Brexit cannot be the sole issue of the Lib Dems

As the 29th of March comes ominously closer, the eerie reality of the political situation in Westminster is slowly becoming clearer. The Commons is in deadlock, with none of the solutions proposed gaining signification support on the green benches and party infighting rife. This is, however, nothing inherently new.

When faced with such monumental events such as these, the responsible and pragmatic response from our politicians would be a compromise.

A ‘Government of National Unity’ has been proposed, but in such times, the idea of unity it is, as always, an illusion. The country is evidently deeply divided, as is Parliament. No one idea or group has the ability to unite all around a common creed. The current state of the Liberal Democrats is not one that screams compromise either, however. Despite being positioned on the centre ground of the political sphere, the party under Vince Cable seems almost obsessed with Brexit. With an ‘exit from Brexit’ strategy, the party is at risk of isolating potential future members frustrated at Jeremy Corbyn’s Labour hard-left plan for the country. There seems to be little room being offered for dissent, as the resignation of Stephen Lloyd last month showed.

As the departure date arrives, the party will need to look for some fresh ground. As the party of the centre ground and the Liberal party of British politics, compromise is often essential to finding a legitimate solution. The majority of Liberal Democrat members may be vehemently opposed to Brexit, but the course, lamentably, seems struck. A ‘People’s Vote’ is the desired option, but when the country leaves the EU, which seems almost certain, the case for another referendum will weaken.

To be able to sell their radical liberal message to the country, the party, under whichever leader, will need to set out a positive message for a post-Brexit Britain. Tackling Brexit may be a just cause, but it could well backfire, in turning off potential future voters.

With other major issues, such as the roll-out of the underfunded Universal Credit system and the global threat of climate change, the next party manifesto will need to reflect some of the myriad of problems faced by people outside of the Westminster bubble. Very little seems to be coming out from the party machine except a recitation of incessant Europhilia. The Lib Dems get drawn into the the whirlwind of political posturing at their own peril.

Both Labour and the Conservatives have now been drawn into the fractious infighting and division that Brexit has created. To present a different, radical and sensible alternative, the Liberal Democrats must make their position and beliefs clear. This does not however, mean that having another second referendum or simply stopping the process altogether can be the prime focus of the movement, especially as the chances of reversing the 2016 result start to dwindle as the date of departure comes closer.

* Patrick Maxwell is a Liberal Democrat member and political blogger at www.gerrymander.blog and a commentator at bbench.co.uk.

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37 Comments

  • Sandra Hammett 7th Jan '19 - 10:51am

    I voted Remain believing that Leave was a regressive step, but the country spoke, democracy said Leave, and parliament put aside their differences to work together and make the best of it, oh wait, that’s what SHOULD have happened.
    As is the Liberal Democrats have stuck to the Remain is best position throughout, which in the event of actually leaving the EU makes us in the eyes of the voters intransigent throwbacks without any defining features.
    Would we become anti-Ukip seeking readmittance to the EU? Let’s hope not.
    We need to be that home for the centre we keep alluding to.
    I advocate going back basics, liberal and democratic, that’s how we define ourselves in contrast to the cult-like Labour and the cloistered Tories.

  • Remain is the best position. There is no other option that would give all the benefits without the obligations.

  • Rob Parsons 7th Jan '19 - 11:37am

    The media narrative is all about the LibDems being a one issue party. This is far from the truth, but it is what they want to hear.

    “What is going on at the moment?”

    “Well, we have excellent policies on education and child care.”

    “Tell us about Brexit!”

    “I’d like to talk about land value tax.”

    “Tell us about brexit!”

    “And we’re doing exciting things on climate change.”

    “Tell us about brexit!”

    “Well, OK, we still think we should stay in the EU…”

    “YOU ONLY EVER TALK ABOUT BREXIT!!”

    Patrick, have a look at all the party’s press releases on LibDemVoice, eg https://www.libdemvoice.org/31-december-2018-6-january-2019-the-weeks-press-releases-59618.html

    and stop doing the media’s job for them.

