Election 2017: What is Tim Farron’s stance on gay rights and should you vote Lib Dem anyway?

The Liberal Democrat leader refused to say whether he believes being gay is a sin.

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Fed up with Jeremy Corbyn’s Labour? Had enough of Theresa May’s hard-as-nails Brexit? Blocked the worst bits of the coalition from your memory? Well then, congratulations – you can vote Lib Dem!

Sadly, it’s not that simple. Yes, the Lib Dems appear to be the only significant non-nationalist party fighting for a tolerant, open and forward-looking Britain at the moment. But their leader’s views on homosexuality are planting doubt in the minds of those generally gay-friendly voters who want to vote Lib Dem.

Tim Farron, leader of the Lib Dems and an evangelical Christian, has been criticised this week for failing to say whether or not he believes being gay is a sin. Following a day of negative coverage, he eventually told the Commons “I do not” believe being gay is a sin, though his views on whether gay sex is a sin remain up in the air.

An interview on Channel 4 News yesterday marked his fourth refusal to give presenter Cathy Newman a clear answer to the question of whether homosexuality is sinful.

“I’m not in a position to be making theological pronouncements,” he replied. “I’m not going to spend my time talking theology or making pronouncements.”

When pressed, he carried on refusing to say whether or not he views homosexuality as a sin. He added: “As a liberal, I’m passionate about equality – about equal marriage, about equal rights for LGBT people.”

This is the mini sequel to a notorious interview by the same journalist in 2015, a day after Farron was elected party leader, when he prevaricated over the question: “Personally, do you think, as a Christian, that homosexual sex is a sin?”

He repeatedly refused to deny that gay sex is a sin, instead saying, “We are all sinners”:

Farron is asked such questions because of his voting record. He abstained on the equal marriage bill’s third reading in 2013 (something he now regrets), having also been in the minority opposing the bill’s timetable, and voted against the Equality Act (Sexual Orientation) Regulations – the legislation obliging wedding cake makers and b&b hosts not to discriminate against gay people – in 2007 (he’s changed his mind since on that too).

Since becoming Lib Dem leader, he has spoken up for LGBT rights and revised some of his former voting decisions. He also voted a number of times in favour of gay marriage.

Nevertheless, ever since Farron ran to become Lib Dem leader after the party’s trouncing in the 2015 general election, colleagues have been concerned about his views on homosexuality – predicting it could affect their party’s electoral chances.

One senior party figure at the time compared Farron’s opposition to the Sexual Orientation Regulations “after the bed and breakfast case” to denying “a black person in the southern states of America” a room.

“What would we think about people who said, ‘no, my principles are not to serve this person?’ We would say it’s completely intolerable,” they told me. “Surely we’ve got to say the same thing for people who happen to love one another, who are of the same sex? And Tim voted against. He’s supposed to be the leader of a liberal party.”

These concerns are now looking prescient, with the first 24 hours of the Lib Dems’ snap election campaign being dominated by accusations of homophobia.

The only way wannabe Lib Dem voters can console themselves is with the fact that Farron has decided to row back on his voting record and champion equal rights since becoming party leader – cynically or not. He expressed his regrets in an exclusive interview to PinkNews in May 2015 to try and clear his reputation up on the subject.

But there is clearly a limit to Farron’s political pragmatism on this. Two years after his controversial refusal to clarify whether he finds gay sex sinful, he is still avoiding the question. This evasiveness may cause potential voters to question whether Farron’s conscience would allow him to whip his party in favour of LGBT-friendly legislation in future votes.

Anoosh Chakelian is senior writer at the New Statesman.