Author Archives: Mark Argent

Abandon Tory #BrexitShambles…

Harold Wilson once said “a week is a long time in politics”… The last few days make that sound like an understatement.

Last Sunday I offered something to Liberal Democrat Voice suggesting that it’s time to switch the language on Brexit into an explicit attack on “Tory Brexit”. The resignations of David Davis and Boris Johnson take that a great deal further. I’m writing this now wondering whether there will be another resignation before it is read on Liberal Democrat Voice, and whether we will be in another Tory leadership contest, or hurtling into a General Election.

There’s been forceful …

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Abandon Tory #BrexitShambles…

Harold Wilson once said “a week is a long time in politics”… The last few days make that sound like an understatement.

On Sunday I offered something to Liberal Democrat Voice suggesting that it’s time to switch the language on Brexit into an explicit attack on “Tory Brexit”. The resignations of David Davis and Boris Johnson take that a great deal further. I’m writing this now wondering whether there will be another resignation before it is read on Liberal Democrat Voice, and whether we will be in another Tory leadership contest, or hurtling into a General Election.

There’s been forceful posturing about “getting a good deal” and “how these negotiations work” and “abandonment of Brexit”. On the other side of the Commons, Jeremy Corbyn quipped that May’s Brexit deal took “two years to form and two days to unravel”.

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Are we getting the messaging wrong on Brexit?

Recently, an active and experienced Liberal Democrat campaigner challenged me over the party’s messaging on Brexit. He suggested that this was coming across as confused. My first instinct was to defend what we have been doing, but on reflection, I think he has a point. The aim of this article is to ask the question a little more widely.

From the inside

My impression is that there our parliamentarians and media office have been doing an outstanding job in trying to hold the government to account in the mess over Brexit, and of making people aware of this. I was in …

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Brexit on the streets in Bishop’s Stortford

On 31 March, as part of the Liberal Democrats’ national Europe Day of Action, Hertford and Stortford Liberal Democrats were out in the market place in Bishop’s Stortford.

This was mainly about talking with people about Brexit and hearing their concerns – though we also collected 136 signatures on a petition for a referendum on the final deal.

At a principled level, it’s essential to talk with people who voted Leave if there is to be a realistic prospect both of reversing Brexit and healing the divisions this saga has exposed.

Although many of the comments echoed previous stalls, this time felt different. My ear was caught particularly by people expressing deep worry over Brexit. I’m used to people being pleased to see us at a stall and keen to sign a petition, but what was new was the sense of people wanting to talk about why they are worried. The sense seemed to be “now it is getting serious”. The big difference here seems to be the emerging story of the involvement of Aggregate IQ and/or Cambridge Analytica in the referendum, and whistleblowing from people involved in the Leave campaign about possible rule-breaking.  The realities of those will doubtless come into focus in due course, but it seems to have rattled people. It’s one thing to accept a vote that’s not gone the way you would like. It’s even possible to do that when you fear that some of those voting didn’t really understand the issues. But the fear emerging is that this has gone much further in the direction of undermining the democratic process itself That is unsettling people. If Brexit is to be understood to be legitimate, it is essential that these charges are investigated. A referendum on the deal won’t help people unless they can be sure that its result can be trusted.

Whatever its cause, the sense of worry is serious. Good government relies on those in power acting in a way that contains the anxieties of the population.  Right now Brexit means the Tories are failing to do this, and Labour are not doing a good job of showing they would be better at it.

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Was Corbyn right to sack Owen Smith, after he advocated a referendum on the final terms of a Brexit deal?

One answer is horror: there’s a compelling case for asking the British public whether the Brexit that is negotiated is what they actually want — not least because the dishonest and contradictory messages from the Leave campaign mean that many who voted Leave will find a large gap between the deal that is offered and what they thought they had voted for.

But an Exit From Brexit means healing the deep divisions that it has exposed, not just a narrow vote the other way in a referendum. That means bringing across many of those who voted Leave, and engaging …

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Responding to Labour Remain

Recently a friend and Liberal Democrat activist showed me an email from Labour Remain — formed in the last few weeks and claiming significant support. This comes on the back of a survey showing that 78% of Labour members disagree with Jeremy Corbyn’s opposition to a referendum on the terms of Brexit. How should we respond?