  • Alex Macfie 7th Jan '19 - 11:44am

    Sandra Hammett: At the last election the people voted for the present Tory+DUP government. Does this mean that Parliament should “put aside their differences” and help the Tories and DUP pass legislation?

  • The party is not a single issue party and never has been. Brexit is the biggest issue facing Britain since World War II however and what other policies the party follow may depend exactly on what May or Comrade Corbyn end up dumping on the country.

    We should make a strong case for free markets and capitalism, human rights, immigration, rights for minorities and free trade however. The protectionism and statism of the left and even now the Tories is genuinely scary.

  • Yeovil Yokel 7th Jan '19 - 12:35pm

    Talk of ‘compromise’ is easy, Patrick, but try telling that to the DUP, the ERG, the SNP, etc., etc. After all, May’s Deal represents a compromise and there is precious little support in Parliament for it.

    As to the title of your piece, you present no evidence to support your thesis whereas Rob Parsons has quite rightly produced evidence to refute it.

  • David Blake 7th Jan '19 - 12:44pm

    Brexit dominates, but it is not the only thing that we are about, even if that’s what the media want to say. The referendum was in 2016. The last election was in 2017. Our manifesto was almost 100 pages long and there were just 6 pages specifically on Brexit. https://www.libdems.org.uk/manifesto

  • Henry Wright 7th Jan '19 - 1:07pm

    I agree totally Patrick: I joined this party because of our values and because I believe in a free Britain, one where people are free to pursue opportunities, no matter where in the country they are born and one where we are free from ill health and poverty.

    If we become an anti-UKIP advocating EU readmittance, Federal Europe or joining the Euro once we have left, it will be a sad day for the party and a party I would then leave. There is a space for the Liberal Democrats in British politics, and we need to seize it back quickly after 29th March.

  • Peter Martin 7th Jan '19 - 2:02pm

    @ Rob Parsons,

    You might have had a point if 8 out of the last 10 posts on LDV weren’t primarily about Brexit.

    I’d expect that would have been close to 80 out of the last 100 posts if I’d bothered to count them all up! Presumably LDV has full editorial control of content and isn’t dictated to by the MSM ?

    It wouldn’t be quite so bad if LDV had something to say, just now and again, about what actually goes on in the EU. But unless it’s about, or connected to, Brexit LDV just doesn’t think its of sufficient interest to LDV readers.

    There’s quite a bit happening in France and Italy for example.

  • Peter Martin
    It isn’t just what goes on in France and Italy. Why do you think countries such as Georgia, Ukraine, and Moldova have Association Agreements with the EU?
    Countries in the Western Balkans are seeking membership of the EU.
    Other projects include the Union for the Mediterranean.
    These areas of the world are important for economic growth and stability.

  • Rob Parsons 7th Jan '19 - 5:46pm

    Peter Martin 2.02. LDV is an independent website beyond the control of the party as well as the media. Brexit is bound to take up a lot of space as it is the primary issue, by a long way, that confronts us right now. We would not be doing our duty if we did not focus on it. But if you look at the party’s press releases, as opposed to LDV, they are not all about brexit. In December for instance there were approximately 50 press releases of which about half were about brexit. The others covered a really wide range of issues. I know we can’t expect ordinary members of the public to trawl our press releases, but I do expect party members to be a bit more clued up and to have an idea of when they’re being fed a line by the media. Yes, maybe, our representatives could be a bit more clever about weaving other strands into the narrative, but I don’t blame them for the media being determined to give a wrong impression about us.

  • Peter Martin 7th Jan '19 - 6:10pm

    @ Ian Martin,

    “It isn’t just what goes on in France and Italy.”

    No-one is saying it is. My point is that the EU is about more than just Brexit. How about about LDV focusing on just one country every week and looking at how well they are doing from EU membership?

