The Liberal Democrats have historically been enthusiastically pro EU. The strength of that enthusiasm, it’s fair to say, has not always been uniform. While a small number of Liberal Democrats campaigned to leave the EU, the vast majority of us wanted to remain. That was very clear to the tens of thousands who have joined us in the aftermath of the vote to leave.
As a party during the referendum, we did more than any other to campaign for a Remain vote. That’s quite a staggering achievement given our size and resources compared to the Labour party.
However, there are signs now that the consensus is starting to develop some fault lines. Our position in the aftermath of the referendum has been very clear. We campaign to stay or go back in to the EU at the next election. We want the voters to have their say on the Brexit deal. It’s only polite, really, given that they weren’t given any indication about what it would look like before they voted.
I don’t want to over-egg this particular pudding, but it looks like our general unity as a party on this is now under threat. Many Liberal Democrats have been very concerned to see that Norman Lamb and Nick Clegg have endorsed Open Britain, the organisation formerly known as Britain Stronger in Europe. Open Britain accepts the referendum result as final even though they also accept that nobody knows what they actually voted for. They will not be calling for a second referendum which seems to be a bizarre and contradictory stance to me. Norman Lamb clarified in a tweet yesterday that he is still in favour of a second referendum:
It is me that argued for a referendum on the outcome of the negotiations and I’m still v strongly of that view https://t.co/HqmpEl8JyC
— Norman Lamb (@normanlamb) August 28, 2016
However, the mixed messages that his and Nick Clegg’s endorsement of Open Britain sends is not helpful. It is confusing to party members and the general public if we are seen to be having some parliamentarians saying one thing while others do another, especially when these two form a quarter of our Commons party. Of even greater concern than the second referendum issue is Open Britain’s acceptance of restrictions to the free movement of people. In an article in the Sunday Times, reproduced on Open Britain’s website, Norman Lamb, Tory Anna Soubry and Labour’s Pat Macfadden say:
Free movement of people cannot continue as it has done. It has to be reformed. This was not an expression of prejudice but rather a desire for managed migration and concern that rapid immigration can put pressure on public services and local communities. Britain must be open to talent, but with more ability to act if excessive competition in labour markets hurts our economy. For too long we have ducked an open debate over immigration. That was true in the referendum campaign but it is also true of all the major political parties in the past decade or more. As a result, untruths have been allowed to prosper and a balanced debate never materialised, leading many to feel that legitimate concerns were being dismissed. This must change. Calls for reform must sit with a positive argument about the benefits that immigration brings.
It’s not freedom of movement that has to stop, in my view. If we have lots of people moving in to an area, then the local authorities there need to have the resources to deal with that, to build more houses and provide more public services. That’s the proper way to deal with people’s concerns. There is also the very real point that if the economy was more balanced and there were more jobs all over the country, you would find that there was plenty space for everyone who wanted to come here and we would all benefit. Those are the arguments that we should have made during the referendum campaign and should be making now. Let’s face it, if we back down on free movement, that means we won’t have access to the single market. That really will be disastrous for us economically and socially.
I have today removed myself from Open Britain’s supporters list because I think that rolling over for the brexiteers to walk over is really not a good look. I think it is more important to stand up for the opportunities of future generations. As David Howarth told the Social Liberal Forum conference last month, the Leave majority will no longer exist by March 2020 purely on demographics, without anyone changing their mind. Think about what that means. By the time we leave, most people will actually want to stay. The Liberal Democrats must stand up for that majority because it’s pretty clear that nobody else will.
Once the true reality of Brexit dawns, the likelihood is that many more will regret voting for Leave, particularly if what we end up with is the sort of “hard” Brexit that the hardcore leavers want and which we may have no choice but to accept if we invoke Article 50.
We have a clear, unique space which coincides with our internationalist principles. We would be daft not to make the most of that. We need to shout what we believe from the rooftops.
Tim Farron has made the right calls, so far but he now needs to reinforce them. Nobody grudges him some time off over the Summer, but from now on, we need to see bold, clear, simple messages from him so that nobody can doubt that the Liberal Democrats are the THE progressive pro-EU force in British politics, and THE pro-EU, pro-UK force in Scottish politics. All the parliamentarians need to support his leadership and be very careful about the messages they send out.
* Caron Lindsay is Editor of Liberal Democrat Voice and blogs at Caron's Musings