Brexit is a profound threat to British values, the economy and the very integrity of the United Kingdom. In that sense it needs us all to pull together.

The country is in a crisis. We have been so intertwined with the rest of Europe, for so long, that the referendum result has had a deeply destructive effect on public life. Parliament seems paralised. Andrew Adonis has written of a Brexit-induced “nervous breakdown” in Whitehall. The Conservatives and Labour seem massively dysfunctional. There are stories of moderate councillors in both parties being de-selected. Most of the pro-Remain majority in the Commons is silent or vanquished. My excitement over the formation of Labour Remain is more than a little tempered by the lurch to the Left in their recent National Executive Committee elections and stories of MPs being threatened with de-selection. Faced with Brexit, this has all the wisdom of re-arranging the deck chairs on the Titanic. We need to think differently.

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In the world of the Corbyn bounce

The unexpected is happening. In the wake of the late surge in support for Labour that wiped out Theresa May’s majority (and hit the Liberal Democrat vote), a new poll on 11 June shows Labour six points ahead of the Tories. Labour are reporting 15,000 new members in the first three days after the election.

On the doorsteps on polling day, and with friends since, the sense is that Labour under Corbyn have caught people’s imaginations. What does this mean for us?

My sense is that this is a problem because people’s imaginations have been caught by something unrealistic. If we now had a majority Labour government, disappointment would be around the corner, but for now, hopes are roused. There’s a parallel with Brexit being seen as a bright new future.

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New members, En Marche and non-target seats

Our huge number of new members are making me think differently about the familiar problem of balancing resources between target and non-target seats, and the possibility of attracting support in a way that parallels En Marche in France.

For a long time targetting has been a difficult decision. The electoral system means that, if we lean too far one way, we spread ourselves too thinly and are even more badly under-represented in parliament. If we lean too far the other way, we create Liberal Democrat “holes” where there is more-or-less little for people to join, which makes it really hard for that situation to change.

But one of the many unusual things about this General Election campaign is that it is taking place in a period of rapid growth while our membership is growing rapidly. At the moment I am parliamentary candidate in a constituency where membership is up 400% since the General Election and 250% since the EU referendum.

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Brexit on the doorstep

One of the salutary experiences of the last few months has been door-knocking in several areas which Liberal Democrats have not worked for a while and where there is significant support for Brexit. Responses have been varying. Alongside those promising to vote Lib Dem there have been angry responses — people who see the Lib Dem clipboard and slam the door and even someone who rushed out of their house to shout at me for putting a Lib Dem leaflet through their letterbox.

This leaves me wondering about the antipathy.

A slammed door says that someone is angry, but not why. Where …

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The other side of Brexit: What about the Leavers?

I’m increasingly conscious that one really important group has become invisible in the storm around Brexit: the people who actually voted for it.

Canvassing recently my ear was firmly bent by someone who voted Leave and is worried about the NHS. The promise of £350 million per week might have evaporated on the morning after the referendum, but her concerns have not. She’s not angry at the lie: for her this is just one more in the chain of politicians’ lies. The worry is real.

One of the memorable moments in  Laura  Kuenssberg’s documentary on the referendum had  Leave voters  in Sunderland saying “now people in London have got to listen to us”.

Instead we have a prime minister saying “Brexit means Brexit” and talking of the “will of the people”, but who reacted to being reigned in by the courts by bring a bill before parliament to give her huge powers in the Brexit process. This sounds like a land grab from No.10 rather than an attempt at listening.

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A time for wise leadership

At the start of 2017, things feel much less stable than a year ago. Prince Charles broke with convention in his Christmas message by expressing concern at the “deeply-disturbing echoes of the 1930s”. He is thinking in global terms, but the UK is part of this story. He is right to be concerned.

