This is not a blog post I wanted to write. I have been working behind the scenes to fix this, as have many others, for months. But it has become apparent that many of those at the very top of the Lib Dems are far more interested in going along with the Westminster bubble’s opinion that Brexit is great than they are in opposing the government or representing the membership.
Tim Farron’s initial response, the day after the referendum, was completely correct:
I believe our country’s future is still best served by our membership of the European Union, despite its flaws. Millions of our fellow citizens believe that. I also believe many of those people share our vision of a country that is tolerant, compassionate and positive about Britain’s role for good in the world. They share our vision of a country that wants to repair its divisions by working hard together, not by offering cheap slogans.
That is why I want to make clear that the Liberal Democrats will fight the next election on a clear and unequivocal promise to restore Britain’s prosperity and role in the world, with the United Kingdom in the European Union, not outside it.
However, within a very short amount of time, this commitment was watered down to a mere commitment to a second referendum while “respecting the result” (I have it on good authority that this is entirely down to the efforts of one MP who cared more about keeping his seat than about the principle involved). Lib Dem conference was not allowed to vote on actually opposing Brexit, despite calls for a separate vote, but after all we had five years to change the policy before an election, didn’t we?
We went into the election with this pathetic watered-down compromise of a policy, and actually managed to lose vote share as a result. The party — which has support for membership of the EU written into its constitution, incidentally — was reduced to talking about stopping “Hard Brexit” and meaningless fence-sitting nonsense phrases. There was a clear distinction between our policy and that shared by the Tories and Labour, but thanks to their politicians waffling about what their policy actually was, and ours refusing to make any kind of case against leaving the EU, those voters who wanted to stay in — nearly half the population — were denied a voice in the 2017 election at all. No wonder they mostly voted for Labour, since we were so afraid to actually have an opinion, because God forbid we might alienate fascists by saying something liberal.
Immediately after this, it was decided by people within the Westminster bubble that Vince Cable should be imposed on the party as leader without us getting to vote, despite him having been a *supporter* since late 2016 of even the “Hard Brexit” we were supposedly opposing — calling for destroying the economy by leaving the single market, in order to be crueler to EU immigrants. It was at this point that many of us decided we needed to start fighting back.
To start with, we wrote an open letter to Vince Cable, which can be viewed at https://openlettertovincecable.wordpress.com/ . To Cable’s eternal credit, he responded to the letter, backed down from the absurd views he’d spouted in the New Statesman, and started calling for “an exit from Brexit”.
However, this change in rhetoric was not matched by a change in substantive policy, and so various people submitted motions for autumn conference calling for the party to actually *oppose* Brexit as a policy, rather than just call for a second referendum (which as well as being a bad strategy electorally and something that would cause activists an unnecessary amount of additional stress, is also something that would almost certainly just lead to a repeat of the 2016 result. I also personally oppose referendums in all circumstances for principled reasons I explained here).
However, Federal Conference Committee (FCC, who decide what happens at conference) decided not to let the party actually get to vote on the most important issue facing the UK at the moment, instead scheduling a session for a Mrs. Merton-esque “heated debate” on the subject, which would just waste the party’s time with a debate which wouldn’t set any new policy. (And half of the conference agenda for this weekend is taken up with motions which merely reiterate other existing policies anyway).
So those of us who had put together the open letter to Cable got together again and (not without some disagreements) managed to hammer together a proposal to hold a special conference, which can be done under the Lib Dems’ constitution by getting a significant number of signatories.
Now, it’s important to note We did this in private to avoid any embarrassment of the leadership, party, or officials. We wanted to do what is right for the party, not to make a big show about our principles. And the idea we put forward was a simple one — this “special conference” could be held *during* the actual conference. FCC could simply take out the heated debate slot, replace it with an actual policy motion, everyone’s happy, no-one loses face.
We sent this, along with the signatures, to the FCC, and got no response until the conference agenda was published. At this point Andrew Wiseman, the FCC chair, contacted those of us willing to be identified as ringleaders by email, and said “sorry, we can’t do your idea now because the agenda has already been published” (it wasn’t published until quite a while after we sent the special conference demand in, so this was a deliberate decision by FCC, but let that pass for now). He went on to say that FCC had looked into the costs of holding a special conference immediately after the main conference, and that would cost the party £15,000, which was obviously far too much.
