So Tim Farron has been elected as the new leader of the Liberal Democrats, and the long and difficult job of rebuilding the party following the catastrophic near wipeout in the last general election begins.
There’s a massive contrast between the Liberal Democrat leadership election and that of the Labour Party. The refrain we kept hearing from both Tim Farron’s and Norman Lamb’s supporters was “Both of them would make excellent leaders but our candidate will be better”. Compare that with Labour’s “The party is doomed if that other candidate wins”. The Liberal Democrats, unlike Labour, do have a clear vision of what sort of party they want to be.
It was a difficult choice between two very good candidates, but in the end I voted for Tim Farron. One deciding issue for me was his faith. There were one or two dark whispers early on in the campaign that his Anglican faith made him unfit for leadership of a party devoted to liberal values. For me the very idea that religion is a relic from a superstitious past that must be purged from public life is a profoundly illiberal concept.
The last Parliament saw the historic equal marriage act, which represented an unprecedented liberal shift in the Overton Window. But since then there have been situations that have bought the gay community into conflict with conservative religious groups. The extent to which different communities should have the right to express their own identity and the extent to which they should be required to respect one another’s spaces isn’t as clear cut as some people would make out. Would not somebody who is both a committed Liberal and a Christian be in a better position to recognise where the boundaries lie?
We live in a time when large parts of the left have fallen into a dangerous authoritarianism for whom a vaguely-defined freedom from offence trumps freedom of speech, and sometimes competing sectarianisms seek to drive each other from the public square. A party committed to liberal values must oppose these sorts of zero-sum identity politics, and prevent the right from positioning themselves as the sole champions of freedom of speech and freedom of religion. Sometimes it is the liberal thing to defend an unpopular minority against the tyranny of the majority.
So, congratulations for Tim Farron as the newly-elected leader of the Liberal Democrats. It’s a long and difficult road ahead for the party, but he is the right person to lead the party along it.