Lib Dems ‘broke equality laws’ over deselection of Christian candidate

Members have reported the party to the equalities watchdog over accusations that the party has tolerated a 'hostile environment' for people of faith
Members have reported the party to the equalities watchdog over accusations that the party has tolerated a 'hostile environment' for people of faith - Paul Marriott

The Liberal Democrats have been accused of deselecting a candidate “based on his Christian faith” in a breach of equality law.

Members have reported the party to the equalities watchdog over accusations that the party has tolerated a “hostile environment” for people of faith, failed to investigate serious allegations of discrimination and harassment and “emboldened those who believe Christians should be driven out of public life”.

The complaint to the Equality and Human Rights Commission (EHRC) concerns the treatment of David Campanale, an Anglican and award-winning former BBC journalist, who is set to be replaced as a prospective MP candidate for Sutton and Cheam after a two-year campaign against him by members of his local party and a number of LGBT activists.

The campaign alleged he had been involved with the Christian People’s Alliance (CPA) political party, which has campaigned against abortion and gay marriage, and that he had not sufficiently disclosed his faith during the selection process, a charge he denies.

Mr Campanale, who left the CPA in 2012 and says he did not agree with its tone or priorities, believes the attacks against him are part of an ongoing attempt to secularise the Lib Dems.

Party members supporting him are now calling on the EHRC to launch an independent investigation into “multiple alleged breaches of equality law and our party constitution”.

David Campanale
David Campanale believes the attacks against him are part of an ongoing attempt to secularise the Lib Dems

The letter to the EHRC, shared with The Telegraph, said: “This evidence depicts a supposedly liberal organisation allowing clear religious discrimination and hostility to thrive within its ranks.

“It suggests that Mr Campanale was driven out from his democratically elected position not because of any objective failings or wrongdoing but because a vocal group within SBLD [Sutton Borough Liberal Democrats] refused to tolerate his Christian worldview.”

It added: “Although Mr Campanale has submitted evidence of religious discrimination, harassment and victimisation perpetrated against him to party authorities at all levels over a two-year period, no appropriate action has been taken. We believe that only an external investigation by the EHRC can now secure justice.”

The complaint is currently under consideration by the watchdog, which has said that it looks at “each complaint carefully and [takes] action where appropriate”.

Hustings are being held in Sutton and Cheam to replace Mr Campanale on Tuesday despite an ongoing appeal against his deselection.

The row is set to overshadow the Lib Dems’s attempt to win the seat, seen as a target at the upcoming general election.

Ed Davey, leader of the Liberal Democrats, is a practising Christian
Ed Davey, leader of the Liberal Democrats, is a practising Christian - Stefan Rousseau/PA

Paul Scully, the Conservative incumbent, is stepping down at the next election as the Lib Dems try to make significant inroads in the so-called “Blue Wall” of Tory-held constituencies in the south of England.

It hopes to beat the SNP to regain its status as the third-largest party in Westminster after almost a decade, having lost scores of MPs in the aftermath coalition between the party and the Conservatives.

But members of the Liberal Democrat Christian Forum (LDCF), whose patrons include former leader Tim Farron, have written to senior party figures warning that the treatment of Mr Campanale could damage the prospects of hopeful MPs across the country.

Mr Campanale has won support from a number of senior party figures, including Sir Simon Hughes, the former justice minister, who has warned that he was deselected in a “kangaroo court”.

Lord Marks KC, the Lib Dems’s justice spokesman in the House of Lords, has concluded that the former BBC World Service reporter was “deselected on the basis of a procedure that was seriously non-compliant with the Rules and fundamentally flawed”.

Mr Campanale rejoined the party in 2019, having first campaigned for them as a student, and became its candidate in Spelthorne against Kwasi Kwarteng, running a campaign, which trebled the Lib Dem vote at the election.

He was selected to stand in the south London seat of Sutton and Cheam in late 2021 but weeks later there were murmurs of discontent and he was blocked from campaigning and targeted “because of his Christian faith and conscience and to undermine his position”, the EHRC has been told.

Mr Campanale was not invited to the launch of the election campaign and not allowed to appear on any literature, it is alleged.

As part of the campaign against him, he faced “hostile questioning about his Christian beliefs and demands that he resign”, according to the evidence submitted to the equality watchdog.

Several other sitting MPs, including current leader Sir Ed Davey, are practising Christians – and a Lib Dem spokesman said the party was “home to people of all faiths and none”.