Now, personally, I don’t think a £15,000 cost to the party for *actually getting a policy on the most important issue facing the country* would be excessive — that’s around 10% of what’s spent on a Parliamentary by-election — but we agreed to let Wiseman try to come up with a compromise that would avoid unnecessary expense.
The solution that Wiseman suggested was that a vote be put to conference to suspend standing orders and have a vote on the anti-Brexit motion. Such a vote would require a two-thirds majority of attending members to support it, and so would be dependent on what the FCC said about it. Wiseman said:
FCC has said it will not oppose the suspension of standing orders. Some members are in favour and other are against.but as a committee it has said it will not oppose and will be neutral. When I speak to the FCC report I will make it clear that FCC do not oppose this.
Now, I personally didn’t support this “compromise”, because it seemed like us giving up 99.999% of what we asked for in return for nothing (we could have called for suspension of standing orders ourselves, rather than go the special conference route, but given that the vote for suspension of standing orders is first thing in the morning and sparsely attended, it’s ridiculously easy for the leadership to get a bunch of MPs and tame Lords to pack the conference hall and make up more than 1/3 of the vote). However, others seemed to think that Wiseman speaking in support of the motion and saying that FCC did not oppose was enough of a concession, and so we pulled the special conference request.
Nothing further was heard until last week, when someone in the higher levels of the party briefed against us to the Daily Mirror. Note that this must have come from the FCC or leadership, not from anyone involved in the special conference call, because we were keeping it secret *precisely to avoid that sort of thing*.
Then, on Saturday, FCC voted to oppose the suspension of standing orders. That was a 5/4 vote, and FCC were either not informed or misinformed by Wiseman of what had been agreed (I have been told that at least one FCC member who voted to oppose would have changed their vote had they been given the correct information as to what Wiseman had agreed). They also voted to allow a wrecking amendment to be called — this despite wrecking amendments being against the party constitution.
That wrecking amendment is claimed to have been the work of the Federal Policy Committee. It was not seen by all of the FPC, and questions are being raised as to how it got submitted and who knew about it.
One of the group emailed Andrew Wiseman about this breach of the agreement after it came to our attention today (as he didn’t do the courtesy of bothering to let us know). His response was “At no stage did I say that FCC would take a neutral position.” I would argue that saying “FCC has said it will not oppose the suspension of standing orders. Some members are in favour and other are against.but as a committee it has said it will not oppose and will be neutral. When I speak to the FCC report I will make it clear that FCC do not oppose this” is indeed saying that FCC would take a neutral position.
After much back and forth, with it being pointed out to Wiseman what he had actually said, he kept saying he would sort this out and would try to find a solution. Personally, I no longer have any reason to trust Wiseman’s word, but he was given until 7PM to suggest something by members of the group who are more patient than I. It is, as I type this sentence, 7:34PM.
At this point, I can only take this as an open declaration of war upon the anti-Brexit elements of the party membership by those within the Westminster bubble.
I will not be able to attend conference this weekend for personal reasons, but I urge *every single member who can* to turn up to the motion on Saturday at 9AM, and to vote for suspension of standing orders, and then if that happens to vote for the motion unamended.
If the suspension isn’t voted for, we *will* be calling for a special conference. We *WILL* get the signatures, and we will do it publicly this time.
And more, if we want our party to be able to justify the “democrats” in our title, and our frequent claim that policy is made by the membership, we *urgently* need to reform the party’s decision-making, not least by making it transparent. Right now, we get to vote for (some but not all of) FPC and FCC, but we have no way of knowing what each of the members do during the decision-making. We do not know how they vote, or on the basis of what evidence. They are completely unaccountable, and that needs to change. You can’t vote someone off for consistently voting the wrong way if you don’t know how they vote, and until we do the democratic element of those committees is a complete joke.
So I plan to stand myself for every committee I can at the next elections, on a platform of radical transparency. We need to let the committees know they work for the membership, not the other way round.
