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.