    Why do you think countries such as Georgia, Ukraine, and Moldova have Association Agreements with the EU? Countries in the Western Balkans are seeking membership of the EU.

    That’s a good question which is better directed at them. If the ruling classes of these places want to depopulate their countries of their brightest and best, in exchange for very little, then EU membership could be the way to go.

    https://www.ft.com/content/70813826-0c64-33d3-8a0c-72059ae1b5e3

  • Richard Elliott 7th Jan '19 - 6:33pm

    Brexit is the most important issue of a generation and the lib dems have rightly focused on it with a clear remain position. This is not only right for the country but also fits with lib dem principles and provides clear orange water with the two main parties – yes there are other lib dem policies but campaigning on these at this point would be futile.

    I am not sure what those criticising the lib dem focus on Brexit are saying. Are you saying that Brexit isn’t the pre-eminent issue that links together most others ? or that we should accommodate Brexit Corbyn style ? To try to appeal to remain and leavers is just not possible nor credible and adds to some peoples view of lib dems as fuzzy centrists. A strong anti-Brexit focus could still win uniting pro-Europeans across centre-left and centre-right, and would appeal to many like myself who could be leaving labour if Corbyn continues to favour his version of Brexit.

    The Lib Dems prosper when they have strong leadership and clear principled positions such as the opposition to the Iraq war and decline when they muddy the message and get into the mire of back tracking and fudged positions (student fees). The disaster that is Brexit will continue until we stop it and if it happens campaign to re-join

  • Patrick I’m afraid when Brexit Nelly dances all else gets flattened. Just look at conservativehome, the BBC, even on a day when Teresa May launches her much lauded extra money for the NHS it can’t knock Brexit off the top of the agenda. I get you want us to think of other things but the poltical agenda and government have been frozen in panic since the day of the vote, as Brexit Nelly dances faster and faster. Brexit consumes all, you are not the first to wish it otherwise, but even if the Lib Dems took a collective vow of silence on Brexit, tomorrow it would still dominate the agenda and unless it is stopped it will continue too for years to come. I know Brexiteers think come Brexit day it is all over, but actually that is just the first part, the following rounds will take years if not decades. While the Brexit process runs all else is and will be neglected, sad but true and all down to the Brexiteers who voted to open the Brexit box.

  • Patrick,
    The chances of reversing the 2016 vote are not ‘dwindling’. In fact all the evidence suggests an increasing majority for Remain, the closer we get to Brexit.
    A few years ago we were almost destroyed as a party because we were perceived to have sold out our principles. We still haven’t recovered from that. I think if we were to back-pedal in any way on our Brexit position at this crucial time, that would just allow people to say that we were at it again.
    As others have said here, take a look at the party press releases that are posted here every few days. You will see many other issues covered.
    But brexit is not a single issue policy like the others. It uniquely affects jobs, trade, investment, civil liberties, security, the environment, our place in the world, the freedoms people have, and public spending (so the amount of funding available for NHS, schools, transport, local govt etc).
    You are not wrong to say we need to develop other policies – and there are plenty of opportunities for you to do that in our policy/conference processes. But we must focus on Brexit now. Not just because it is the right thing to do, but because we can be the only party that has opposed it from beginning to end. Even if we can’t stop it, I believe that will benefit us politically in the end as the nightmare unfolds (as with Iraq).

  • Great article, and I completely agree!

    Brexit is understandably a big issue at the moment, but realistically we are probably going be outside the EU by this time next year, and being pro-EU alone is not enough to sustain us as a party in the long term. instead of just becoming the “rejoin the EU party”, we should be presenting a bold, liberal alternative across all the big issues. We need to end the injustices of universal credit, fight against climate change, protect civil liberites, and do many many more things that only the Lib Dems can do.

    If we don’t then we will surrender our future to the Hard Brexiteers and the Corbynites, which we cannot do.