ETA: There have been new developments. Click here for the latest.
You have my vote for every committee you plan to run for. (As it happens, I’d been tempted to run for FCC myself on a similar platform if everything went wrong, and everything seems to be going wrong…)
Some of us are trying
Don’t worry, you are also excellent and also have my vote for everything etc. etc.
Indeed. We need to change the rules to mandate more openness, but you and Zoe are both doing good work given the current constraints. If everyone involved was as open as you (and as liberal) the party would be in a much healthier state.
Would support you on this position.We must have a clear position on EU before canvassing for votes.
I am a newbie. I was a floating voter, and like most, I joined the Lib Dems in desperate times as a pro-EU party. I am willing to believe that the current Lib Dem policy on second referendum was made in good faith, but it is barely coherent.
The referendum was advisory, therefore to *respect the result* doesn’t have the meaning attributed. The campaign promise made to the electorate does not change this fact. This is just another example of politicians afraid to be honest. It would set a bad precedent to have a second referendum as mandatory with no checks and balances on a constitutional change, like supermajority, but if it is again advisory, we are no further ahead, especially as the nation is divided and ill-informed. The electorate is indoctrinated that Brexit is inevitable and it is undemocratic to oppose it. I am not opposed to referenda altogether – the Swiss have them frequently – but they require an enlightened electorate and government, and we have neither, nor even (or especially not) an enlightened opposition.
Moreover, what does it mean to say that the electorate will be offered a second referendum on the deal or Remain? *The deal* is reached at the end of negotiations. It would take months after *the deal* to set up and campaign for a second referendum, and naturally the party in power would campaign for *the deal*. But regardless, it would be too late to withdraw Article 50 then, so what would be the point? And a vote in Parliament is a zombie action. A decision has to be made on merit, and Lib Dem policy has to be based on merit. It is not IGNORING the result of the referendum. It is learning from it and taking it and other factors into account, which should have happened in the first place, pace Kolvin QC and 1053 others letter of July 2016.
So I strongly support your motion. You will have my vote and I hope via twitter I persuaded others to attend. If the Lib Dems continue to prevaricate we will need to form a new pro-EU progressive centrist party.
What are your thoughts on a petition to Vince Cable and the FCC circulated from say tonight?
I agree with almost all of this, save for the bit about a “new centrist party” — I’m a liberal but definitely not a centrist, and think talk of a new party is counterproductive for a variety of reasons, but most of the rest of this is absolutely correct, and thank you for your comment.
As for a petition, I don’t know that it would help but can’t see that it would hurt. I know that FCC are very aware of our feelings on this, and that they have an opportunity on Friday, should they choose, to change their minds. I do know that George Potter, one of the prime organisers of this, has been in contact with all the signatories of our special conference petition and will be sending out text and email alerts to people during conference. If you felt like putting a petition together, or want to be kept in the loop about other efforts, he would probably be a very good person to get in touch with, as he’s the one who kept our email list (I have no access to that). If you don’t know George, his Twitter account is georgewpotter. (I can’t myself put a petition together right now — I’m quite unwell and have limited energy).
Also, while this was not officially an action by the group, most of the people who organised this are either members or officers of the in-party group the Radical Association, whose website can be found at https://radicalassociation.org/ , and I suspect they will be working on this.
Incidentally, one point I should have made more clear — I was one of a group of a dozen or so people, and not the most important one, and I am speaking here only for myself. I didn’t name them because they may not wish to be identified publicly with this post, but I credit them with doing the important parts of the work.
And this is the other reason I have never been able to bring myself to join any sort of political party – I could probably just about square the circle of signing up to things I didn’t entirely agree with (even though I understand that part of the point of being a member of something is to try and change it, as Leavers still seem to fail to appreciate), but I couldn’t deal with the people who were willing to game the system.
Isn’t it *Sir* Vince Cable?
Yeah, but I don’t care about titles like that — and generally in the party people are fairly disdainful of them. Politicians with titles mostly get referred to by their first names in the Lib Dems — Baroness Brinton is just Sal, Sir Simon Hughes just Simon, and so on.
