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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Everyone's forgotten the one issue that united the Labour party

There was a time when Ed Miliband spoke at Momentum rallies.

To label the row over the EU at Thursday’s Labour leadership hustings "fireworks" would be to endow it with more beauty than it deserves. Owen Smith’s dogged condemnation of John McDonnell’s absence from a Remain rally – only for Corbyn to point out that his absence was for medical reasons – ought to go down as a cringing new low point in the campaign. 

Not so long ago, we were all friends. In the course of the EU referendum, almost all of the protagonists in the current debacle spoke alongside each other and praised one another’s efforts. At a local level, party activists of all stripes joined forces. Two days before polling day, Momentum activists helped organise an impromptu rally. Ed Miliband was the headline speaker, and was cheered on. 

If you take the simple version of the debate, Labour’s schism on the EU appears as an aberration of the usual dynamics of left and right in the party. Labour's left is supposedly cheering a position which avoids advocating what it believes in (Remain), because it would lose votes. Meanwhile, the right claims to be dying in a ditch for its principles - no matter what the consequences for Labour’s support in Leave-voting heartlands.

Smith wants to oppose Brexit, even after the vote, on the basis of using every available procedural mechanism. He would whip MPs against the invocation of Article 50, refuse to implement it in government, and run on a manifesto of staying in the EU. For the die-hard Europhiles on the left – and I count myself among these, having run the Another Europe is Possible campaign during the referendum – there ought to be no contest as to who to support. On a result that is so damaging to people’s lives and so rooted in prejudice, how could we ever accept that there is such a thing as a "final word"? 

And yet, on the basic principles that lie behind a progressive version of EU membership, such as freedom of movement, Smith seems to contradict himself. Right at the outset of the Labour leadership, Smith took to Newsnight to express his view – typical of many politicians moulded in the era of New Labour – that Labour needed to “listen” to the views Leave voters by simply adopting them, regardless of whether or not they were right. There were, he said, “too many” immigrants in some parts of the country. 

Unlike Smith, Corbyn has not made his post-Brexit policy a headline feature of the campaign, and it is less widely understood. But it is clear, via the five "red lines" outlined by John McDonnell at the end of June:

  1. full access to the single market
  2. membership of the European investment bank
  3. access to trading rights for financial services sector
  4. full residency rights for all EU nationals in the UK and all UK nationals in the EU, and
  5. the enshrinement of EU protections for workers. 

Without these five conditions being met, Labour would presumably not support the invocation of Article 50. So if, as seems likely, a Conservative government would never meet these five conditions, would there be any real difference in how a Corbyn leadership would handle the situation? 

The fight over the legacy of the referendum is theatrical at times. The mutual mistrust last week played out on the stage in front of a mass televised audience. Some Corbyn supporters jeered Smith as he made the case for another referendum. Smith accused Corbyn of not even voting for Remain, and wouldn’t let it go. But, deep down, the division is really about a difference of emphasis. 

It speaks to a deeper truth about the future of Britain in Europe. During the referendum, the establishment case for Remain floundered because it refused to make the case that unemployment and declining public services were the result of austerity, not immigrants. Being spearheaded by Conservatives, it couldn’t. It fell to the left to offer the ideological counter attack that was needed – and we failed to reach enough people. 

As a result, what we got was a popular mandate for petty racism and a potentially long-term shift to the right in British politics, endangering a whole raft of workplace and legal protections along the way. Now that it has happened, anyone who really hopes to overcome either Brexit, or the meaning of Brexit, has to address the core attitudes and debates at their root. Then as now, it is only clear left-wing ideas – free from any attempt to triangulate towards anti-migrant sentiment– that can have any hope of success. 

The real dividing lines in Labour are not about the EU. If they were, the Eurosceptic Frank Field would not be backing Smith. For all that it may be convenient to deny it, Europe was once, briefly, the issue that united the Labour Party. One day, the issues at stake in the referendum may do so again – but only if Labour consolidates itself around a strategy for convincing people of ideas, rather than simply reaching for procedural levers.