Is Tim Farron really a liberal at all?

Published by The Guardian (25th June, 2015)

It has been largely forgotten, but two of the nation’s major political parties are now engaged in leadership contests. While the quartet of Labour candidates received prime-time television coverage for their dreary and uninspiring debate, the two men fighting over the twitching corpse of the Liberal Democrat party struggle to gain much media interest for the minor league contest.

Politics is brutal, but the speed with which the Lib Dems went from party of government led by the deputy prime minister to a near-invisible parliamentary minnow is breathtaking. Already it seems strange that Nick Clegg was such a Westminster player that even his most banal utterances made headlines. The untimely death of Charles Kennedy served as cruel reminder of a shrunken party’s reversion to the impotence of its past.

Yet the contest matters. The Labour party seems to be curling up, having lost confidence in either itself or the future amid growing insularity on the left. Meanwhile there are concerns that a Conservative government with a slender majority might be held hostage by headbangers on the hard right, already flexing their muscles just one month after David Cameron’s electoral triumph.

In this climate, with crackdowns on civil liberties, debate over human rights, a ballot on Europe and widespread hostility to migrants, Britain needs a strong liberal voice to challenge the two main parties if they drift back towards their comfort zones. Yet the force that historically held this flag aloft is fighting for survival after its catastrophic decision to enter coalition, a dismal campaign, and having lost not just 49 of its 57 MPs  but also all but one of its MEPs, half its councillors and two-thirds of its voters.

So it seems baffling that the party might elect as leader a man who seems to lack a driving spirit of liberalism – especially when such beliefs resonate more strongly with younger people. The frontrunner, Tim Farron, has never hidden his ambition. His energetic campaigning, support for immigration and opposition to the bedroom tax deserve credit. But he does not seem inspired by the distrust of the state, freedom for individuals and, above all, instinctive tolerance that are hallmarks of his party’s traditional creed.

This is evident on social issues, where his evangelical Christianity appears to collide with the cause of liberalism. Although an atheist, I admire people inspired by faith into fighting for others. And if Norman Lamb, the other leadership candidate, feels his aides have been abusing this issue, he was right to apologise this week when the pair clashed on Victoria Derbyshire’s BBC programme. Yet there is a legitimate issue of degree and substance: how can the party of liberalism have a leader so driven by his belief in the Bible that religious devotion trumps political principles when they clash? As Peter Tatchell says, religious beliefs are fine but they should not be translated into discriminatory legislation.

When the contenders discussed abortion, Farron said he supported a woman’s legal right to terminate a pregnancy. But in an interview with the Salvation Army’s paper a couple of years after he was first elected, he said starkly: ‘Abortion is wrong. Society has to climb down from the position that says there is nothing morally objectionable about abortion before a certain time. If abortion is wrong, it is wrong at any time.’

He may not want a ban restored, but surely anyone professing to be a liberal should not undermine a woman’s right to choose? It was, after all, David Steel – then a young Liberal MP – who introduced the bill that in effect legalised abortion almost half a century ago. Yet according to anti-abortion groups, Farron has never opposed them during his decade in parliament, voting once on their side and either being absent or abstaining on nine occasions.

His right to personal faith must be respected. But Lib Dem members also have the right to ask if Farron’s religious fervour would be a help or hindrance to their party’s salvation. What, for instance, do they make of his past demand that a quango produce ‘indisputable scientific evidence’ to prove God does not heal people with medical conditions? He later issued an apology for the absurdity.

And what of his dubious record on lesbian and gay equality? He has missed, abstained and even voted against important legal landmarks. Although Farron voted in favour of gay marriage, the campaign group Stonewall, reviewing his first five years in parliament, said he failed to support their position on significant votes.

The same lack of liberalism can be seen in Farron’s support for higher income taxes and protectionist economic policies. This may impress some party activists, but there is no more future for the Lib Dems as a pale imitation Labour party than as chummy colleagues of the Conservatives. His opponent is not overburdened with charisma, but Lamb at least seems to be fashioning a liberal stance on criminal justice and drug reform.

These are dark days for the Lib Dems, but if they look back into their past they might glimpse a path into the future. When Jo Grimond  became Liberal leader in 1956, he inherited a wounded party with six seats and a share of the vote that was under 3%. He inspired a new generation with passionate social liberalism, helping to pave the way for the great Labour reforms of the 1960s, combined with the sort of small-state economic liberalism that found an echo in Margaret Thatcher’s Tories. This saved his party from death.

Grimond once said ‘divisions in politics fall in all the wrong places’, which remains true today. Liberalism remains a vital component of the political spectrum. Yet despite its great history, there is no guarantee that the party that nominally claims to represent it must survive in turbulent political times. Once thing is sure as the Lib Dems struggle to regroup: the last thing they or the country need is to be led by someone who does not seem to be a heartfelt liberal.

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