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Wednesday, 14 June 2017

Tim Farron resigns as party leader

In the last hour, Tim Farron has resigned as leader of the Liberal Democrats.

In a statement made to staff, and also issued on the party's website, Mr Farron said: "This last two years have seen the Liberal Democrats recover since the devastation of the 2015 election. That recovery was never inevitable but we have seen the doubling of our party membership, growth in council elections, our first parliamentary by-election win for more than a decade, and most recently our growth at the 2017 general election...Against all the odds, the Liberal Democrats matter again.

"We can be proud of the progress we have made together, although there is much more we need to do. From the very first day of my leadership, I have faced questions about my Christian faith. I've tried to answer with grace and patience. Sometimes my answers could have been wiser.

At the start of this election, I found myself under scrutiny again - asked about matters to do with my faith. I felt guilty that this focus was distracting attention from our campaign, obscuring our message. Journalists have every right to ask what they see fit. The consequences of the focus on my faith is that I have found myself torn between living as a faithful Christian and serving as a political leader. A better, wiser person than me may have been able to deal with this more successfully, to have remained faithful to Christ while leading a political party in the current environment.

"To be a political leader - especially of a progressive, liberal party in 2017 - and to live as a committed Christian, to hold faithfully to the Bible's teaching, has felt impossible for me. I'm a liberal to my finger tips, and that liberalism means that I am passionate about defending the rights and liberties of people who believe different things to me.

"There are Christians in politics who take the view that they should impose the tenets of faith on society, but I have not taken that approach because I disagree with it - it's not liberal and it is counterproductive when it comes to advancing the gospel.

"Even so, I seem to be the subject of suspicion because of what I believe and who my faith is in. In which case we are kidding ourselves if we think we yet live in a tolerant, liberal society. That's why I have chosen to step down as leader of the Liberal Democrats."

The first thing to say is to thank Tim for his efforts as leader during a particularly difficult time in our history. No Liberal leader has inherited a party in the immediate aftermath of such a devastating defeat, and Tim deserves credit for the way in which he rose to this challenge - helping to increase the party membership, being unafraid to formulate a strongly positive approach towards the EU and standing up for strong, liberal values. Much has been said about Tim, and some criticisms are deserved, but underpinning everything he says is a genuine humanity. He didn't raise the issue of Syrian refugees because it was a vote winner, but because he knows it to be right. The same was true when he hit out at the Chechen concentration camps for gay people. For Tim, much comes down to Liberal instinct and values.

He's sought to stand up for decency, tolerance and openness and in his own way he's led by example on that front. There are times when I've questioned some decisions, or when I've disagreed with one position or another, but I cannot fault Tim for the way in which he's committed himself to the cause and to communicating it positively. Perhaps most importantly, Tim's energy and irrepressible enthusiasm made us feel good about ourselves again. So, if you're reading this, thank you Tim.

But...and there is a but...those efforts didn't achieve what I know Tim hoped they would. Last Thursday's General Election will have been a disappointment to him. Yes, it wasn't a disaster. Yes, we increased our parliamentary representation (although from a low base, the lowest since 1970). Yes, we did slightly better than many polls were suggesting we should. Yes, we were squeezed by the binary narrative that focused on the two largest parties. But the "Lib Dem fightback" turned out to be not quite what a lot of us imagined it would be in the aftermath of Richmond Park victory - or even when the General Election was called a couple of months ago.

While excuses can be made, ultimately questions have to be asked of the campaign - particularly in relation to our targeting and messaging. None of this required the leader's resignation, just a review of our election strategy. But Tim will know that, in an election in which media opportunities were rare, one particular issue just wouldn't go away. I am sure that it will have cost us votes - even if it persuaded a few hundred voters in constituencies such as St Ives, Richmond Park, North East Fife and Ceredigion to vote against the Liberal Democrats then it cost us four seats. Unfortunately the question of what Tim did and did not think was sinful came to define him, and undermined public trust in his leadership and the party. I suspect it was not so much the issue itself, but his apparent evasiveness in dealing with it - he never looked convincing. But it was undeniably damaging.

This naturally brings me to Tim's resignation statement itself. The first thing to say is that it is an incredibly interesting statement - not resorting to the usual platitudes and admissions, but being surprisingly direct in its reasoning. Earlier this afternoon, Brian Paddick resigned as shadow Home Secretary over "the leader's views on various issues" - he didn't elaborate on what these issues were but the implication was obvious. The Liberal Democrats' most senior openly gay figure was effectively saying Tim's opinions made him unfit for leadership. Within hours Tim had gone.

In the past, I have been critical of the way in which Tim has expressed his faith at certain times. However, I don't believe there is any "impossibility" in holding religious views while simultaneously having a political career: it is simply a question of being able to separate one's faith from one's secular position. I am pleasantly surprised to see Tim accept that "sometimes [his] answers could have been wiser", and I think he genuinely has become better at expressing what he believes.