I finished a recent blog post by saying that what we need now is wise leadership. Those words are haunting me. Doubtless there are some who want a leader to push Brexit through as fast as possible, and others who want a …

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Lessons (and warning) from Trump

The day after the US electoral college chose Donald Trump to be their new president, Huffington Post ran an article on his use of digital campaigning, where Brad Parscale, the digital director of the campaign explains:

We never fought for the popular vote. There was no economic reason, and there was no reason based off the system of our constitution to do so. We needed to win 270 , and to do so we needed to win in certain states, and we needed to target registered voters that had a low propensity to vote and a propensity to vote for Donald Trump if they come.

This was done by highly-targeted and personalised messages to key voters in key states.

Questionable behaviour by the FBI over Hilary Clinton’s emails, and whatever it is the Russians actually did may have contributed, but Parscale’s point is that very effective targeting gets results.

Part of me is wincing. The targeting is entirely legal, but also strains the definition of democracy — not least because Hilary Clinton had 2.8 million more votes than Trump (and roughly the same number of votes as Barack Obama had in 2012): the problem is that she had the votes in the wrong places. Most worryingly, this means that the voters-who-matter end up being a small number in a few places: marginalising the vast majority.

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Opinion: the shock from across the Atlantic – the bigger picture

A few days ago Trump was describing the prospect of being “like Brexit but more”. That catches my sense of shock today — though I wouldn’t want to take the parallel as far as he does. I’ve just been exchanging emails and Facebook messages with shocked friends in the US.

Perhaps the system will right itself. Perhaps he won’t be as bad as I fear. Perhaps he will be as bad as I fear, and be forced from office (he faces a civil case arising from alleged child rape on 16 December).

People are right to say that the American political system …

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Witney could be a turning point for the Lib Dems

The result in the Witney by-election was a substantial swing to the LibDems, jumping from fourth place on 6.8% to second place on 30.2%. Liz Leffman and her team did an outstanding job, and the party was clearly ready to rally to the cause.

Over the next few days there were speculations about what that would mean if replicated at a General Election, with estimates of the number of seats likely to switch from Tory to LibDem put between 26 and 51. The statistician in me is wary of those extrapolations: there are lots of unknowns at by-elections, and British politics is especially turbulent at the moment.

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Migrants: Welcome and fear

Recently I was out with some Bishop’s Stortford Liberal Democrats, gathering signatures on a petition for citizens of other EU nations currently in the UK to be allowed to remain in the UK. In a few hours we gathered just over 250 signatures on a not-that-busy street. Some were delighted to sign. Some were relieved that we were not taking the opposite position. Some said their businesses would struggle without people from other parts of the EU.

More worrying was the small minority who disagreed, loudly wanting foreigners to “go home”. A prize for confusion goes to the person who said that, and then added that she wanted to retire to France.

Then came an apparently-xenophobic attack on two Poles in Harlow and Theresa May’s assertion that curbing immigration will take priority over access to the single market in Brexit talks. She must know this is unrealistic: freedom of movement is one of the pillars of the single market and Switzerland’s access to EU programmes was curtailed after they sought to restrict migration.

The sense of farce is heightened by a survey from British Future saying that only a third of people think the government will meet its immigration targets over the next five years and a claim from Boris Johnson that people didn’t vote Leave because of immigration.

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An election or not?

Right now it feels a little like an electoral phoney war. Rumours of a possible snap general election prompted the party, rightly, to do urgent selections of prospective parliamentary candidates over the summer. Will the election happen? Could a possible false alarm be helpful?

One answer is to wait and see: a general election in October would point to a different strategy from one early in 2017, and we don’t have resources to invest a lot in an election that doesn’t happen.

But the appointment of a slate of Prospective Parliamentary Candidates (PPCs) and putting things in place for an election campaign is an opportunity to put forward strong party values and to engage with people who have joined recently in shock at the referendum result. If we get it right, what we do now helps to shape the national debate and strengthens our hand for whatever elections are on the horizon. Internally, this is also a chance to run meetings where PPCs (and others) speak, helping draw people together in a way that is more positive than just lamenting the referendum result.

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Taking the time to grieve?

referendum result

A note about the photo – it shows two Lib Dem activists, Naomi Smith and Paul Pettinger, on the right, after the Brexit result was announced. This photo has been published in media around the world; an iconic image of the shock experienced by Remain campaigners.

