A job and a half for the new Federal International Relations Committee

I was very pleased to have been part of the successful Federal International Relations Committee’s (FIRC) 2-hour international marathon at the West Midlands conference last weekend. Full marks to current FIRC Chair Phil Bennion. A FIRC First!

Having just been elected to the new Federal International Relations Committee, I will be encouraging it to focus on four big areas:
• Get our party leadership back on track concerning Europe.
• Mobilise newly enfranchised overseas voters to vote Lib Dem at the next UK General Election, especially in our target seats.
• Keep Lib Dems’ profile up internationally so the party continues to have global and European influence.
• Continue advocacy of international causes at regional conferences and with local parties.

First and foremost – Europe. For me, the statistics are clear. We went as a party from 46,000 members in the darkest days of coalition to 120,000 after the EU referendum but have since then crashed to 70,000 members. Why? Because we did not have any political programme to entice all those pro-EU members to stay. Our audience is not just the country, but our members, our activists and the values we believe in. The decline to such a degree was not inevitable.

Now the country is increasingly with us. In November 2022, a Statista poll showed 56 percent of British people think that it was wrong to leave the European Union, compared with just 32 percent who thought it was right. We must reverse some of the cruellest damage done by Brexit by calling for our return to the Single Market, a UK initiative when we were an EU member. We must stop being feeble in the media and come out linking much of the disaster facing this country to Brexit. We must re-establish our unique selling point as the party for Europe as part of our policy toolkit to save the country from economic ruin. Our party leadership needs to rekindle the flame of Europe again. We need to press internally for that

Secondly, our new overseas voters. The two members that topped the FIRC federal internal elections are from Lib Dems Abroad so FIRC needs to make this issue a priority. The 2022 Elections Act will increase eligible British voters overseas to 3.5 million, 8% of the British eligible electorate. With that increase, and with a targeted approach we have calculated we should have a chance with the overseas vote to swing target seats like Wimbledon, Cheltenham and Winchester as well as increase our total share of the vote and bring in donations. The Lib Dems Abroad Steering Committee is preparing its campaign strategy now. Current focus is winning over the ½ million overseas pensioners whose state pensions are frozen, some of whom are destitute.

Thirdly, we need to keep pushing international issues at the national, European and Liberal International levels. Lib Dems are still met with great warmth internationally and we must keep this going. We need to ensure the policy espoused in our recent resolutions on key international issues – such as fighting authoritarianism, Afghanistan, Europe, Free Trade, Ukraine, and soon on China and Iran – are not put on the side but followed up to be translated into action.

And, of course, we need to keep our members enthused about our international work. Regional conferences should also be a great recruiting ground for the plethora of the newly-formed Lib Dem Associated Organisations, including the Lib Dem European Group and the Liberal International British Group. We need to link everyone up, do much together and make our mark in the world.

* George Cunningham is Chair of the Lib Dems Abroad Steering Committee and a newly-elected member of the 2023-25 FIRC Executive.

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25 Comments

  • Best of luck with your endeavours, especially for me at least, the loss of so many positives lost due to Brexit that need to be highlighted.

  • Lloyd Harris 22nd Nov '22 - 1:22pm

    Caution on the 2022 Elections Act changes, the act is not fully enacted yet and the part on overseas voters isn’t due to be enabled for several years under current plans.

  • Massimo Ricciuti 22nd Nov '22 - 2:51pm

    Best wishes, George!

  • George Cunningham,

    Get our party leadership back on track concerning Europe

    Conference has passed the following policy: “to support for a longer-term objective of UK membership of the EU, and to recommend roadmaps for the UK to rejoin the Customs Union, Single Market and other EU agencies and programmes as appropriate”. I don’t recall anyone in a leadership position in the party speaking against this policy. Please can you let me know who in a leadership role has spoken against this policy and when?

    Perhaps what you really mean is that you want the FIRC to propose a motion to change party policy so we are calling for an immediate rejoining of the Single Market. Hopefully, such a motion would set out the means of rejoining it as I believe there are a few different routes.

    It could be that most of the approximately 40,000 people who joined the party after the Brexit referendum have left the party. Do you have any evidence this is so? And do you have any data on the reasons why the nearly 62,000 people have left the party since 2019?

    People join political parties for all sorts of reasons, and many only stay for a year. However, I always hope that once someone has joined the party they learn what British liberalism is about and want to stay in the party to help achieve the aims of liberalism.

