Tim Farron, the MP for Westmorland and Lonsdale, has been elected as the new leader of the Liberal Democrats by party members. Farron, who previously served as party president for three years, saw off former Minister for Care and Support Norman Lamb in a low-key and apparently amicable leadership contest, with Farron ultimately gaining 56.5% of the vote.
Farron had long been considered by many to be the leading contender to succeed Nick Clegg, even before the Liberal Democrats’ calamitous election night which saw the party reduced to only 8 seats in Parliament and caused Clegg to resign. In the left-leaning Farron, many Liberal Democrats see a leader who is charismatic, well-respected and crucially, comparatively untainted by the party’s hugely unpopular spell in coalition with the Conservatives, having voted against the infamous rise in university tuition fees, as well as never having held a ministerial role when the party was in government. Indeed, it is testament to their new leader’s continued popularity that even on that fateful night in May, when Liberal Democrats all over the country were losing not only their seats but also their deposits, Farron did not even come close to being challenged by any of the other candidates running for his constituency seat, winning by a comfortable margin of 18.3%.
In this sense, it is unsurprising that the party opted for the candidate whose ideological views and political experience appear most distinct from the public perception of the Liberal Democrats as the Conservatives’ ‘bedfellows’, which was widespread during the years of coalition government. For all Farron’s opponent Norman Lamb’s well-respected work on mental health when in government, he appears to have been deemed to be carrying too much coalition ‘baggage’ to represent the fresh start which the party so desperately craves.
Farron’s past is not without controversy, however, having been accused of holding illiberal values as a result of his strong Anglican beliefs. Critics point to his abstention at certain stages of voting on the bill legalising same-sex marriage, as well as his recent description of a woman’s abortion as a “tragedy”. In response, Farron insists that there is no tension between his religion and his liberal values, stating “I hold my faith firmly but impose it on no-one”. With regard to same-sex marriage, he argues that he voted in favour of the bill at its most important stages, only abstaining later because of his opposition to some of its specific amendments, while when discussing abortion he wishes to make clear that the “tragedy” he is referring to is the social and personal circumstances under which a woman feels the need to terminate pregnancy, rather than the act itself. His ability to convince others that his Christianity and his liberalism are compatible may prove an important factor in deciding the success and the longevity of his leadership.
In many ways, Farron’s job is an exceedingly daunting one, given the party’s virtual wipeout in Westminster, which proved to be the culmination of five years of ever-dwindling support and electoral woe. Farron must now rekindle support for a party roundly rejected by the electorate, and facing irrelevance given the lack of coverage the party will now receive as a result of their electoral devastation. If Farron and his colleagues cannot begin to win back the votes, and ultimately the seats which have been lost, the party risks fading into obscurity. The Lib Dems desperately need a revival, and they need Farron to lead it, but reversing the fortunes of a political party, particularly one which has been so heavily routed at the polls, is not a task which can be taken lightly.
Yet in another sense, Farron has a freedom in leading his party which Clegg before him never had. Where the latter assumed the role of the human face of the coalition, trying (largely unsuccessfully) to justify the concessions he was making to the Conservatives as a necessary evil, Farron can play the outsider; the kind of voice of opposition to the two major parties which served the late Charles Kennedy so well. Under Farron, the party can turn over a new leaf, distancing itself from the coalition years and focusing on winning back its traditional core vote. As the new Liberal Democrat leader himself has suggested, he and his party should seek to champion distinctly liberal values in areas such as crime, immigration and foreign policy which may not be universally popular, but will appeal to a fairly sizeable minority. In this sense, whilst in the electoral ‘wilderness’ over at least the next five years, the Liberal Democrats can focus almost entirely on principle over pragmatism, strongly assert a set of liberal values distinct from many of their rivals, and perhaps begin to turn their fortunes around. The Lib Dems’ road to electoral redemption may be an arduous one, but it is not worth writing off Farron and his party just yet.