 

Grieving is a natural process for dealing with loss. It can be painful. People often also deny reality, which lets us deal with it gradually. Ultimately grief is a healing process which enables people to process losses and move forward in a healthy way.

We’ve had a lot to grieve. Between 2006 and 2015 each local election seemed to bring losses. Some of the compromises of the coalition were painful. The European elections, the General Election and the EU referendum were excruciating.

We shouldn’t let the language of ‘LibDem fightback’ disguise the fact that we have taken a pounding, even as we welcome new members.

Activity is a great way to keep the lid on things, but that isn’t always healthy. I’ve heard suggestions that displacement activity as we tried to escape the losses we had already suffered might have undermined our 2015 election performance. Other areas where we might be harming ourselves include:

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Chosen trauma and memories of the war

One of the doorstep comments staying with me from the referendum campaign is: “I’m voting Out: we haven’t beaten the Germans in two world wars to give in now”.

The psychoanalyst Vamik Volkan talks of “chosen traumas” and “chosen glories”, as stories from the past get retold and shape collective identity.

The trouble is that how the events are remembered changes. The stories seem to be about the past, but also have a present-day purpose. At the celebrations of the bicentenary of the French Revolution, Margaret Thatcher pointed out that we had had a revolution a century earlier: she was quoting history, …

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Engaging with disgruntled Leave voters

Beside the ongoing drama around Westminster, there’s an urgent task to be done among those who voted to leave the EU and are beginning to regret it. This is crucial for the country, and wise for us as well.

I’m thinking of those taken in by false “promises” — there isn’t an extra £350 million a week for the NHS, or an end to free movement of people, Brexit doesn’t mean an end to fishing quotas, and “taking back control” now sounds like a joke. They were already alienated and this is not helping.

We’re hearing stories of Brexit hitting places that voted for it: Lush moving from Poole, Forterra mothballing plants in Accrington and Claughton. Vacancies and job prospects are down. We need a more constructive response than a brutal “You voted for it”.

If Labour were acting as a proper opposition rather than embroiled in in civil war, they would be highlighting further betrayals from the Tories: most startling is the abandoning of plans to move to a budget surplus. If it were to be so quickly abandoned now, why was it clung to for so long despite fuelling misery for millions? How many voted Leave because of that pain?

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Beware the 1930s

My mind keeps going to parallels between the worlds of Brexit and Trump and what happened in Germany in the 1930s.

At the time of the referendum I was at the annual conference of the International Society for Psychoanalytic Study of Organisations. A gathering of people from across the world who are used to exploring unconscious processes was a rich context in which to explore what was going on under the surface.

By coincidence, on polling day one conference session was intended to focus on ethical dilemmas. We were shown short films on two famous psychological experiments, the Milgram experiment and the Stanford experiment which are controversial both because people were harmed, and because they shed light on how civilised people can come to behave badly. They have been used to understand what happened in the concentration camps, but are much more widely applicable than that.

The ensuing discussion seemed a little dry, as if there was something important which was being avoided. I took the microphone and made a link with some of the violence of the referendum: the murder of Jo Cox, an incident in a supermarket where someone I had seen earlier in a Vote Leave stall was shouting at a cashier planning to vote Remain, and some very aggressive comments from Leave supporters in door-knocking in the campaign. This is not to accuse Vote Leave of orchestrating violence, but it suggests something was being mobilised (which has become more obvious since then). I commented on the dark streak in Europe: along with our capacity to be civilised, there is a capacity to behave in very destructive ways. I expressed my fear that this was close to the surface in the referendum and struggled with tears as I commented on the way the EU has been set up to contain that destructive streak in the European psyche, and the fears evoked by some in the UK wanting to pull away from that. I was met with a round of applause.

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When people realise they have been lied to…

Vote Leave seem to have ridden a tide of resentment to a narrow referendum majority, and immediately had to start admitting to lying in their campaign. The lies were impressive and, combined with the idea that experts are not to be trusted, were irrefutable. They played on the fears and anxieties of people who already felt left behind. They spoke to people struggling from years of austerity and feeling ignored by “elites”.