  • I too would be interested to know why we have lost 40000 members. l suspect it is from our invisibility in general and Brexit in particular. Living in Cornwall I am wary of going too far down the Brexit road but not if it has resulted in 40000 departures. The party cannot afford that.

  • Echo all that Martin says. I hope ‘Get our party leadership back on track concerning Europe” = ‘they should speak up loudly and often about it’.

  • Good stuff from George. The importance of adequate levels of immigration to the maintenance of the UK economy and public services seems to be dawning on the Conservatives, if not Keir Starmer. One such area that may prove fruitful is the relaxation of visa rules for Ukrainian refugees. As with most East Europeans, they have shown themselves to be an industrious people and if sufficient accommodation can be made available, such a policy may go along way to addressing some of the current critical labour shortgages in social care, child care and other areas. Visas for live-in carers might be one such example that combines accommodation with a job.
    On relations with Europe and a roadmap for the UK to rejoin the Customs Union, Single Market and other EU agencies and programmes, I would like to see the party commit to EFTA membership ( the grouping comprising Norway, Switzerland, Iceland and Liechtenstein).

  • Well said Martin. There is a golden opportunity to carve out a distinctive message on Brexit and now immigration thanks partly to Keir Starmers triangulating. So it leaves one tearing ones hair out with frustration that the leadership are ignoring the open goal.

    I supported Ed to be leader but am now very disillusioned. I would like to see a new leader in place preferably Munira Wilson before the next general election (which is clearly not imminent).

  • Excellent article. I agree with every point … especially those on our relations with the EU.

  • Chris Platts 23rd Nov '22 - 8:18am

    Excellent comments Very keen to support a positive campaign to rejoin,interesting enough ,in today’s Irish Times there was an article suggesting that they would be keen to help the UK to return to the EU.

  • Joe Bourke 22nd Nov ’22 – 9:30pm……..Good stuff from George. The importance of adequate levels of immigration to the maintenance of the UK economy and public services seems to be dawning on the Conservatives, if not Keir Starmer….

    Kier Starmer yesterday……”Our economy and our communities have long benefited from people coming here from all over the world to work, from building our biggest businesses, to sustaining our public services to leading our scientific research and innovation to caring for our loved ones. That has made us the country we are today. People choosing to come to the UK will continue to be important for our economy and that is exactly why the system needs to be properly managed in the interests of workers and businesses.”

    Sounds sensible to me!

  • At last some positive comments on Europe
    Need to be careful in planning as to how and when we can deliver this positive message as not all target constituencies would welcome a re kindling of a divided country

  • Phillip Bennion 23rd Nov '22 - 10:07am

    In response to Michael, we already have the appropriate policy in place. The argument from the collective party leadership is that the time has not yet been right to start talking about it. We have been content with this explanation, but the backdrop has changed since the fall of Truss. The CBI are now clearly calling for parts of the Single Market such as an SPS Agreement, continuing to use the CE mark and VAT alignment are now vital for our trade with the EU. These are not possible even within the broad principles of the TCA as they stand. The SNP and Greens are off the fence and it is time we took the lead. Even Jeremy Hunt gave a deliberately unconvincing reply on Today last week, when challenged on joining the Single Market, making no substantive argument against.

    We need to convince our parliamentarians and leadership that the time is now right to talk about our relationship with the EU, as the national debate is now moving in that direction. We have the policies, we just need to start communicating them.

  • Let’s hope somebody is listening, George.

  • Martin,

    George wrote, “Get our party leadership back on track concerning Europe” this implies that the leadership is not following the policy agreed at our conferences. This is not true. I am not sure that the policy is “admirable”. It seems likely that the roadmaps as appropriate referred to in the policy have not been designed yet. So the leadership has nothing concrete to say except that our long term policy is to rejoin the EU but we have no timescale for this.

    You wrote “that we want to see a concerted, active and vocal strategy to implement our policy for rebuilding trade and cooperation with Europe”. I have no objection to this.

    There is nothing stopping the FIRC or any member designing these roadmaps and then submitting them to conference for the members to agree.

    Phillip Bennion,

    we already have the appropriate policy in place”.

    It seems to me the policy implies it is not the right time to start talking about joining any EU institutions.

    I have nothing against members campaigning and submitting conference motions which state that the time is now right to start talking about joining some EU institutions and stating the means they advocate to do this. My criticism was the idea that the leadership was somehow not following the track of our agreed policy.

