I don’t claim to know the inside story of Tim Farron’s resignation, but two things are exercising me about the way it is being reported. One is the perception that this is about Christianity being unacceptable in public life (it isn’t). The other is about the changing sense of where things are for LGBT people in public life (much better than they were). The two are entwined because of the suggestions that Tim’s perceived position on LGBT rights and abortion lay behind pressure for him to resign.
I’ve only met Tim Farron once, and am in no position to comment on his actual views on either of these things. I’d be surprised if someone became leader of the Liberal Democrats who was strongly opposed to either of them, but the perception that Tim is lukewarm on gay rights kept coming up in the 2017 General Election campaign. My sense is that it reached the point when there was nothing he could say that would lay this one to rest because denials were being heard as evidence that there was something to deny.
The Christianity bit
There are plenty of Christians who use their faith to legitimate anti-gay positions, and plenty who do the opposite. A particularly affirming moment in the 2015 campaign came when Adrian Hyyrylainen-Trett, LibDem Candidate in Vauxhall, gave an interview in which he spoke candidly of how he had come to be HIV+. It came across my radar when LibDem president Sal Brinton, Vice-Chair of Christians in Parliament, posted a link to it on Facebook, with an expression of her full support for him.
The unexpected is happening. In the wake of the late surge in support for Labour that wiped out Theresa May’s majority (and hit the Liberal Democrat vote), a new poll on 11 June showed Labour six points ahead of the Tories. Labour were also reporting 15,000 new members in the first three days after the 2017 General Election.
On the doorsteps on polling day, and with friends since, the sense is that Labour under Corbyn have caught people’s imaginations. What does this imply for Liberal Democrats?
My sense is that this is a problem because people’s imaginations have been caught by something unrealistic. If we now had a majority Labour government, disappointment would be around the corner, but for now, hopes are roused. There’s a parallel with Brexit being seen as a bright new future.
A sharp illustration is our respective economic policies. The Institute of Fiscal Studies concluded that our manifesto was the only one properly costed and also the most likely to deliver for low income people. If 9 June had seen Vince Cable become Chancellor of the Exchequer, that would have boded better for the economy than either of the other choices. Instead a costly cocktail of promises from Labour has fired people’s imaginations.
In Emmanuel Macron, France has a new president who is liberal and pro-EU. There are encouraging parallels with his En Marche movement and where the Liberal Democrats find themselves after the rapid growth in membership over the last two years.
The headline is one of relief that Macron won a handsome majority over Marine le Pen. But the bigger earthquake is that his En Marche party has come from nowhere in little over a year. It’s rise reflects frustration with the established parties, and the widespread acceptance of a liberal mindset.
The Liberal Democrat membership surge since the 2015 General Election began with Nick Clegg’s remarkable resignation speech, putting a powerful case for liberalism even as we had taken an almighty pounding at the ballot box. As he phrased it then “Fear and grievance have won, liberalism has lost”. Shock at that, and the referendum result, and Theresa May’s opportunism in calling the present election, have mobilised people in large numbers. Standing in Hertford and Stortford in 2017, I am humbled by the calibre of our new members, and working with a local party that has quadrupled in membership since then and is still growing. The 2017 general election seems very much about working with this new energy.
Macron and En Marche, like the Liberal Democrats, are now part of ALDE, the Alliance of Liberals and Democrats for Europe. Their growth and ours feels like a reaction against the forces of division driving the rise of the far right.
The result in the Witney by-election was a substantial swing to the LibDems, jumping from fourth place on 6.8% to second place on 30.2%. Liz Leffman and her team did an outstanding job, and the party was clearly ready to rally to the cause.
Over the next few days there were speculations about what that would mean if replicated at a General Election, with estimates of the number of seats likely to switch from Tory to LibDem put between 26 and 51. The statistician in me is wary of those extrapolations: there are lots of unknowns at by-elections, and British politics is especially turbulent at the moment.
On the other hand, political parties usually spend a long time building up profiles of voters. Lots of volunteers flooding in at the last minute is not a good substitute for that prolonged work, so there is more to the surge in Witney than simply the number of people who came to campaign. In fact, it will be far easier to win back people who voted LibDem in 2010, now they are able to see the difference between the Tories on their own and the Tories in coalition with LibDems.