  • Thomas Shakespeare 7th Jan '19 - 7:35pm

    Great article! I campaigned to Remain and back a People’s Vote, but if we leave the EU on 29th March (and I don’t think it’s as certain as you suggest), we need to start building a broad-based, liberal coalition again.

    Hopefully this deal doesn’t go ahead, and at the very least we remain part of the European single market to protect jobs and our place on the world stage.

    However, we cannot become the SNP 2.0 – becoming a single issue party chasing a horse that’s bolted already. Brexit is of course the central issue the country faces, and our lack of media coverage as a small party does make it even more difficult to discuss other policy than even May or Corbyn are finding it.

    We can be a liberal, internationalist pro-European party even if Parliament and/or the people decide that Brexit should go ahead. It will be a challenge, but we’ve got to fight for our values.

  • Nom de Plume 7th Jan '19 - 7:44pm

    In about three months (perhaps a bit longer) the debate will change. The present emphasis is quite correct.

  • Peter Martin 8th Jan '19 - 7:43am

    @ JoeB,

    It may be that Brexit disruption might just be the catalyst that forces EU members to complete the banking union and its safeguards.

    Possibly. But it’s not really much of a safeguard. If banks are more unified then a collapse of a few banks, say in Italy, could pull down the entire EU banking sector. The ECB would have to step in and create as many euros as were needed to bail the system out. Which they can do anyway – even without banking union.

    If the EU wants a single currency the only “safeguard” against a break up is to have a single EU Government with a single system of taxation and spending that accounts for at least 20% of European GDP. There’s no need to come up with anything radically innovative. Just look at how the Americans make a single currency work there and copy that.

    So we just need all Govts to dissolve themselves and accept a similar constitutional role to US States.

    What’s the problem?

  • Ian Hurdley 8th Jan '19 - 7:48am

    Whether they approve of our position on Brexit or not, everyone knows where we stand on the issue. What we have failed to achieve is an understanding of why we oppose leaving the EU. We know that the cost of leaving and the loss of EU regional funding, and the likely damage to our economy as a third country will deprive any future governments of the funds needed for attacking the problems around health and social care, education, housing, poverty and security issues.
    We need to constantly highlight the links between the cost of Brexit and the lack of funds to address these important domestic issues.
    We need, in other words, to clearly explain why an Exit from Brexit is the sensible way to go.

  • John Chandler 8th Jan '19 - 7:59am

    Last I checked, it’s not our sole issue – despite what the media says. However, Brexit overshadows pretty much everything: it’s affecting our politics, our economy, our society, our international reputation. Not in a positive way. The effects/damage will be haunting us for decades afterwards, even if the government or Parliament manages to claw back some common sense and halt, or at least postpone, the situation.

    However, I agree with others in that we really aren’t pushing the message of the positive aspects of the EU, what pro-EU groups in the UK and Europe are doing (and have done!) to reform the negative aspects of the EU.

  • Peter Hirst 8th Jan '19 - 1:11pm

    I can’t see the present government continuing under present circumstances until 2022. Avoiding Brexit must be our main focus at present as so much rides on it. The importance of parliamentary and electorate sovereignty is a close second though we can’t ignore other issues.

  • Arnold Kiel 8th Jan '19 - 1:53pm

    Apart from the European question, the headline over the last ten years of UK politics was cuts; rightly and unavoidably so: at least the deficit recovered. Consequently, any impactful domestic policy-initiative means increased spending.

    Liberal labour laws, immigration, and the absence of productivity-gains has driven low-level-, a global recovery high-level employment. Since 2016, the UK was cut-off the most dynamic tail-end of this modest, but long global economic recovery. Evidence: the pound, car-sales, house-values. The outcome of the referendum has cost the UK already today 2 percentage-points GDP (GBP 40 Billion, thereof 15 Billion lost tax).