  • Expats,

    on Keir Starmers speech to the CBI this piece in the i gives an objective account Keir Starmer has totally misread the national mood on immigration – and risks embarrassing his party
    “…In a speech to the CBI this week, he said we needed to get Britain off its “immigration dependency”.

    “Overall there is no evidence that migration has had a negative impact on the training of the UK-born workforce,” the Migration Advisory Committee concluded in 2018. “Moreover, there is some evidence to suggest that skilled migrants have a positive impact on the quantity of training available to the UK-born workforce.”

    “Most studies show negligible or zero wage decline due to immigration. “To the considerable surprise of many economists, including me,” Jonathan Portes wrote for the Centre for Economic Policy Research, “there is now a clear consensus that even in the short-term, migration does not appear to have had a negative impact on the employment outcomes of UK natives.”

    Indeed, immigrants are an essential part of a national growth strategy. Increased levels of net migration, the Office of Budget Responsibility said in its Economic and Fiscal Outlook document last week, were “offsetting slower growth in productivity”.

  • @ Joe Bourke 23rd Nov ’22 – 7:32pm….

    I quote Starmer’s words verbatim and you counter with an ‘opinion piece’ from the ‘i’.

    Do you find anything to disagree with in Starmer’s actual speech?

  • Expats,

    you have been around long enough to understand that misrepresenting the thrust of a speech with selective quotes is disingenous.
    The message of the speech was as the ‘i’ piece presents:
    “Keir Starmer knows better than to mimic this kind of monstrous rhetoric [that of Suela Braveman]. Labour’s policy on asylum is essentially firm but fair. But on economic migration, he is still fighting the wars of the past. In a speech to the CBI this week, he said we needed to get Britain off its “immigration dependency”.

    Why? There seemed to be two reasons, each contradicting the other. The first was that it would lead businesses to “start investing more in training workers who are already here”; the second was that it led to “low pay and cheap labour”.

    Obviously, this makes no sense. Is the problem with immigrants that they are highly skilled and thereby taking away training advantages from Brits? Or that they are low skilled and therefore reducing pay for Brits? Starmer’s little immigration aside – widely trailed on the radio and TV – didn’t seem to have the slightest thought put into it.

    As it happens, both arguments are largely false. “Overall there is no evidence that migration has had a negative impact on the training of the UK-born workforce,” the Migration Advisory Committee concluded in 2018. “Moreover, there is some evidence to suggest that skilled migrants have a positive impact on the quantity of training available to the UK-born workforce.”

  • Joe Bourke 24th Nov ’22 – 10:25am….Expats, you have been around long enough to understand that misrepresenting the thrust of a speech with selective quotes is disingenous.

    I’ll take that as you finding nothing to disagree with in the speech I quoted.

    Rather than an ‘opinion’ perhaps you could quote me, verbatim, another bit of his address to the CBI to support your argument?

  • Expats,

    From the CBI speech “The days of cheap labour must end to wean the UK off its immigration dependency”

    Today’s figures report a post-war high for net migration https://www.mirror.co.uk/news/politics/uk-net-migration-surges-post-28573276

    Labour said today’s figures showed that the Tories had “completely failed to get a grip” of the asylum and immigration system.

    On the asylum system we can agree. As Alistair Carmichael noted the Home Office is a “disaster zone” and said asylum decisions should be handed to a new independent unit.

    The larger net migration numbers, however, are fueled by Ukrainian refugees, Afghans and Hong Kongers, the end of lockdown restrictions and students arriving in the UK after studying remotely during the Covid-19 pandemic. 560,000 people are estimated to have left the UK in the same period, with almost half of those – 275,000 – going back to the EU.
    This is not companies brining in cheap labour, these are refugees fleeing war and political repression.

  • Katharine Pindar 25th Nov '22 - 9:38am

    Yes, let us develop and proclaim our intentions of closer working with the EU. We should debate the EFTA route, and whether rejoining the Single Market and the Customs Union are desirable aims. Meantime I think we have the opportunity of pointing out on the doorsteps that a majority now apparently believe that Brexit was a mistake, and that we were the ONLY major national party to strongly oppose it. That’s a unique selling point in comparison with both the Conservatives and Labour.

  • Phillip Bennion 25th Nov '22 - 10:52am

    Again to Michael BG, the roadmap has already partly passed through Conference. We have developed sector specific policies and cultural ties and details on trade have already been signed off. A small group including members of FPC and FIRC chaired by Duncan Brack have been bringing a new motion on EU ties to each party conference. We are also directly involved with ALDE through three policy working groups at European level, which feed back.

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