Liberal Democrat leadership frontrunner Tim Farron speaks at the party's conference in Glasgow last year. Photograph: Getty Images.
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Tim Farron interview: Escape from the wilderness

The Liberal Democrat leadership frontrunner on future coalitions, the Labour leadership contest and how his party can recover. 

Before the Liberal Democrats’ great humbling, Tim Farron was fond of claiming that they possessed the resilience of “cockroaches after a nuclear war”. The apocalypse did come – but only Farron and seven of his fellow MPs survived. On the day I meet the former Lib Dem president in his Westminster office, the Parliamentary Labour Party has just held its leadership hustings. The Lib Dems could now stage an equivalent event in a large family car.

I begin by asking Farron how surprised he was by the scale of the defeat. “If I’d been forced to give you a number [of seats], I’d probably have given you low-to-mid-twenties. It declined in my head during the election but not by that much. I wouldn’t have said that I’d have eaten my hat,” he adds, in reference to Paddy Ashdown’s response to the exit polls, “but I was certainly surprised by ten and even more surprised by eight.”

Long before Nick Clegg’s resignation as leader, the 45-year-old Farron was the fav­ourite to succeed him. The MP for Westmorland and Lonsdale became the darling of Lib Dem activists during his four years as president (to the resentment of his party’s ministers) and protected his reputation by voting against policies such as higher tuition fees, secret courts and the bedroom tax.

“It is hard to visualise anyone but Farron leading the troops back across the wasteland,” I concluded when I last interviewed him in February. With the defeat on 7 May of most of his putative rivals – such as Danny Alexander, Jo Swinson and Ed Davey – he faces just one candidate, the former health minister Norman Lamb (who is said to have taken some persuading to stand), in the Lib Dem leadership election. The result will be announced on 16 July.

Farron, who is finishing his speech to the Gladstone Club when I arrive and is wearing his trademark Dr Martens, sums up his pitch. “We got kicked into the wilderness on 7 May and the only thing that matters now is: how do we get out of it?” he says. “Norman’s got loads of great skills, he’s a mate, [a] very good minister. But in the end, who can they see inspiring the people who are not yet members of the party and who didn’t vote for us this time round to change their minds next time?

“We need to have a voice that is a lot clearer and a lot louder to compensate for our size being smaller and I think I’m the person who’s the campaigner and the communicator who can do that,” he continues. “If Norman wins, I’ll get right behind him. I think the current situation calls for my skillset, though I say so myself.”

He names housing, the environment and civil liberties as his priorities and declares his opposition to fracking (“It’s another fossil fuel”) and the like-for-like replacement of Trident (“It’s an act of aggression and will be seen as so by a global community that’s looking for people to disarm, not rearm to the max”). He refuses to say what a “good result” would be in 2020 but tells me that the key to the Lib Dems’ recovery is to establish themselves as “the clear anti-Tory party” in Cornwall and the West Country, where Labour has long struggled.

“We have to pick a number of seats and we have to go for it. We have to be part of a movement that seeks to remove a Conservative government from office,” he says. Nonetheless, he does not rule out forming a future coalition with the Tories on the grounds that doing so would make the Lib Dems “weak in negotiations” and that “the arithmetic” may demand it. However, for the first time, he announces that the introduction of proportional representation would be a prerequisite for a deal with either the Conservatives or Labour. “I would not sign off any agreement with any of the other parties that did not entail [electoral reform], end of story. Massive, massive red line, don’t even pick up the phone.”

I ask him which of the Labour leadership contenders he is most impressed by. “I’ll be very careful what I say here. I think they’ve all got something to them and for them . . . I just hope that Labour selects someone, for the country’s sake, who is bound to be tribal to an extent – that’s kind of their job – but is not too tribal and understands that what the Conservatives are about is entrenching themselves in power for a generation and they really don’t care if they dismantle the United Kingdom in the process. I hope whoever they elect is somebody who, whilst they must put the interests of the Labour Party first, [will] also consider the long-term importance of working with others to make sure we protect Britain’s future.” He suggests that Andy Burnham, the front-runner, could prove to be a surprise reformer. “There are some arguments for him as being a bit of a Kinnock-type character and I don’t mean that in a nasty way . . . [but] in a complimentary way. He’s somebody who’s perceived as of the left who could move the party in
a more moderate direction.”

Towards the end of our conversation, I mention the late Charles Kennedy, one of Farron’s mentors, to whom he delivered an emotional and acclaimed eulogy in the recent Commons tribute session. His eyes well up and his voice cracks as he tells me how he hopes to emulate his party’s lost son. “I remember my first Any Questions?. I bumped into him the day before on the Thursday and I said, ‘Any advice, Charles?’ and he said, ‘Yeh, yeh, just be yourself, just be yourself.’ So I think that’s very important.”

He continues: “Human, principled and effective – and he got our highest number of MPs in living memory [62, in the 2005 general election]. What Charles Kennedy is, is living proof that the good guys can be effective. We’ve just gone through an election where the bad guys were effective . . . Charles is proof that you can be human, you can be rigidly principled to a degree, thoroughly principled, and effective and win elections – and that’s a model I’d love us to follow.” 

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Now listen to George discussing Tim Farron's leadership prospects on the NS podcast:

 

George Eaton is political editor of the New Statesman.

