Interview: Tim Farron addresses LGBT voting record and calls for Church of England to be disestablished
Lib Dem leadership candidate Tim Farron has addressed his voting record on gay rights – and called for the Church of England to be disestablished.
Mr Farron, the MP for Westmorland and Lonsdale, is one of two candidates to succeed Nick Clegg as Lib Dem leader, going up against former Health Minister Norman Lamb.
Where do the Lib Dems go from here?
I’m bound to say in the words of Yazz, the only way is up, but we’ve got to be quite careful we don’t assume we have an automatic right to a place in the centre of British politics.
The fight backs we’ve fought from other near-death experiences in the past were all hard-earned. You do that by building campaign infrastructure up and down the country, and above all by fuelling that with a sense of self-belief.
This will be hugely help by two things.
In the past ten days – we have had 13,000 new members join. Nobody really expected that. They believe that Liberalism musn’t die, so it won’t.
Secondly, Cameron’s front-foot changes have been on scrapping the Human Rights Act, the surveillance bill – it’s a sudden realisation there’s more need for a Liberal party in British politics.
I’m massively motivated to fill that space in British politics, and counter the negativism of English and Scottish Nationalists – the English nationalists being the Conservatives.
There’s a sense of grieving – 85% of my Parliamentary colleagues have gone. But you see the response of thousands of people out there, and you think ‘this movement shall not die’.
Nick Clegg put LGBT issues at the heart of the Liberal Democrats by championing equal marriage. How do you follow that?
On LGBT+ issues, how do you follow it? I’ll give you three things I’m very keen we do.
One, when it comes to the equal marriage legislation, I think we really missed a trick on trans issues. On the spousal veto, I think it’s an appalling thing that one person is allowed to block another person’s freedom. We should be making that a priority.
Secondly, it strikes me as deeply troubling is that there was no regulation of psychotherapists in the UK for quack conversion therapy.
Thirdly, we’ve got to end the gay blood ban, which is a disgrace. My pledge to you is that my first opposition day bill will be getting rid of the gay blood ban. All of these things need to be based on the science, not on prejudice.
Why did you vote against the Programme Motion on the Marriage (Same Sex Couples) Act, alongside a number of Conservatives who were trying to block equality?
I can’t police who comes through the lobby with me.
There was a whole bunch of issues where we were just not there yet. The whole point of the programme motion is it’s limiting the time for discussion.
I voted in favour at second reading and voted against the programme motion because it was important there was time to discuss trans issues and other very important issues – and there were two ‘conscience clause’ amendments.
I voted around the equal marriage bill in ways that I thought were basically liberal. What is regrettable is that people will draw their own conclusions, and assume that because you didn’t vote for it, you don’t support equal marriage.
I’ve made it quite clear I would vote for third reading now, and I probably should have done at the time. I thought issues hadn’t been covered properly – there was a whole range of things about protections, conscience objections for minority groups that have problems with equal marriage. I think fundamentally, it wasn’t sufficiently equal.
My clear view is that equal marriage needs to be equal marriage.
You mention you wanted stronger conscience protections for religious groups. UKIP and the DUP
In a free society we need to be protecting the rights of all minorities. What we need not to do is go out there with grievance politics, and I think that whilst every oppressed group ought to have an empathy with threats to rights of others.
My take is it’s a stage now where it’s on the statue book, and unpicking it would be divisive. I’d certainly counsel DUP, UKIP now against doing those sort of things.
For example, do you think it is morally right that a Christian baker should be able to refuse to bake a cake for a gay wedding?
No, I think that’s about goods and services.
Didn’t you vote against the Sexual Orientation Regulations?
I don’t think I did. I think in 2007 or 08…
On the 2007 law, you did. It’s where that protection comes from. You cited your ‘extreme liberal point of view’ at the time.
Well, I’ve changed my position since then.
My take on stuff like the cake issue, which was not live at that point, and the B&B issue, which had become live – it is un-Christian to turn people away from your establishment. You should not, if you offer services, be in the situation where you are discriminating.
The issue about the Equality Act stuff – it’s about who has got the right to silence certain people… Tolerance is not about putting up with people you agree with. You don’t tolerate those people – it’s about co-existing with people you really don’t agree with.
We had an amendment that I think was defeated, which tried to deal with some of the issues about protections. My recollection is that amendment was not accepted – I could not therefore support the [Sexual Orientation] regulations.
The bottom line is in a free society we need to protect individuals’ right to say what they wish, so long as it doesn’t anybody’s freedom.
There was a lot in it. The issue more generally is that we’d made some clarifications about conscience, which was not about preaching hatred but respecting individual doctrines.
Do you regret the way you voted?
I joined the Liberals in 1986, Section 28 was introduced in 1987. It was a major driver for me, I went on the demos against that. You look at the issues of the past 25 years – civil partnership, age of consent – I’ve actively campaigned on the right side on all those things.
I regret anything that gives people the wrong impression.
What I believe as a Liberal… Charlie Hebdo is a powerful reminder. You’ve got to remember this is a newspaper that had a picture of a leading French politician who is a black woman depicted as a monkey on the front page. My French is not good, but Je Suis Ne Pas Charlie.
However, I stand with them for their right to be offensive, to take satire to its absolute limits. Freedom and tolerance is not about us all agreeing with each other – it’s about bloody-mindedly defending one another’s rights to be different.
I would very strongly refute that I voted in a way which is anti-gay. If you’re in opposition, you’re there to test. The LD record is to be a constructive opposition – you put down amendments, you probe, otherwise you get crap legislation. It’s right to do that.
Do you back compulsory sex and relationship in all state-funded schools, including church schools?
