Opinion: Right to rebel

Often in politics, as in life, we are faced with choices we simply don’t want to make; for whatever reason none of the options on offer seem to offer what we really want. Such a choice faced both the Liberal Democrat leaders and the eventual rebels in the recent vote on the question of whether there would be a referendum on the Lisbon Treaty. As we know, the vote resulted in the biggest Liberal Democrat rebellion in history and resignation of three front bench spokesmen.

Were the rebels right to defy the three-line whip and vote with the Conservatives? The answer has to be yes; it is not as if their vote was directly contradictory to party policy which is too seek a referendum on the whole question of EU membership. The litmus test of any strategy is ‘how much closer does it bring the party to achieving its stated policy aim?'; using that as the standard the leadership has to demonstrate how abstaining in the vote was anything but counterproductive.

Nick Clegg said that he was “absolutely convinced” that his line was “good for the European cause” and the “coherence of the argument”. Somewhat amazingly he also claimed it was “good for party unity” (The Guardian, March 6th). Claiming something to be so doesn’t make it actually be so.

How, for example, can causing the biggest parliamentary rebellion in your parties history be considered ‘good for party unity’? Saying it is rather suggests you are divorced from reality and strategically that is exactly what the leadership has been over this issue; consider the fate of the amendement proposed by Ian Davidson, dismissed as a ‘red herring’. A serious attempt to incorporate and recognise the Liberal Democrat position finds itself totally trashed.

It’s dismissal rather suggests that the leadership decided that it was going to adopt a ‘scorched earth, oppose everything at all costs’ attitude. This isn’t good politics and it especially isn’t good politics when in opposition; had Davidson’s amendment been more successful it would have built momentum behind the call for a wide-ranging referendum which is supposedly pricisely what the leadership wants. If Parliament is ‘hung’ after the next election then how will the Lib Dems be serious power brokers if they adopt this kind of ‘scorched earth’ posture?

Nothing that can be said reasonably justifies the leadership’s stance on this issue and that is exactly why the rebels were right to rebel. The leadership put itself in a position where it effectively left the rebels with no other choice than rebellion by refusing to countenance anything that wasn’t exactly what it wanted. Add onto this the feeling on the part of some of the rebels that they were only fufilling the election promises made in the Liberal Democrats own manifesto then it becomes easy to understand why they did exactly what they did.

Referendums are essential when the strucuture and form of the state and it’s relationships are changed. A representative state cannot be expected to in effect regulate itself and it’s own development; it is at this point that the sovereignity of the people must be restablished. It is also an essential part of drawing people further into controlling their own lives. If we are talking about establishing a ‘new system of politics’ then referendums, both of the consultative and binding nature, will be an intergral part of that new system.

Rebellions are a different form of participation and can play a constructive role in political life in so far as they represent a culture of critical thinking and a disciplined ‘holding to account’ of a leadership. We have seen this in the growth of direct action; it is a way of acting when traditional structures and methods fail and when they occur they often need to be noted and in some cases incorporated through change. Both of these things will be part of a ‘new politics’. The challenge is adapting to meet them and channel their energy in a way which furthers progressive goals.

* Darrell Goodliffe is an applicant Lib Dem member from Peterborough.

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14 Comments

  • Spot on Darrell

  • Andy Higson 11th Mar '08 - 1:56pm

    One might say sticking by a manifesto promise is a valid reason.

    Also, whipping is nonsense.

  • “Of all the issues on which to stage a rebellion, this one is of virtually no importance, will make virtually no difference to anything, and has virtually no resonance with the public at large, who are simply not competent to pass judgement on this treaty (and yes, that includes me).”

    I have to take issue with this; leaving aside the rather bothersome notion that the people arent competant to judge (why allow them to vote at all then) I think this issue does have resonance even if it is a negative way of the disenfranchised expressing themselves against Westminster rule.

    People dont climb up cranes for no reason..Europe is an increasing part of all our lives, i think that is a good thing but alot of people dont and they need to be engaged and won over….denying people a say just makes people all the more distant from Europe

  • Who has the power to do what in the European Union is a matter of paramount importance. Too important to leave it to the “experts”.

    The experts who took us into the then EEC (Ted Heath, Alec Douglas-Home, Geoffrey Rippon) had never even heard of Costa v Enel and Van Gend en Loos (despite civil servants having presented them with briefing papers on the subject). And the Labour opposition thought Community law could be incorporated by secondary legislation!

    Do we really trust these guys to decide our fate?

    LB does, clearly.

  • David Howarth is a Cambridge law don. He is one of the very few Parliamentarians who actually understands international treaties (and the Napoleonic civil law that hides behind the EU treaty base).

    Would you trust Steve Pound?

  • Great post Darrell.

    As you say sometimes the choice we want simply isn’t on offer and so it was for me in this case.

    I have absolutely no interest in going over 30 years ‘back to the future’ for another futile debate about whether or not we are in Europe.

    What I do want is a grown-up debate about WHAT SORT OF EUROPE which the bureaucrats clearly don’t want to allow or can’t imagine or probably both.

    And for all those Euro-federalist enthusiasts out there who think that ‘gung-ho, full-speed ahead, don’t ask’ is the proper approach to the EU I have news – it’s neither federal or democratic as now constituted.

    As long as we as a Party lend uncritical support to an institution so clearly in need of reform we will find it impossible to evolve a coherent narrative.

  • How complicated the issue is became irrelevant when all three main parties promised a referendum on the original constitution.
    Presumably that document was complicated aswell [since everyone acknowledges they are at least similar].
    Then it becomes an issue of trust. Either it is the same document and so you follow through on your promise, or it is different, in which case, you say that and judge it on its merits as an MP.
    You then vote ‘yes’ or ‘no’.

    You don’t abstain.

    The leadership turned this into a political version of Twister and the end of which many were on the floor looking ridiculous, all of them Lib Dems.

    Laurence is one of the most thoughful and interesting posters on this site but I shall have to ammend my postion to I ALMOST always agree with him.

  • It is a shame that this issue has descended into a dishonest slanging match about parliamentary voting tactics when Clegg almost managed to open the door to a real debate about what it is which we actually and positively do want on Europe.

    We believe in our position and we believe that being honest is the only way to build trust. The same cannot be said for either the Conservatives or Labour, so let’s be forthright about it all and win our victories with the fine print.

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