    Now comes the downturn. If May’s deal passes, 4+ more years of political turmoil and economic uncertainty will depress the UK above and beyond a deteriorating global growth outlook. Cancelling Brexit will create a short but pronounced UK relief rally, followed by in-step developments with the G7; the only way to recover some domestic policy-initiative. No deal would be the perfect storm: no international pull, a massive disruption of UK-trade, profound mistrust among potential trade partners, and an exodus of financial and human capital.

    Which issue and with which budget, please?

  • Peter Martin
    Take a trip to Georgia and find out why they want a close association with the EU.
    It is a country well worth visiting.

  • Peter Martin 8th Jan '19 - 2:56pm

    @ Ian Martin,

    I don’t need to go to Georgia or the Ukraine or Poland or Latvia or any of the Eastern European countries to know why they want a connection with and possible membership of the EU.

    It’s to help keep the Russians out! That’s no mystery about that. Maybe the EU can help them out in this respect. But it’s not risk free and the consequences of the EU blundering along in its own misguided and ‘rules based’ way can still be disastrous.

    We saw that in Ukraine in 2014.

    I’m not saying we give the Russians a free hand in that part of the world but on the other hand the EU shouldn’t take on more than it can cope with and possibly start a new European war.

  • Arnold Kiel 8th Jan '19 - 5:36pm

    We know now from brexiting HMG that EU membership makes you richer, even if you are a net contributor. The countries in question would be net recipients. A very simple motivation, just out of the grasp of true Brexiters.

  • Peter Martin 8th Jan '19 - 9:15pm

    @ JoeB,

    the completion of the Eurozone banking union is quite an important (step? -PM) as Joe Stiglitz has argued

    Yes it’s a quite an important step. But on its own it won’t save the euro.

    I would say that we are in the early stages of a new world slump. Remainers like to blame falling car sales and collapsing house prices on Brexit. But exactly the same thing is happening in Australia and NZ. There are some worrying numbers coming out of China. Who’d have thought that Brexit could affect Sydney house prices?

    The US Fed is determined to ‘normalise’ the level of interest rates. So, again, much as I don’t like Trump I don’t think we can blame him for what’s about to happen especially as he’s trying to stop it.

    Italy is going to be the weak point in the EU. Banking Union or no banking union. It’s very likely there will be a serial failure in the Italian banking system- maybe even later this year. We’ll see then just what ‘authority’ the ECB has. The stark choice will be to bail out the system or let the system fail with everyone going back to their own currencies.

  • Peter Martin 8th Jan '19 - 9:29pm

    “EU membership makes you richer, even if you are a net contributor.” ???

    I’m just wondering if you guys can read graphs? See the second one down on this page.

    https://www.zerohedge.com/news/2013-08-06/italian-debt-gdp-worst-mussolini

    On paper, the Germans are indeed much richer with hundreds of billions of euro assets in their target 2 accounts. Good luck in getting your money out when you need it! Its probably better to continue to pretend that you don’t just at the moment. This way the ECB will pretend to owe you and Italy will continue to pretend to owe the ECB!

    http://www.zerohedge.com/sites/default/files/images/user3303/imageroot/2017/02/19/20170226_t2.jpg

  • Arnold Kiel 9th Jan '19 - 9:02am

    Peter Martin,

    I was referring to the UK, which was rather well governed until 2016. Italy is, of course, hopeless because it never was.

  • Peter Martin 9th Jan '19 - 10:12am

    @Arnold,

    We do get some things right. The decision to stay out of the euro for example. What would your advice have been on that when the decision was made some 16 or 17 years ago?

    The euro is a nice idea. Its an extension of the concept that the purpose of the EU is to bring together the former warring nations of Europe in harmony and fraternity. But I don’t see much evidence of that -either in your comments or the attitude of German and EU officials.

    IF you are going to share a currency with someone you have to trust them to do the right thing. If their economy needs reflation, as does Italy, you have to allow them to reflate. If their economy is running too hot you need to trust them to cool it down with higher taxes and spending cuts.

    You can’t have it both ways. If you don’t trust them don’t share a currency! Period.

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