By this weekend 61,000 LibDem members should have received their leadership ballot papers. It’s a straight shootout with the prize of either dragging the party back from the precipice of obscurity or plunging them over the edge to become a political irrelevance.
Delving into tim2lead.com and backnorman.co.uk two distinct pictures emerge. On the centre-left we have Tim Farron who believes in the right of people to live their lives free to say what they think and protest against what they dislike, and that ‘the beauty of the natural world, like music and poetry and art, matter more than profit or growth’. And on the slightly-less-centre-left we have Norman Lamb, the ex Minister of State for Care and Support, who believes it is caring to assist ill people in taking their own lives, wants to see cannabis legalised and thinks that it is important that the new leader put their full support behind same-sex marriage.
Farron is by far the bookie’s favourite and following the recent shennanigans of Norman Lamb and his campaign team centring on Farron’s utterly benign expression of Christianity, the decision for LibDem members has become a whole lot easier.
Norman Lamb claims that he was entirely unaware of his team asking leading questions of LibDem members during phone calls, quizzing them on what they thought of Farron’s views on abortion and gay marriage. These things don’t come out of thin air though. Lamb has been picking away at Farron’s stance and voting record on abortion, same-sex marriage and assisted death ever since he threw himself into the leadership contest. He may not have attacked Farron’s faith directly, but the implied subtext is that it makes him unsuitable to lead the party and it would appear with a good deal of certainty that Lamb’s team decided this was going to be a key aspect of their offensive strategy. Such brazenness was always going to raise the alarm sooner or later though and the revelations paint a picture of a campaign smacking of desperation.
By focusing his attentions on subjects where Christians are seen to be at odds with the populist zeitgeist, Lamb is seeking to present himself as the one contender who can begin to make his party widely appealing again. He has made it clear that in his opinion to fully support same-sex marriage and assisted dying are fundamentally Liberal principles. His campaign literature talks about his ’intolerance of discrimination of every kind’, but the vibe is that certain ‘illiberal’ views will not be approved of or condoned if he ends up in charge.
It’s no wonder that there are more than a few Christian LibDem members getting a bit twitchy and starting to feel excluded because of the rhetoric about their faith. As one member has publicly put it:
Current discussions within the party haven’t always been a pleasant experience for me as a Christian. Some in the party seem to have decided that people of faith have no logic, no reason, and shouldn’t hold party positions. I have been told that faith is irrational and that “True Liberals” don’t let faith influence them.
The Liberal tradition of moral crusading, radical dissent and opposition to institutionalised privilege has a long and established history, but unlike Farron, Norman Lamb is attempting to forge ahead with a form that ignores the place that Christians have held within the party, shaping and guiding it over the years. Non-conformist Christianity in particular, has always had a strong liberal vein emphasising equality of every person before God and individual liberty and responsibility.
Possibly the greatest name in Liberal history, William Gladstone, who served as prime minister four times between 1868 and 1894 was adamant that Christianity should be found at the centre of politics. In his book Experiments in Living: Christianity and the Liberal Democrat Party, Stephen Backhouse writes this:
Throughout his career Gladstone believed in reciprocal rights and duties of people and groups. This position was outlined as early as Gladstone’s first book The State and its Relations with the Church, published in 1841.
Here the state is conceived as a sort of mass ‘person’. As a ‘person’ the state enjoys a moral purpose derived, ultimately from following the will of God. Within this framework, the state thus needs to enjoy a healthy relationship with religion; the church, as the deposit of teaching and tradition, acts as the conscience of the state, always pointing it towards its calling… A state that completely severs its relation with religion is incomplete. What is worse, shorn of conscience or a sense of ultimate value beyond its own existence, such states are prone to tyranny.
Lamb would seem to have little interest in the Christian morality that has shaped his party. Instead he has thrown his lot in with the secularist/humanist liberalism that espouses freedom of the individual to define their own morality and increasingly places limits on tolerance of differing opinions, under a less than equal banner of equality. It is almost as if he would prefer that those who have strong beliefs based on faith rather than an entirely secular form of rationalism, went and found a home elsewhere.
If this is the option on the table, which genuinely is illiberal, then it can only lead to a single conclusion: For the sake of the Liberal Democrat party, there is only one candidate worthy of the position of leader and his name is Tim Farron.