Tim Farron, leader of the Liberal Democrats going into the general election, has lately become an increasingly divisive figure. Having cast himself as one of 2016’s most outspoken poster boys for remaining in the European Union, he has led something of a revival for the party after its dramatic fall from grace during the years of the coalition government. Despite this, he has faced controversy over his stance on gay rights since his election as leader in 2015.

 

Farron’s resurgence is, in part, down to his continuing opposition to ‘Brexit means Brexit’. Moreover, the party’s manifesto shows clear intent to win back the surge of support from 18-24-year-olds which helped it to power under Nick Clegg. However, the controversies over gay rights could prove not only unappealing to a young voter base, but actively repellent. Successfully navigating these, while pushing policies aimed at the youth, will be the first step in returning to prominence. Further to this, it goes to show how polarising all of the party leaders are,  and that the rather contradictory Mr Farron is still the least divisive of all.

The good.

The party’s manifesto strongly reflects Farron’s forthright stance on the EU referendum, namely in promising another. This escape route will inevitably appeal to the 75 per cent of 18-24-year-old voters who opposed leaving. Similarly, the party’s pledge to create a legalised cannabis market is without doubt an attempt to win over the liberal youth, many of whom will see this as a long-awaited step away from the failed war on drugs. The party will calculate that further promises such as a Rent-to-Own scheme for first-time house buyers, a ban on diesel cars to address carbon emissions, and even the bold promise to lower the legal voting age to 16 — will all have the same effect of enticing the younger voter. On the surface, Farron becomes a remarkably appealing candidate for a segment of the electorate which has repeatedly expressed that it feels underrepresented by Conservative governments.

However, these promises come from the group which famously betrayed the UK’s student population by failing to prevent the sharp rise in university tuition fees while in coalition —  the opposition to which was once a main pillars of Clegg’s success in the first place. It hasn’t yet been seven years since The New Statesman described the betrayal as the ‘Liberal Democrat Iraq’, and, speaking as a graduate saddled with over £27,000 of debt for tuition alone, I can assure the reader that those wounds don’t heal quickly.

This is, admittedly, a chronic issue for the whole party, and certainly not one which is particular to Mr Farron alone — so let’s move on to something which is.

The bad.

In mid-April, he refused to answer the question of whether gay sex was a sin. Over the following days he failed to answer several more times. When eventually forced to be unequivocal on the issue, Farron admitted that he didn’t think it was wrong — his reasoning for having avoided the question was that he is a political leader. Thus, he didn’t feel it appropriate to ‘pontificate on theological matters’. However, as the BBC interviewer highlighted, he has previously clarified in public that he doesn’t consider homosexuality itself a sin. Therein lies the inconsistency. In this fast-paced election campaign, other issues have since taken the limelight. Uncertainty endures though, as to why he was so ambiguous about his views on such a matter. This will not sit comfortably with the party’s target voters.

Of course, as Nick Cohen argues, he can disapprove of homosexuality all he likes, provided he defends it politically. As he says, ‘what counts is your actions and your politics’. However, despite his own claims, Farron’s voting record on gay rights does not stand up to scrutiny. He was absent for the third reading of the same-sex marriage bill in May 2013. Prior to this, he voted against the Equality Act in 2007. This aimed to criminalise discrimination on the basis of a person’s sexuality. His response: ‘I’ve changed my position since then’.

Nonetheless, Farron’s uneasy political relationship with homosexuality — and in many cases his staunch Christianity — risks alienating his core voters. The party must reconcile its youth-focused policies with its evangelical leader to succeed in the election.

In context.

Despite all of this, if polls are to be believed, Farron remains the least divisive of the mainstream party leaders. A lower proportion of his opinion ratings fall into the most extreme positive or negative brackets than Corbyn, May or Sturgeon at the time of writing. This may, admittedly, be down to the electorate’s apathy towards him. Regardless, positioning such a contradictory figure in such a role surely indicates how polarised the political landscape has become.

Indeed, the Conservatives have swung to the right in an attempt to quash UKIP and win the Brexiteers’ votes. Meanwhile, left-leaning Corbyn has pulled the party in the opposite direction. Then there is the small issue of Nicola Sturgeon, who wants to break up the United Kingdom. When we look at the situation through this filter, the future looks extreme. Though admittedly, you don’t need to use Tim Farron as a political barometer to work that one out.