Ben Margulies

On July 16th, the much-chastened Liberal Democrats announced that Tim Farron, the former party president and one of its eight surviving MPs, had won election as the party’s new leader. On July 17th, he managed to have his first awkward interview, in which he refused to tell an interviewer on Channel 4 News whether he regarded gay sex as sinful. Farron, an observant Christian, has faced criticism for abstaining on the third reading of the Marriage (Same Sex Couples) Bill in 2013. Farron claimed that he felt the bill did not sufficiently protect transgender people and “people’s right to conscience,” and stated that, as a liberal, he did not allow his personal beliefs to influence his stances on public policy. He made a similar assertion eight years ago in an interview with the Salvation Army’s magazine, stating that he felt abortion was a tragedy, but that "the standards that define my personal morality as a Christian are not the standards of public morality".

Farron’s seeming discomfort with LGBT issues is striking because he ran as the candidate of the party’s left wing, representing those Lib Dems eager to reject the heritage of the late Coalition and return the party to its Kennedy-era position as a party of the centre-left. But that constituency is, if anything, noted for its social liberalism. How will Farron’s personal beliefs fit in with his electoral project? And how, historically, has British liberalism interacted with religion?

Let’s begin with the second question. On the Continent, political liberalism is often associated with anti-clericalism and state secularism. In the United Kingdom, traditionally, membership in the Church of England was a strong indicator that a Briton would vote for the Conservatives, as did many Scottish Presbyterians; Noncomformist Protestants were, in the 19th and early 20th centuries, often core Liberal supporters (one reason the Liberals championed the disestablishment of the Anglican church in Wales). As the Liberal Democrat History Group notes in its article on Victorian-era Nonconformists:

 “Nonconformists were generally keen on the observance of Sunday, wanting public bodies such as post offices to stay closed on that day. They increasingly supported what was called social purity, the campaign for the public recognition of sexual morality by, for example, the ending of medical inspection of prostitutes in the vicinity of military barracks.”

The party retained strong support among Nonconformists well into the 20th century. According to a report by the religious think-tank Theos, the Liberals/Liberal Democrats averaged 19.3 percent of the Nonconformist vote in 1959-2010 (excluding Church of Scotland adherents), and this figure was significantly higher than the share of Anglican or Catholic voters the Liberals/Liberal Democrats won (15.4 and 12.8 percent respectively). However, the Liberal Democrats did even better among irreligious voters (19.9 percent). Recall that Farron succeeds Nick Clegg, who once publicly declared he was an atheist (he later said he was agnostic).

These data suggest Farron is far from the only Christian in his camp. But what do these Christians think about LGBT rights and the role of belief in politics? And what about the voters who fled the Liberal Democrats, the one Farron is trying to court? The answer is that Farron’s stance may pose considerable danger to his party and leadership, but there is some evidence to suggest that

 Abortion, LGBT rights and similar values issues are usually placed in the realm of “post-materialist” politics, so-called because they do not directly pertain to socioeconomic issues, distribution or class cleavages. In post-materialism, a cleavage exists between those who support equal rights for certain minorities, access to abortion, environmental protection and so (libertarians) and those who seek to defend customary or conservative value judgments and social orders (authoritarians). The Liberal Democrats have long been identified with the libertarian camp; though  Paul Webb finds that the majority of post-materialist voters in 1997 voted Labour (54.2 percent), 29 percent voted Lib Dem, more than twice the percentage of materialist voters who did.

The Liberal Democrats face strong challengers for post-materialist voters. The Labour Party, though capable of surprisingly illiberal policies in some areas (such as criminal justice), has an excellent record on LGBT rights. Other post-materialist voters may prefer the more clearly libertarian record of the rising Green Party. Webb recently found that 21 percent of those who voted Green in the 2014 European Parliament elections were former Liberal Democrat voters; in the 2015 general election, the party lost 11 percent of its 2010 vote to the Greens. So there is a large constituency of post-materialist voters that Farron risks losing if he cannot prove his social-liberal credentials.

But there may be a silver lining for Farron. Theos suggests that he may not be alone in his party in his attempts to reconcile faith and political values. Their report finds that “indeed, nominal believers of all religious groups were more authoritarian than ‘infrequently-attending’ believers, who tended themselves to be slightly more authoritarian than ‘frequently-attending’ believers”. They also find that Nonconformists are more socially conservative that Anglicans or the irreligious, but less so than Catholics. Admittedly, their measure of “post-materialism” is imperfect for this analysis, because its measure of libertarian or authoritarian beliefs does not address questions on LGBT or abortion rights (instead focusing on law-and-order issues like the death penalty or acceptance of civil disobedience). However, it may indicate that Farron is not the only Liberal Democrat who struggles with integrating his personal religious convictions with a wider political project.

Furthermore, much of Farron’s appeal lies in his rejection of the Coalition and Nick Clegg’s right-liberal politics. That is to say, Farron has a strong materialist appeal to left-wing voters, one which may compensate for any doubts about his credentials on certain social issues. The Lib Dems may have lost 11 percent of their 2010 vote to the Greens, but they lost 24 percent to Labour.

It may be too soon to make a sturdy prediction about the role Farron’s faith will play in the Liberal Democrats’ attempt at a revival. Much depends on how his statements about his religious beliefs take root in the public discourse; will they define his leadership the way that “broken promises” defined Nick Clegg’s? In the end, perhaps Farron’s greatest problem is that Clegg’s broken promises will define him too, denying his leftward march any credibility among the voters. His breach of faith may matter more than any faith of Farron’s.

Ben Margulies is was recently awarded his doctorate at the University of Essex for a thesis on liberal political parties. He has recently published articles in the Rivista Italiana di Scienza Politica and Comparative European Politics.

Image: Liberal Democrats CC BY