Last week Tim Farron announced his resignation as leader of the Liberal Democrats because he was finding it difficult to balance his life as a practising Christian with his role as party leader. His resignation came just under two years after he was elected Nick Clegg’s successor and he contested just one election campaign, in which the party made modest gains. Some would argue that he took important steps in rebuilding the party after their dismal performance in 2015, while others say that he compromised the Lib Dems’ core values as party leader.
Nick Clegg’s party were held to account in 2015 for breaking their promise to vote against rises in tuition fees during their time in coalition between 2010 and 2015, leading to them winning just eight seats. The ensuing leadership election saw Farron elected as leader with the task of restoring them to a position in which they could have a significant influence in Parliament. In this task, it could be argued that Farron succeeded as the party improved its share of the seats from eight to twelve under his stewardship. Although the Lib Dems remain only fourth largest party after the 2017 General Election, Farron has at least given them stability and steadied their fortunes after they fell so far two years ago. On the day of Farron’s resignation, Nick Clegg paid tribute to the stabilising role he had in his two years in charge. Although the election result did not show as much progress as the party would have hoped, they have taken the first steps along the path to recovery.
However, when one considers the circumstances surrounding the 2017 General Election it becomes hard to see how the Lib Dems increased their total of seats by just four. The vote was contested between an increasingly unpopular Prime Minister in Theresa May and a leader of the opposition who was unable to control his own MPs in Jeremy Corbyn; circumstances which would normally be seen as ideal for a ‘third party’. Add the fact that the Lib Dems were the only party to oppose Brexit, meaning they should have been representing 48% of the electorate, and the election starts to look as if it was the perfect opportunity for the Lib Dems to become at least as popular as they were in 2010.
However, a combination of the youth vote siding with Labour rather than the Lib Dems and Farron being at the heart of controversy surrounding alleged homophobic views led to the Lib Dems led to the party gaining just four seats and saw their vote share decrease from 7.9% in 2015 to 7.3%. The Lib Dem manifesto was clearly targeting young remain voters, with a second referendum on EU membership their main policy, but the young voters tended to side with Jeremy Corbyn’s promise of phasing out tuition fees rather than a possible reversal of Brexit. For this reason, it is difficult to look at Farron’s electoral performance and see anything but a failure.
The vast majority of coverage of the 2017 Election - both positive and negative - centred on the leaders of the Conservatives and Labour so it is telling that the only mainstream media coverage the Lib Dems received was a wholly negative story about Tim Farron’s homophobic views. It is difficult to see how any modern day political leader could survive having expressed such views, and certainly not the leader of the Liberal Democrats who pride themselves on being socially progressive. As an evangelical Christian, Farron refused to say that homosexuality wasn’t a sin in the lead-up to the election, which received much media attention, and he eventually said he didn’t think it was a sin when under pressure. This was made worse when, after research, it was discovered that Farron had not attended the vote in Parliament to legalise same sex marriage in the UK when he was a backbench MP. Some feel that Farron was unsuitable for the role of party leader as his views undermined one of the core beliefs of the Lib Dems.
Therefore, although Farron was not an electoral disaster as leader of the Liberal Democrats, he damaged the reputation of his party and compromised one of their core ideologies, while also failing to make as much progress as he could have done in the 2017 Election. While it was Farron’s choice to step down as leader in favour of his Christian values, the party are probably better off without him at the head.