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.