watched the Mancunians process. It occurred to me that if there were any influences at work here – besides the Baudrillardian ones of hyperreality and simulation that underpin so much of the contemporary built environment – it was the presence of a large British Asian community. The only people who didn’t look out of both place and time, wandering about among all the gilded pomp and crystalline circumstance, were women wearing saris, shalwar kameez and burqas. Tracksuit bottoms and hoodies just didn’t cut it – although, I concede, come the breakdown in civil society anticipated in Kingdom Come, this pseudo-sportswear will come into its own as the perfect pillaging outfit.

Next week: Lives of Others

Will Self is an author and journalist. His books include Umbrella, Shark, The Book of Dave and The Butt. He writes the Madness of Crowds and Real Meals columns for the New Statesman.

This article first appeared in the 26 November 2015 issue of the New Statesman, Terror vs the State