What happens to these people as they realise they were taken for a ride by a faction of that “elite” that played on their vulnerability? What is happening to people who voted Leave because they wanted change, and are increasingly horrified to find out what that change looks like, or voted out of protest and discover that their vote has consequences?

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Understanding the fears of those leaning towards Brexit

 

The snag is that the fears are real. An article on research by Demos which highlights a perception that ethnic minorities are more able to influence things. That fits with a sense of alienation and fear I have been encountering on the doorsteps among the less wealthy and predominantly white people who have been talking of voting for “Out”.

In many of my doorstep conversations with people who say they want to vote out of the EU, I have been left with a sense that it is those who stand to lose most from leaving the EU who are actually being tempted to do this. It’s as if their fears are being played on for the benefit of politicians whose careers would gain from Brexit.

If people are afraid of losing their job, or struggling to afford somewhere to live, and the blame can be pinned on “immigrants” coming “because of the EU”, then the government is neatly absolved of responsibility. The EU becomes the scapegoat, so voting for Brexit makes sense. Except that scapegoats are always symbols for the problem, not the actual problem of government failures.

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It’s time to come clean about immigration

It is time to come clean about immigration. It is a good thing. It is a good thing culturally and economically.

My life is vastly enriched by friendships with people who have come to the UK as immigrants and others who are the children of immigrants. They include people who came seeking asylum and people who came seeking a better life. My life is enriched by other friends who have emigrated, through whom I have valued networks of friends in many other parts of the world.

Economically too, migration matters. People sometimes talk as if there are a finite number of jobs and immigrants increase the competition. This is nonsense. Immigrants come, they work, they buy things, their presence boosts the economy. They create more work and more possibility.

study published in 2014 showed that European migrants pay substantially more in taxes than they take in benefits. They arrive having finished schooling, and all the costs to the state of bringing people to adulthood.

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Referendum or election?

Just over a week ago, on the Saturday, we had the news that it’s on 23 June. The following Sunday’s papers seemed to say that “it” is a Tory leadership challenge: depending on the paper, Cameron was “declaring war on the rebels”, others painted it as Gove versus Cameron, and then Boris Johnson joined the fray.

The problem with referenda is the danger of people voting on a question other than the one on the ballot paper, but this seemed particularly extreme. It left a sense of the referendum being primarily about the internal mechanics of the Conservative party.

Also on that Saturday, …

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Moving beyond fightback

Have we reached the point when it is right to move from “fightback” to something more positive?

Talking of “fightback” made sense for a while after the election, when we bruised after an almighty pounding but were also experiencing a membership surge.

Even recently I have seen talk of “fightback” on web sites and in emails to activists in different parts of the country and even in literature going out to the public. I am thinking in terms of things inviting people to “be part of the fightback”, or proclaiming that the “fightback is on”, or linking “fightback” to having more members than this time last year.

The snag is that this can sound as if we are fighting back against our political opponents and against the electorate who deserted us. This might be compounded by grief over electoral losses. Though understandable, it is not a reason for people to vote Liberal Democrat. But we have a rich heritage and set of values, well-summarised in the preamble to the constitution. That, and the policies that flow from it, are well-worth voting for.

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Migration and the future of the EU

Bach’s cantata “Brich den Hungrigen dein Brot” got the nickname “the refugee cantata” in 1732 when Protestant refugees fleeing a clampdown in Salzburg arrived in Leipzig. The title translates as “Bring the hungry your bread”. It was to be taken literally. It’s a reminder of how much forced migration has shaped European history.

As an island, the UK has escaped the experiences of invasion and moving of borders which have shaped so much of the history of the European mainland — though I suspect that one of the things fuelling both pressure for Scottish independence and the Scottish affinity for the EU is their experience of domination from London.

My Scottish great grandfather who moved from Perthshire to Essex was an economic migrant. My surname is an old Huguenot name — brought by people fleeing genocide in France. Others of my forebears had the name “Woodward” — anglicised from an old Dutch name. I’m not sure if fleeing near-starvation made them “refugees” or “economic migrants”.

Posted in Europe / International and Op-eds | Tagged and | 6 Comments

Defecting or coming home?