But The Telegraph can reveal that Mr Campanale, 60, has faced repeated “hostile” and “degrading” questioning over his faith over the two-year period, with votes on his position that are allegedly in breach of party rules.

The Telegraph understands that in one meeting he was asked if he felt he was being persecuted “like Jesus”, while at another a local party official allegedly told him: “We had no idea we were selecting another Tim Farron.”

Tim Farron
Tim Farron is Christian who became a Liberal Democrat MP and eventually led the party between 2015 to 2017 - Charlotte Graham/Guzelian

In one of a number of appeals against the deselection seen by The Telegraph, Nasser Butt, the founder and chairman of Lib Dem Muslim Forum, revealed that he was contacted by a party activist in early 2022 who informed him there was “considerable opposition from Party’s Youth groups in London Region lead by some LGBT youth”.

He was told that Mr Campanale’s “past activities and beliefs with the CPA was questionable and made him unsuitable”.

Mr Butt refused to join the campaign, noting: “I don’t believe that a person’s faith should be a deciding point to join Liberal Democrats or that a party member with faith or no faith should be targeted in a discriminatory way.”

“Attempts were made to make David resign without going public or to membership,” he told party leaders. “David proved his strength by standing up to such bullying tactic.”

After Mr Campanale refused to stand down, an extraordinary general meeting was called in November of that year, which those present have described as “an extraordinary verbal attack” which was “personal and vitriolic”.

Juliet Chaplin of Sutton Borough Liberal Democrats’ Cheam branch, an executive member and one of the signatories to the complaint to the EHRC, said that it became “clear that objections to David’s position… are based entirely on his Christian faith”.

Despite him winning the selection in a poll of all members in the constituency, only the 64 members who attended the EGM in person and 29 who attended via Zoom were allowed to vote on his deselection, which was confirmed.

Mr Butt, who attended online but did not vote as he could not hear properly, warned in his appeal that the meeting broke a number of party rules and there was “no clear evidence or reasons” for the vote of no confidence.

‘No evidence of concerns about Campanale’s performance’

His comments were echoed by Sir Simon, who said that he had seen no evidence of concerns about Mr Campanale’s performance, which party rules state must be the reason to begin the deselection process.

Lord Marks, acting for Mr Campanale at his appeal, added that the local party failed to follow processes stipulating that they must try to work with the candidate and that the executive which voted against him was not properly elected.

The KC warned that the treatment of Mr Campanale was in breach of the principles of the party, which state that they “reject all prejudice and discrimination based upon race… religion or belief”.

Mr Campanale was told in March that an appeal against his deselection had been rejected.

He is now appealing to the panel that rules on internal disputes in the party.

As a result of the party shortlisting new candidates for the seat ahead of Tuesday’s hustings, the LDCF, of which Mr Campanale is one of over 400 members, wrote to Mark Pack, federal president, warning that they are “deeply disturbed by this saga”.

They called on the party to pause the selection of a new candidate until the conclusion of the appeal, saying that unless they do so it could “have a detrimental effect on all candidates across the country”.

The LDCF suggests that the party would take a “zero tolerance” approach if another candidate was opposed based on a protected characteristic, but says Mr Campanale has been “serially ignored”.

“Either we liberals believe in equality and freedom of conscience and practise those beliefs or else we are not liberals,” the group wrote as they called for an independent inquiry into the deselection.

‘Lib Dems home to people of all faiths and none’

A spokesman for the Liberal Democrats said: “This decision is currently undergoing an appeal so it would not be appropriate to comment at this stage.

“The Liberal Democrats are home to people of all faiths and none, including many Christians.

“Three Liberal Democrat MPs in neighbouring seats to Sutton and Cheam are practising Christians, including party leader Ed Davey, and the party’s candidate selection process is overseen by the Reverend Margaret Jane Joachim.”

A spokesman for the equalities watchdog said: “The EHRC receives complaints each week about allegations of unlawful activity contrary to the Equality Act 2010. We consider each complaint carefully and take action where appropriate.”

The EHRC previously found that the Labour Party had broken equality law in its handling of anti-Semitism under Jeremy Corbyn, identifying “serious failings” in the leadership.

In 2019 the watchdog ruled that the party had breached the Equality Act 2010 in relation to “political interference” in complaints of anti-Semitism, a “failure to provide adequate training” to those handling such complaints, and “harassment”.

The report demanded that the party draft an action plan on how it would implement the array of recommendations from the EHRC, which would become legally enforceable by the courts if not fulfilled.