This article first appeared in the 11 June 2015 issue of the New Statesman, Who owns the future?

Photo: Getty
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Jeremy Corbyn faces a dilemma as Brexit solidifies: which half of his voters should he disappoint?

He comes from a tradition on the left that sees the EU as a capitalist club.

Imagine a man who voted to leave the European Economic Community in 1975. A man who spoke out against the Maastricht Treaty in 1993, saying that it “takes away from national parliaments the power to set economic policy and hands it over to an unelected set of bankers”. A man who voted against the Lisbon Treaty in 2008.

You don’t have to imagine very hard, because that man is Jeremy Corbyn. When campaigning for the Labour leadership in 2015, he told a GMB hustings, “I would ­advocate a No vote if we are going to get an imposition of free-market policies across Europe.”

When Labour’s Brexiteers gathered to launch their campaign in 2016, several seemed hurt that Corbyn and his shadow chancellor, John McDonnell, were not there with them. “It is surprising, when we voted against the advice of the chief whip on a number of European issues over the last decades, that Jeremy and John, who have always been in that lobby with us, that they would want to lead a campaign that isn’t even asking for a renegotiated position,” said the MP Graham Stringer.

I mention this because since the election campaign started in April, I keep having an odd experience – people insisting that Corbyn is not a Eurosceptic, and that he will use Labour’s new-found strength to argue for a softer Brexit. Others claim that Labour’s current position on freedom of movement (ending it) is the obvious, common-sense – even progressive – choice.

This matters. Look, if the evidence above doesn’t convince you that the Labour leader is intensely relaxed about exiting the European Union, I don’t know what else would. Yet it’s clear that some Labour activists strongly identify personally with Corbyn: they find it hard to believe that he holds different opinions from them.

The second factor is the remaking of Brexit as a culture war, where to say that someone is a Eurosceptic is seen as a kind of slur. Perhaps without realising it, some on the left do associate Euroscepticism with Little Englanderism or even flat-out racism, and see it as a moral failing rather than a political position.

But I’m not impugning Jeremy Corbyn’s character or morals by saying that he is an instinctive Brexiteer. He comes from a tradition on the left that sees the EU as a capitalist club. You can disagree with that premise but it’s a respectable line of reasoning.

Also, the Euroscepticism of Corbyn and his allies will undoubtedly give them an advantage in the months ahead; they are not consumed by fatalism, and the members of McDonnell’s shadow Treasury team feel that the removal of European state aid restrictions can help revive ailing bits of the British economy. They have a vision of what an ideal “Labour Brexit” would be – and it’s not just sobbing and begging Emmanuel Macron and Angela Merkel to take us back.

We do, however, need a reality check. Now that the necessary humble pie has been eaten, Labour’s unexpected revival at the ballot box means we can begin to treat Corbyn as a normal politician – with the emphasis on the second word. He’s not the Messiah, but he’s not a joke either. He is a charismatic campaigner who is willing to compromise on second-tier issues to achieve his main objectives.

From the general election, we can see just how good a campaigner Corbyn is: he can fire up a crowd, give disciplined answers to interviewers and chat amiably on a sofa. That throws into sharp relief just how limp his performances were last year.

He might have little else in common with Theresa May, but they both looked at the EU referendum and thought: yeah, I’m going to sit this one out. He called on activists to accept the EU “warts and all”; and said he was “seven, or seven and a half” out of ten in favour of staying in it.

For both leaders, this was a pragmatic decision. May did not want to be overtly disloyal to David Cameron, but neither did she wish to risk her career if the result went the other way.

Anyone in Labour would have been equally sane to look north of the border and back to 2014, and remember just how much credibility the party immolated by sharing stages with the Conservatives and allowing itself to be seen as the establishment. By limiting his involvement in the Remain campaign and whipping his MPs to trigger Article 50, Corbyn ended up with a fudge that gave Labour some cover in heavily pro-Brexit regions of the country.

That’s the politics, but what about the principle? I can’t shake the feeling that if Corbyn campaigned as hard for Remain in 2016 as he did for Labour in 2017, we would still be members of the European Union. And that matters to me, as much as left-wing policies or a change in the rhetoric around migrants and welfare claimants, because I think leaving the EU is going to make us poorer and meaner.

That’s why I worry that many of my friends, and the activists I talk to, are about to be disappointed, after waiting and waiting for Labour to start making the case for a softer Brexit and for the single market being more important than border controls. As Michael Chessum, a long-standing Momentum organiser, wrote on the New Statesman website, “Recognising the fact that immigration enriches society is all very well, but that narrative is inevitably undermined if you then choose to abolish the best policy for allowing immigration to happen.”

Labour’s success on 8 June was driven by its ambiguous stance on Brexit. To Leavers, it could wink at ending freedom of movement when they worried about immigration; to Remainers, it offered a critique of the immigrant-bashing rhetoric of recent times. But can that coalition hold as the true shape of Brexit solidifies? Over the next few months, Jeremy Corbyn’s biggest decision will be this: which half of my voters should I disappoint?

Helen Lewis is deputy editor of the New Statesman. She has presented BBC Radio 4’s Week in Westminster and is a regular panellist on BBC1’s Sunday Politics.

This article first appeared in the 22 June 2017 issue of the New Statesman, The zombie PM

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