Brexit has been a resurrection for the Lib Dems. After their horrific results from the 2015 and 2017 elections, they have managed to capitalise on angry anti-Brexit voters. However, questions over their direction remain to be answered.
First published in September 2019.
I’d wager that if the Lib Dems plumped for a Labour-style soft Brexit, the Remain movement would be much less vocal. Proudly displaying their yellow diamonds, they’re a renewed force in British politics – even if the source of their new wealth is from despondent party exiles. They’re confident, perhaps even a bit smug at their new fame and defectors.
But alas, Jo Swinson’s revived party will soon fall foul of the curse sweeping party politics: tribalism. They’ve become a party of political refugees, fleeing the conflicts of other parties. Indeed, both left and right are congregating in the centre either out of protest or convenience. Very much a wider canyon than previous years – if I ever hear someone saying “The Lib Dems are back” again, I’ll scream.
Post-Brexit, if it ever graces us, will need some deep renovations to our political system. A prime concern should be to reflect divisions in society with a representative voting system. When the public are so split across their rigid borders, a First Past the Post vote is only so effective. Addressing this would also allow for the party system to adapt, and for the electorate to feel more represented. What a concept – genuine political engagement, it’s revolutionary!
It’s true that the Tories and Labour are fracturing left, right, and centrist. But this culture of ideological divisions will now be much more pronounced in the Lib Dems. There were only subtle differences in voices before the coalition years. But a party where ex-Tories like Philip Lee sit next to Labour exiles, is not a party with a consistent ideological agenda. The two sides of liberalism are so well defined in history and theory, that it’s hard to see where the centrist scale will tip.
Let’s look at the problem of exiles. Even a year ago, those who have now defected to the Lib Dems would have been sworn enemies of their opposition. For example, Angela Smith in her constituency of Penistone and Stocksbridge, has worked with unions and local steelworkers on a range of issues. She’s also a firm supporter of animal rights and opposing the badger cull. Luciana Berger, whose move to the Lib Dems has been vigorously criticised by Labour members, joins Smith in her support of animal rights, particularly to campaign against dangerous dogs.
Then gaze onto the voting records and positions of Philip Lee and Sarah Wollaston. A total opposite to the votes of Smith and Berger. This is something that Jo Swinson’s leadership will be tested by for as long as they remain relevant. More recently, the spotlight has turned to Philip Lee, who in 2014 tabled an amendment on the Migration Bill calling for flat rejection of migrants with HIV and Hepatitis B. Lee also abstained on same-sex marriage legislation. This has caused serious anger within the party, particularly from the LGBT+ group. Several members have resigned over the issue. Margot James raised opposition to the amendment back in 2014 – which did not pass.
A statement from the LGBT+ Lib Dems group exposed their treatment by the leadership on Lee’s defection, arguing that their “concerns have been patronised and dismissed.” They noted how he reasserted his 2014 views, and attempted to redraw what his intentions were. At the time, Lee wrote a column piece for the Independent explaining his motives for the migrant ban. It reeks of protectionism – ignoring a wider moral cause over the burdens on UK health providers.
“My biggest fear is that failure to address this will create a scandal around homophobia in the Liberal Democrats to match that of antisemitism in Labour.”
— Dave Page, acting Chair of LGBT+ Lib Dems.
As a result of Lee’s defection, the three most senior LGBT women elected to party office all resigned their memberships. This is a serious problem for the Lib Dems, who are meeting this weekend in Bournemouth for annual conference. In a leaked letter sent to news outlets, and myself in confidence, members have raised their anger and deep concerns with this scandal. The anonymous letter called for mandatory consultations on new defections, improved relations with the LGBT+ group who the leadership’s “attempts to patronise and gaslight… just deepen the wounds.” Thirdly, a clear public statement from the leadership and Philip Lee supporting migrant and LGBT rights.
This will be the first big test of Swinson’s leadership. To go gung-ho into forming an orphanage for displaced MPs will lead to further splits in the future. Numbers over integrity is never a good look. Tim Farron’s time as leader was hit by similar controversies, eventually causing his downfall and a sub-par election result in 2017. If they are to be a new home for those desperate floating voters, it must make it welcoming rather than a rickety temporary hostel.
The Lib Dems have an opportunity to throw a bird-shaped spanner into the Westminster machine. By pushing itself as a centrist’s paradise, it is playing with a vast array of political principles. Conference may come as a time of celebration for many – but pay attention to those who fear for their new path.🔷
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