Tim Farron speaks at the Liberal Democrat conference in Glasgow last year. Photograph: Getty Images.
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Exclusive: Tim Farron: Lib Dems will have to back Labour if they win more seats than the Tories

The favourite to be the party's next leader says they "won’t have a choice" if Miliband finishes ahead in a hung parliament. 

Perhaps the only safe prediction about the general election is that it will result in another hung parliament. For the Liberal Democrats, as potential coalition partners, the question arises of whether they will side with the party that wins the most votes or the one which wins the most seats. As in 1951 and February 1974, they may not be the same. Labour's better-concentrated vote (and the unreformed constituency boundaries) mean that is likely to win more seats if the parties are tied or even if the Tories are slightly ahead. 

To date, senior Lib Dems such as Nick Clegg and Danny Alexander have simply dodged the question (though both privately favour the Tories). But in an interview with me at the launch of his re-election campaign yesterday, Tim Farron, the party's left-leaning former president and the frontrunner to be its next leader, revealed that he believes the Lib Dems will have to support whichever party wins the most seats (with Labour the obvious choice). Speaking in his constituency of Westmorland and Lonsdale, where he was introduced by Shirley Williams, he told me: 

Let’s say the Tories get more votes and Labour win more seats, which is quite possible, we may think that morally we should put the Tories in but they won’t have enough seats, we won’t have a choice. 

Last time round, us plus Labour was 11 short of a majority of one, so a majority where we’d have had to rely on Jeremy Corbyn voting through the Budget, things like that, for instance, so 11 short even of that level of a majority, so it wasn’t an option.

He added: "I think the same thing will be the case this time round, almost certainly. We will not have a choice. We will be presented with an arithmetic by the electorate and all parties must be grown up enough to accept it and not say, ‘well, thank you for your opinions, we didn’t like it, tough’. Whatever the electorate give us through this fruit machine of an electoral system that we have, we have to be big enough, grown-up enough to make sure it works.

"The fundamental promise we must make to the electorate is that we will respect the outcome of the electorate and we will ensure, do everything in our power to ensure, stable government straight after the election, whether we are part of it or not."

While the Lib Dems are likely to maintain their ambiguous stance, it is significant that Farron, who will be a key player in the post-election period (and could even take over as leader if Clegg loses his seat or resigns, has made his view clear. 

When I asked him whether he would stand for the leadership the next time there was a vacancy, he sensibly replied:

My answer to that, and I know why you ask it, if I answer that, obviously a whole bunch of things happen, one way or the other. My take is that this is, and you know there’s no kind of hyperbole here whatsoever, the toughest election we’ve faced, certainly for a generation, possibly longer. 

In which case, me giving headspace or column space, to any ambition I may or may not have, whatever happens after 8 May, would just be energy-sapping, it would be diverting, it would be arrogant. I’d be a bit of a prat if I spent much time or any time thinking about it.

The full interview with Tim Farron will be published next week.

George Eaton is political editor of the New Statesman.

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Labour's establishment suspects a Momentum conspiracy - they're right

Bernie Sanders-style organisers are determined to rewire the party's machine.  

If you wanted to understand the basic dynamics of this year’s Labour leadership contest, Brighton and Hove District Labour Party is a good microcosm. On Saturday 9 July, a day before Angela Eagle was to announce her leadership bid, hundreds of members flooded into its AGM. Despite the room having a capacity of over 250, the meeting had to be held in three batches, with members forming an orderly queue. The result of the massive turnout was clear in political terms – pro-Corbyn candidates won every position on the local executive committee. 

Many in the room hailed the turnout and the result. But others claimed that some in the crowd had engaged in abuse and harassment.The national party decided that, rather than first investigate individuals, it would suspend Brighton and Hove. Add this to the national ban on local meetings and events during the leadership election, and it is easy to see why Labour seems to have an uneasy relationship with mass politics. To put it a less neutral way, the party machine is in a state of open warfare against Corbyn and his supporters.

Brighton and Hove illustrates how local activists have continued to organise – in an even more innovative and effective way than before. On Thursday 21 July, the week following the CLP’s suspension, the local Momentum group organised a mass meeting. More than 200 people showed up, with the mood defiant and pumped up.  Rather than listen to speeches, the room then became a road test for a new "campaign meetup", a more modestly titled version of the "barnstorms" used by the Bernie Sanders campaign. Activists broke up into small groups to discuss the strategy of the campaign and then even smaller groups to organise action on a very local level. By the end of the night, 20 phonebanking sessions had been planned at a branch level over the following week. 

In the past, organising inside the Labour Party was seen as a slightly cloak and dagger affair. When the Labour Party bureaucracy expelled leftwing activists in past decades, many on went further underground, organising in semi-secrecy. Now, Momentum is doing the exact opposite. 

The emphasis of the Corbyn campaign is on making its strategy, volunteer hubs and events listings as open and accessible as possible. Interactive maps will allow local activists to advertise hundreds of events, and then contact people in their area. When they gather to phonebank in they will be using a custom-built web app which will enable tens of thousands of callers to ring hundreds of thousands of numbers, from wherever they are.

As Momentum has learned to its cost, there is a trade-off between a campaign’s openness and its ability to stage manage events. But in the new politics of the Labour party, in which both the numbers of interested people and the capacity to connect with them directly are increasing exponentially, there is simply no contest. In order to win the next general election, Labour will have to master these tactics on a much bigger scale. The leadership election is the road test. 

Even many moderates seem to accept that the days of simply triangulating towards the centre and getting cozy with the Murdoch press are over. Labour needs to reach people and communities directly with an ambitious digital strategy and an army of self-organising activists. It is this kind of mass politics that delivered a "no" vote in Greece’s referendum on the terms of the Eurozone bailout last summer – defying pretty much the whole of the media, business and political establishment. 

The problem for Corbyn's challenger, Owen Smith, is that many of his backers have an open problem with this type of mass politics. Rather than investigate allegations of abuse, they have supported the suspension of CLPs. Rather than seeing the heightened emotions that come with mass mobilisations as side-effects which needs to be controlled, they have sought to joins unconnected acts of harassment, in order to smear Jeremy Corbyn. The MP Ben Bradshaw has even seemed to accuse Momentum of organising a conspiracy to physically attack Labour MPs.

The real conspiracy is much bigger than that. Hundreds of thousands of people are arriving, enthusiastic and determined, into the Labour party. These people, and their ability to convince the communities of which they are a part, threaten Britain’s political equilibrium, both the Conservatives and the Labour establishment. When the greatest hope for Labour becomes your greatest nightmare, you have good call to feel alarmed.