But the way Tim has focused on his faith in his resignation speech raises some questions. Firstly, if he has been pressured to stand aside by Paddick and others opposed to his supposed beliefs (I don't actually know what Tim believes and have no idea if anyone else does either, but that's another issue) then it's appalling timing at best - and at worst a shameful, opportunistic and unnecessary manoeuvre to oust a leader who's just achieved some moderate electoral success. What was needed was some time for sober reflection - not recriminations and internal battles.

Secondly, Tim's statement sounds as if he feels himself to be the victim of an illiberal, anti-Christian conspiracy. When Tim says "I have faced questions about my Christian faith...at the start of this election, I found myself under scrutiny again - asked about matters to do with my faith. I felt guilty that this focus was distracting attention from our campaign, obscuring our message" I can understand how this must have impacted him. While his own answers to those questions didn't help it's hard not to feel some sympathy for someone being asked relentlessly the same, tired question on sin when you actually want to talk about the EU, or mental health, or the environment, or a host of other issues.

However, Tim didn't stop there. He added: "I seem to be the subject of suspicion because of what I believe and who my faith is in. In which case we are kidding ourselves if we think we yet live in a tolerant, liberal society." This is more disturbing. It's also patently untrue - there are plenty of other Christians in politics who "believe and who have faith in" the same God Tim Farron worships, including Brian Paddick. Tim clearly feels personally singled out, but is the attack on society as a whole merited? I must admit to feeling uncomfortable with the sense of victimhood; of the narrative of being hounded out for his Christian beliefs. He wasn't - while the questioning was inappropriate, Theresa May and Sadiq Khan were asked the same, and if he'd answered it more convincingly in the first instance the question would never have returned. He was not targeted for his religious faith, but for his perceived weakness on the question - it's what journalists do. Surely he understands this?

Thirdly, and I am speaking directly about Tim's faith here, Tim says that "liberalism means that I am passionate about defending the rights and liberties of people who believe different things to me. There are Christians in politics who take the view that they should impose the tenets of faith on society, but I have not taken that approach because I disagree with it - it's not liberal and it is counterproductive when it comes to advancing the gospel...To be a political leader - especially of a progressive, liberal party in 2017 - and to live as a committed Christian, to hold faithfully to the Bible's teaching, has felt impossible for me."

As a fellow person of faith, albeit a progressive Christian, I feel it is a shame that anyone in public life feels that they are unable to live in accordance with their faith. After all, we need people of all faiths and none in Parliament - it enriches our democracy. As Tim has occasionally made theological statements in the past I wonder about the degree to which he has made his own life more difficult than it needed to be - however, I can imagine how lonely and hurtful an experience he must have had in recent weeks. Personal intrusion is always difficult, especially when you have a relatively young family. That level of scrutiny under pressure is not something you'd wish on anyone, and must be unbearable when it's personally focused.

All this said, Tim's suggestion that Christianity isn't compatible with liberal perspectives towards same-sex relationships is plainly wrong. I appreciate that for some, especially evangelical, interpretations of Christianity it is a struggle to reconcile the two. But many of us are from different Christian traditions: if I had been asked the infamous "sin" question my answer would have been an unequivocal "no". It is a shame Tim's statement doesn't seem to recognise the reality that there is more than one way to be a Christian.

Ultimately, I have always agreed with Tim's assertion that liberalism requires standing up for the freedoms of those who see things differently. Tim's Christianity in itself has never been an issue for me - I only wish he'd been wiser in some of his statements. In terms of his principles, I have no doubt whatsoever that Tim has always been committed to standing up for everyone's freedom to live their lives as they wish. His generally positive voting record speaks for itself, if only people researched it rather than believed facebook memes.

Finally, I have to wonder why Tim felt the need to use his resignation speech to make these points. It seems too self-pitying to be effective. I won't speculate and indulge in armchair psychology, but it does appear strange that he didn't use the disappointing election result or the need for a new direction as a justification for his departure. While I don't want to put words into Tim's mouth, I suspect he's speaking into situations behind closed doors. The sense of victimhood and persecution expressed within the speech, so untypical of Tim, would appear to suggest this. It seems to be more than a rant at the media - unless of course he doesn't understand why that question wouldn't disappear and genuinely believes he's being religiously persecuted.

Certainly, the assertion 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" appears to point towards attitudes or individuals within the party forcing him out. I suspect there is more to this than is immediately obvious and that, to quote the Gospel of Luke,  "nothing is hidden that will not become evident, nor anything secret that will not be known and come to light." (Luke 8:17) I suspect when the facts are known we will see that religious beliefs are not the only, or even the principal, factor behind Tim's resignation.

I am saddened tonight - saddened by the way this appears to have been orchestrated, saddened by the fiercely defensive tone of Tim's statement with its sense of persecution, and saddened that the leadership of such a talented man has come to such an abrupt end. It's a tragedy that perhaps our party's most gifted communicator has found himself forced to resign because he's struggled to get his messages across and answer questions. I am sure that he will have a significant role to play in the revival of our party and wish him well in his future endeavours.

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