I’m careful to not do knee-jerk policies, but my sense is that is what we should be doing.
These are state-funded schools. Being entirely blunt… if we were starting from scratch, I would not have church schools, but we are where we are.
I support age-appropriate inclusive sex education, that is informed – but if we’re going to have faith schools, they should be able to practise their ethos.
We’ve got to be very very careful. It’s a real tension – if we’re accepting that faith schools exist, we’re accepting their ability to teach in accordance with that ethos up to a point.
What would you say to the Archbishop of Canterbury as Lib Dem leader?
First of all, you allow religious groups to practice their lifestyles within the creed that they settled on.
The fundamental thing I say to the Archbishop – and I certainly said it to the last Archbishop of Canterbury – is the Church of England should be disestablished. That’s the simple answer to all this.
I think the Church of England is compromised by being part of the furniture of the state. Although I’m a Christian myself, I do not believe I have any right to impose my faith on anybody else.
I think it damages Christianity to have an established church, and it certainly it’s also illiberal to have a state church anyway.
Nick Clegg in his PinkNews Q&A said he would consider the case for commercial surrogacy in the UK. What’s your view?
We need to be looking at what’s important – kids and protecting people’s essential freedoms. One would assume the right thing to do is allow people to make those choices. My instinctive position is we shouldn’t be telling people what they can and can’t do with their bodies.
I’d certainly back a review. It seems very peculiar that we permit surrogacy under the law, but not with a contract. People who want to provide a loving home for children should be able to do that.
In the 2010 GE, PinkNews polling found that 41% of LGBT people said they would vote for the Liberal Democrats. At the last election, it was 19%. Why do you think you lost significant support among LGBT people despite doing a lot for LGBT rights in government?
It’s peculiar, isn’t it? I think going into power in 2010 robbed us of our identity to a degree.
We were right to go into coalition, but undoubtedly it affected how people saw us. If you’re the junior partner in a coalition, you always are at risk.
Seven years ago, our sister party in the Netherlands were in a very similar situation – they were a junior partner in a coalition and they got annihilated.
Last year in the European elections, they topped the polls in the Netherlands. There is always a way back for Liberalism.
What I’ve seen of the people who’ve joined our party in the last ten days, is this absolute ‘never say die’ spirit. They have joined the right party.
You might vote for a party because of your head or your wallet, but you get involved in a party because of what gets you in your gut.
We need them to think, this is the internationalist party. These are the people who stand up for human rights. These are the people stand up for the kids of asylum seekers, stand up for LGBT rights, these are people who are going to stand up for people in desperate housing need.
We need to feel good about ourselves. For too much of the last five years we’ve not been feeling good about ourselves.
It’s a crap result for us… but there’s only two things we can do. We can coast to oblivion or we can fight back.
Why should your party choose you as leader?
It’s about the ability to communicate our message in a way that sounds external to Westminster. We’re down to eight MPs, our voice in Parliament is massively reduced, so we’ve got to punch above our weight in the country.
That means communicating with people in ways that resonate, that are authentic, with voices that don’t sound like the normal. It means being able to have a fixation on campaigning, a fixation on motivating people, and inspiring people to get involved.
There may be a bunch of questions out there to which Tim Farron is not the answer – but who is best placed to take a party that has been broken by its worst result in two generations? Who is best placed to build up the building blocks of an infrastructure renewal? Who is going to fire the Liberal belly out there, and give our relevance and distinctiveness and not sound like the rest? The answer is me.
The thing that I worry about very much is for totemic reasons, you’ve now got David Cameron proceeding with a thoroughly illiberal agenda. The only part of the Cameron makeover that lasted the Coalition was equal marriage. Everything else got thrown to the wind. Stuff about saving the planet is apparently ‘green crap’.
I’m reminded of the Paddy Ashdown years – he picked those civil liberties issues and he championed them. He built a core vote amongst opinion-formers, and a great sense we were the party that took the right side on these issues.
Gay rights was part of that… he’s blazed a trail, and I want to do the same sort of thing. We need to pick those issues where they’re right – stuff whether they’re popular or not.
David Cameron and Harriet Harman were in the chamber earlier hailing the most diverse Parliament ever – the most women MPs, the most black and minority ethnic MPs – and the most LGB MPs not just of this Parliament, but any Parliament in the world ever. In the centre of that, you’ve ended up with eight straight white men. How do you fix that?
Eight straight white blokes – it’s a massive embarrassment.
However, buildings that have been razed to the ground are easier to rebuild in the model you want than buildings that have just been badly damaged. Let’s take advantage of the terrible situation.
I would want to do this – when it comes to the European Parliament you can effectively have all-women short-lists, and then you also make sure you deal with BAME as well in that mix. The same will be harder to do but more important to do in the House of Commons.
We slagged [the Tory A-list] off as liberals, saying this is all imposition – but we’ve been trying for 20-odd years to deal with this and we haven’t succeeded. If we don’t do something muscular, we’ll be in the same place as we are now in 20 years’ time.
I’m talking to [former Equalities Minister] Jo Swinson, who has done a lot of work on this.
I want to give her the ability to come up with some plans as to how we go about dealing with this. And I’ll ask party president Sal Brinton, as the person who in charge of dealing with the Constitution of the Party, to make it so.
Would you change the party’s name as rumoured?
I refer to myself as a Liberal. I was a member of the Liberal Party before the Liberal Democrats were formed, and I refer to us as the Liberals. Our ideology is Liberalism. Some people in the Labour party would call themselves Socialists, but they wouldn’t change the name of the party to the Socialist party.
To change the party’s name, I don’t see why you’d do that. It’s constitutional navel-gazing.
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