Jeremy Corbyn’s election has brought speculation about people on the right of the Labour party switching to the Liberal Democrats. Some of those comments make sense, but others don’t.

At its best, there are times when a genuine change of conviction makes a change of party into a home-coming. I think of the authenticity of Jacob Whiten, writing in Liberal Democrat Voice on his move from UKIP to the Liberal Democrats, and the enormous contribution of people like Shirley Williams, who came into the Liberal Democrats by moving from Labour to the SDP.

But defections can backfire, and the language of encouraging them can play badly, as in the case of a recent spoof email from Tim Farron to Chuka Umunna encouraging him to switch, written by Amol Rajan in the Evening Standard.

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The shocking stories of refugees from Syria should stir a response

David Cameron seems, at last, to be softening his stance, but references to “swarms” of refugees have been shocking. It has felt as if he were a party-politician more in sympathy with the xenophobic strand of his own party than a statesman able to see the plight of people making desperate journeys to escape a situation in Syria that most of people in the UK should be glad not to understand.

The numbers should inject some realism. The total population of Syria is just under 23 Million. The total population of the European Union is 503 Million.Around 7.6 million people have been displaced within Syria, 1.6 million to Turkey, 1.2 million to Lebanon, 600,000 to Jordan, 242,000 to Iraq, 136,000 to Egypt. That puts the 150,000 who have sought asylum in the EU into perspective.

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Candidates and financial exclusion

I’ve seen a number of comments recently about the financial cost of being a candidate. That is particularly sharp with people standing for parliament, but not limited to them.

As a party, we try to take diversity seriously. This is about justice and Liberal Democrat values. It’s pragmatic, in that we’re all diminished if we casually discard the talents of people from disadvantaged groups. There is also a bigger challenge: the changes we push for in society have to be made within the party and in our choice of candidates. Addressing problems this creates may not be easy, but is a first step to bringing change more widely. Addressing any problems this creates also helps us find ways to address barriers to change more widely.

One of the knotty points is around wealth.

The targeting of seats is unavoidable under our present electoral system, so there is no way round the fact that a high proportion of party’s resources has to be directed to winnable seats.

Away from target seats, the financial situation on candidates can be really difficult, especially when local parties are small and have limited resources. Yet it is also important to fight these seats, both to build up the party where it is presently less strong, and to be serious about being a potential party of government. I’ve seen guidance that potential candidates should not be asked what they can contribute financially to their campaign, as this discriminates against the less wealthy. But most parliamentary candidates work very hard in an election campaign and the pressure to end up putting more personal resources into the campaign can be intense — even if that pressure begins with them rather than anyone else. Anecdotes include someone saying they hoped there wouldn’t be another election soon as they had been self-funding and were more-or-less wiped out, and an agent asking the candidate to provide the deposit two days before the nomination form was to go in as if this was a perfectly reasonable request (and failing to register for their regional party’s deposit guarantee scheme).

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An open letter to Nick Clegg

 

Dear Nick

I delayed writing this letter until the leadership election was past, so it didn’t get lost in that campaign, but want to write to thank you for your rich contribution to the Liberal Democrats.

We owe you a great deal, not least for the wisdom, statesmanship and tenacity you have shown. It is a tribute to you and the colleagues who you led that you stepped into ministerial roles with a naturalness and fluency that belied the fact that we had not formed a majority government in living memory. It is a tribute to you personally that you withstood so many brickbats from so many quarters with such dignity.

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Recent Comments

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    Here we are yet again with Liberal Democrats desperately searching for the silver bullet - some new formula that will produce political and electoral success...
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    @Tom, " A Fairer Share for All" Yes I agree. But isn't this more socialism than liberalism? In the USA, socialism and liberalism are closely...
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    An excellent article. I am endlessly puzzled that the "R" in TERF stands for 'Radical' when their values are those of the Reactionary hard right.
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    david grundy: The Liberal-SDP Alliance had a go at being a centre party, but was affected by First Past The Post voting in the 1983...
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    It's Catch 22. Basically, the Lib Dems are bed-blocking. They are the incumbent centre party and want to stay that way, despite the obvious truth...