Cable seems like an odd person to lead a liberal party in the UK. He seems much more Labour (moderate). I can see him being an MP, but he’s not really representative of the party as a whole, I’d think.
I can’t imagine anyone being representative of the whole Lib Dem party. :) It’s not really expected of the leader.
So why aren’the you going back to them with the accusation that they haven’t played fair and the suspension either happens or the Special Conference is back on (at a later date, with more cost, because of their messing about)?
That’s precisely what we are doing.
I’ve just changed my hotel and travel arrangements to be there for the Saturday vote.
Well done Andrew and all who fight with you. I’m doing my best to rally our members to be there Saturday morning – but as you say most will be still travelling down to Bournemouth and it will be the “payroll vote” that decides this. I’m not 100% with you on opposing another Referendum but we must make clear that we can no possible deal being agreed that would persuade the Lib Dem membership to stop fighting to remain in the EU. Sadly, Parliament is as much “damaged goods” as the Lib Dems with the electorate, so only anotther Referendum is likely to satisfy the voters.
Thanks for supporting the party actually having a debate, even though you may disagree on the second referendum — it’s far more important to me that the party have a chance to choose a policy than that the policy be the one I personally support.
Personally, I’m very much against referendums in all situations, and I think the increase in them since the Blair government has in itself done much to erode trust in Parliament. That said, there’s nothing in the policy motion that would stop the party supporting a second referendum as a compromise in the event of a hung Parliament or similar situation. It would just mean we’d have to be clear that a Lib Dem Government would see a Parliamentary majority as a mandate to stay in the EU.
Any commitment for a referendum on the terms has to be very carefully worded. It must be conditional on Brexit not simply being cancelled, lest we commit ourselves to refraining from cancelling Brexit. Even if we win an election.
“Vote Lib Dem and we’ll carry on with Brexit!” is not something we should be putting before the electorate.
Thanks for revealing all this. I joined the LD’s post-referendum because I thought it would be strongly pro-EU and as such could form the nucleus of reasoned opposition to Brexit – maybe attracting some of the 450 pre-referendum pro-remain MPs to abandon their parties and join us ass well. But our half-hearted and undefined stance on non-Brexit meant that was a wash-out. Meanwhile, involvement with my local party almost defined non-dynamism. Hugely disappointing – i think there are some who are in politics because they’ve tried model railways, but that didn’t work out as a hobby.
Campaigning in Witney, I was surprised how little Brexit was talked about – it seems we preferred to worry about local hospitals. For the Richmond by-election we were much more pro-EU and it worked – we got a result. Then the GE and we back pedalled on EU. The second referendum concept just doesn’t sell. So much so that I voted Labour – my MP is a Labour rebel. She had a tiny majority, now she has a massive one. Why, because in a strongly remain constituency she attracted the anti-Brexit vote. We could have had those votes, if we had the courage to go balls-out on Remain.
Now I learn that the party doesn’t even want to discuss adopting a pro-EU stance at its conference. FFS! What is it with the LD establishment? Is the height of their ambition to bumble along with a score or two of MPs? Why won’t they stand up and fight for what the recently-joined membership wants?
I can’t be at Bournemouth – I’ll be elsewhere in the despised EU while I can – but I hope like mad that you’ll be able to force the issue and make the deadheads see sense.
The *party* definitely does want to discuss a proper policy. It’s certain people within the establishment who don’t.
(And if it helps, it’s not just the recently-joined members who want this. I’ve been in the party eleven years and am just as frustrated :-/ )
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I’ve been a party member for about 50 years, and as far as I know the party has been consistently pro-EU all that time. It makes no sense not to be. I don’t want to be in a country that buys a trade deal with Brazil by agreeing on financial and political unity with MERCOSUR. How would that work? But that is the world that we are moving into. Wiseman is not living up to his name, He needs to look at the world beyond the Thames and the Tory press..If he is afraid to oppose Brexit, he should study what global trade means, and then he would know what fear means.
And with climate change increasing the frequency and severity of storms, I do not want my grandchildren being dependent on goods being transported on 4000 mile ocean journeys. (Planes don’t land in hurricanes either.)
Well done Andrew, I am with you and your fellows, all the way.