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?

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France’s burkini ban could not come at a worse time

Yet more legislation against veiled women can only further divide an already divided nation.

Since mayor of Cannes David Lisnard banned the full-body burkini from his town’s beaches, as many as 15 French resorts have followed suit. Arguments defending the bans fall into three main categories. First, it is about defending the French state’s secularism (laïcité). Second, that the costume represents a misogynistic doctrine that sees female bodies as shameful. And finally, that the burkini is cited as a threat to public order.

None of these arguments satisfactorily refute the claims of civil rights activists that the bans are fundamentally Islamophobic.

The niceties of laïcité

The Cannes decree explicitly invokes secular values. It prohibits anyone “not dressed in a fashion respectful of laïcité” from accessing public beaches. However, the French state has only banned “ostentatious” religious symbols in schools and for government employees as part of laïcité (the strict separation between the state and religious society). And in public spaces, laïcité claims to respect religious plurality. Indeed, the Laïcité Commission has tweeted that the ban, therefore, “cannot be based upon the principle of laïcité”.

While veils covering the entire face such as the burqa or niqab are illegal, this is not to protect laïcité; it is a security matter. The legal justification is that these clothes make it impossible to identify the person underneath – which is not the case for the burkini.

 

By falling back on laïcité to police Muslim women in this way, the Cannes authorities are fuelling the argument that “fundamentalist secularism” has become a means of excluding Muslims from French society.

Colonial attitudes

Others, such as Laurence Rossignol, the minister for women’s rights, hold that the burkini represents a “profoundly archaic view of a woman’s place in society”, disregarding Muslim women who claim to wear their burkini voluntarily.

This typifies an enduring colonial attitude among many non-Muslim French politicians, who feel entitled to dictate to Muslim women what is in their best interests. Rossignol has in the past compared women who wear headscarves through choice to American “negroes” who supported slavery.

Far from supporting women’s rights, banning the burkini will only leave the women who wear it feeling persecuted. Even those with no choice in the matter are not helped by the ban. This legal measure does nothing to challenge patriarchal authority over female bodies in the home. Instead, it further restricts the lives of veiled women by replacing it with state authority in public.

Open Islamophobia

Supporters of the ban have also claimed that, with racial tensions high after recent terrorist attacks, it is provocative to wear this form of Muslim clothing. Such an argument was made by Pierre-Ange Vivoni, mayor of Sisco in Corsica, when he banned the burkini in his commune. Early reports suggested a violent clash between local residents and non-locals of Moroccan origin was triggered when strangers photographed a burkini-wearing woman in the latter group, which angered her male companions. Vivoni claimed that banning the costume protected the security of local people, including those of North African descent.

Those reports have transpired to be false: none of the women in question were even wearing a burkini at the time of the incident. Nonetheless, the ban has stood in Sisco and elsewhere.

To be “provoked” by the burkini is to be provoked by the visibility of Muslims. Banning it on this basis punishes Muslim women for other people’s prejudice. It also disregards the burkini’s potential to promote social cohesion by giving veiled women access to the same spaces as their non-Muslim compatriots.

Appeals to public order have, occasionally, been openly Islamophobic. Thierry Migoule, head of municipal services in Cannes, claimed that the burkini “refers to an allegiance to terrorist movements”, conveniently ignoring the Muslim victims of recent attacks. Barely a month after Muslims paying their respects to friends and family killed in Nice were racially abused, such comments are both distasteful and irresponsible.

Increased divisions

Feiza Ben Mohammed, spokesperson for the Federation of Southern Muslims, fears that stigmatising Muslims in this way will play into the hands of IS recruiters. That fear seems well-founded: researchers cite a sense of exclusion as a factor behind the radicalisation of a minority of French Muslims. Measures like this can only exacerbate that problem. Indeed, provoking repressive measures against European Muslims to cultivate such a sentiment is part of the IS strategy.

Meanwhile, the day after the incident in Sisco, riot police were needed in nearby Bastia to prevent a 200-strong crowd chanting “this is our home” from entering a neighbourhood with many residents of North African descent. Given the recent warning from France’s head of internal security of the risk of a confrontation between “the extreme right and the Muslim world”, such scenes are equally concerning.

Now more than ever, France needs unity. Yet more legislation against veiled women can only further divide an already divided nation.

The Conversation

Fraser McQueen, PhD Candidate, University of Stirling

This article was originally published on The Conversation. Read the original article.