A few initial thoughts on Tim Farron’s resignation as Lib Dem leader, which has been announced this evening…
First, let me say that having met him several times while working at Party HQ that I have always found Tim to be a thoroughly decent man, and in particular I will never forget the passion with which he addressed party staffers on the morning after the EU referendum. He is clearly someone who cares deeply about making the future of our country a more liberal and progressive one.
Second, he is one of the most gifted campaigners I’ve ever seen in terms of interacting with members of the public directly. The rapport that he is able to build, even with people who disagreed with him, is second-to-none. I spent an hour or so with him in Southwark during this campaign and saw him engaging with passers-by of all ages and backgrounds, always keen to have a proper chat and listen to what they had to say.
Third, he is absolutely beloved by a large portion of party activists. Those same people skills that make him such a good campaigner also served to motivate the demoralised leaflet-deliverers and local candidates at a time of existential threat for the party after the 2015 election. One of the key tasks after that horrific result was to steady the ship and rebuild the party step by step at a community level, using local success as a launch-pad to parliamentary gains – the same method the party has used so effectively to build influence in the past. Of the limited options available at the time, Tim was by far the best choice as a leader to spearhead that mission – and he has done it well, as indicated by the consistent by-election victories and the explosive growth in party membership in the past two years. Neither of those successes were entirely down to him, but make no mistake that his leadership played a part.
All of that being said, I’ve reluctantly concluded that Tim had probably taken the party as far as he could, and there’s no sugar-coating the fact that this general election was a missed opportunity. As I mentioned several times on Britain’s Got Ballot, this website’s election podcast, it was clear early on that he was betting the farm on positioning the party as the only true pro-Remain option in the country, gambling that enough of the 48% who were on its side a year ago were still so angry that it could secure their support by discussing almost everything in the context of Brexit. It was the wrong decision, and ultimately that strategic choice is down to him as leader.
Interestingly, Tim’s resignation statement today doesn’t cite the election result as the main reason for his decision. It’s clear he feels that he has been unfairly targeted for his religious views during the campaign, and has concluded that “to be a political leader – especially of a progressive, liberal party in 2017 – and to live as a committed Christian… has felt impossible for me.” He then suggests that his treatment shows “we are kidding ourselves if we think we yet live in a tolerant, liberal society.”
Of course, this all stems from a week-long controversy at the start of the campaign where he seemed unable to answer questions about whether he thinks homosexual sex is immoral. He eventually said that it is not, but having obfuscated for so long the suspicion among sceptics was that he was being insincere. He tried to explain that his reluctance to give a clear answer was because he didn’t want to open the floodgates to a theological debate on every area of his faith, joking that “I’m not running for pope!” But it all seemed a little unconvincing.
Do voters have a right to know his moral view on the subject or only how he would legislate on it? Your answer to that question presumably depends on whether you think the former is bound to inform the latter. I think we can safely assume one of two things about Tim’s real position on this: either he really doesn’t think gay sex is a sin and was – as he claims – simply wary of talking about God, or he personally thinks gay sex is immoral but as a liberal he tries to separate his religion from his politics. The first option is clearly preferable, but I think I would just about be comfortable with the second – it takes a certain humility to realise that your religious views might not be the answer for everyone else, after all.
In any case, the way he failed to stake a claim to either position for that first week of the campaign was deeply damaging to his own reputation and put an early dent in what really needed to be a flawless Lib Dem campaign. He may be right that it is difficult to be openly religious while leading a progressive, liberal party in 2017 – it can sometimes seem as though there is the same kind of stigma to being religious in British politics that there is to being an atheist in the US system – but I don’t think that’s really what brought him down. Ultimately Tim Farron’s leadership had reached its natural end because under the spotlight of a general election campaign – for whatever reason – neither the man nor his message managed to captivate the British public.