Jo Shaw quits Lib Dems in protest at leadership’s pro-secret courts position

Lib Dem parliamentary candidate Jo Shaw dramatically announced her resignation from the party as she moved this morning’s emergency motion calling on our MPs to stick by the party’s policy of opposing ‘secret courts’. You can read Jo’s full statement at the foot of this post.

It was Jo’s speech at the party’s autumn conference that captured everyone’s attention, including her line ‘Kafka was a warning not a manual’. Together with another parliamentary candidate, Martin Tod, Jo set up and has waged a determined campaign to persuade the parliamentary party to back the party’s line.

And it’s not only Jo who has resigned from the party over the issue. Dinah Rose QC also announced her decision to quit last night in protest at the Lib Dem leadership’s decision to back the extension of secret courts, saying:

“My conclusion, in common with the overwhelming majority of those who have acted as special advocates, is that CMPs [aka secret courts] cannot be fairly operated.”

And here’s Henry Porter in today’s Observer, with an excoriating attack:

To a supporter at the last election like me – someone who spoke alongside Nick Clegg at the curtain-raiser event for the party conference during the height of Labour’s onslaught on civil liberties, and was assured privately by two leaders that the party was onside about civil liberties – this breach of trust and denial of principle is astonishing. …

Without a second thought, they discarded an essential tenet of the liberal creed, which gave the party both a sense of itself and of its purpose in British society. After last week’s Commons vote and the leadership’s dismissal of an overwhelming vote against the bill at the last Lib Dem conference, it is fair to say the Liberal Democrats seem neither particularly liberal nor democratic. … The major motive of the bill is to cover up the truth and, in voting for it, Liberal Democrat MPs betrayed their supporters as well as themselves.

On a personal note, I’m deeply sorry to see Jo leave the party: that’s one less genuine liberal in the party. But perhaps this morning’s tweet from Jo should have given us a clue what was about to happen:

Jo Shaw – resignation statement (10th March 2013)

Today after almost twelve years I have resigned my membership of the Liberal Democrat party.
I have done so because I cannot reconcile the principles which form the backbone of the Liberal Democrats – fairness, freedom and openness – with the measures introduced by the Justice and Security Bill and supported by the party leadership. This Bill passed through the Commons this week with barely more than a handful of objections from Liberal Democrats. In opposition I know the Liberal Democrats would be spearheading the campaign against this illiberal repressive Bill. The fact this party has chosen not to do so when in government is deeply troubling for anyone who cares about a free society. It signals the party leadership turning its back on what had been red line issues for us and which defined us to ourselves and to society more widely.
I have therefore been forced to conclude I should resign. This is extremely sad both politically and personally. In campaigning, serving on committees and attending Conference over the years I have made many friends in the party and have worked with some incredibly inspiring people. I will miss everyone very much.
I am resigning because of a chronic failure of political leadership. If liberal principles are to mean anything, a liberal’s duty is to challenge excesses and concentrations of power, particularly concerning the State.
However, for reasons which are still entirely unclear, the leadership of the Liberal Democrats has chosen to ignore hundreds of party members, ride roughshod over party policy, overlook reasoned argument, and rely instead on shoddy logic and misleading arguments to support this unfair, unnecessary and unbalanced Bill. The leadership has chosen to protect secrecy and abuses of power over openness, accountability and freedom. I cannot support such a leadership.
I wish all my friends and colleagues well. I would particularly like to express my gratitude to Martin Tod and Charlotte Henry for their inspirational work and support in the Liberal Democrats Against Secret Courts campaign. The strength of feeling in the party against this Bill has been evidenced by the hundreds of letters, emails and messages of support we have received over the past seven months. It is a testament to the incredible spirit of party members and I am very proud to have been associated with them in this campaign. They are all truly inspirational.
This party has a fine and proud history, both recently and in its previous incarnations, of campaigning to uphold civil liberties and human rights. I very much hope the party finds its principles and its soul again, and soon, because the United Kingdom urgently needs a liberal and democratic party to build and safeguard our freedoms.

* Stephen was Editor (and Co-Editor) of Liberal Democrat Voice from 2007 to 2015, and writes at The Collected Stephen Tall.

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This entry was posted in Conference and News.


  • To be fair, committee could have made major changes but for DUP. Our MPs did try to get a decent Bill, well ammended, back to the Commons. Fact that Labour would not oppose legislation did not help.
    I found David Howarth’s input particularly helpful.
    Another tin ear moment. There are too many.

  • As someone who normally backs Clegg & the party leadership I have to say they have got this wrong, they have been sucked in by the paranoia of the Security Services.
    But the leadership are not the party, leaving doesnt help.

  • I admire Jo’s commitment and support her on this issue. But neither arriving late for your speech or leaving the party whilst the battle is on were mature or professional, very sadly

  • How is leaving going to help the party regain it’s soul and regain it’s principles?

  • Helen Dudden 10th Mar '13 - 11:07am

    I also do not agree with the bedroom tax, most certainly, the attitudes have changed since agreeing to the coalition.

    I am no longer a member after many years, but I still have a voice and make clear what I do not agree with.

    I hope Jo Shaw will do the same.

  • Greg Foxsmith 10th Mar '13 - 11:18am

    Like Jo Shaw, I spoke against Secret Courts at Autumn Conference.
    But unlike me, Jo did not leave it there. She has worked tirelessly since then, lobbying, blogging and co- ordinating the campaign to ensure that the Leadership and MPs understood the strength of feeling on this issue, and the sound liberal principles that underpin opposition.
    A strong leadership on this would have meant that those of us who consider civil liberties to matter could be proud of our Party and supportive of our Leadership. With a few honourable exceptions, we have been badly let down by the hirearchy, and without good reasoning in support. Perhaps there are “secret arguments” in support of Secret Courts, because there have been none made convincingly in public. Indeed, the idea that there was no point in our MPs voting against because we do not have sufficient numbers to carry the vote is risible. Imagine if we had said that about our opposition to the Iraq War?!
    Ignoring a clear mandate from the membership suggests that the Party may be neither as liberal or as democratic as we would like to believe. I do wonder why I and others gave up time to contribute to policy debate at Conference, if it counts for naught, and I feel that on civil liberty issues I will be better employed working with non- affiliated groups like Liberty than. With the Liberal Democrats.
    Jo Shaw is not the first to resign from the Party on this issue, and she will not be the last.

  • David Wilkinson 10th Mar '13 - 12:37pm

    The troops won Eastleigh but Clegg kicks us in the teeth with abandoning Liberal values when they get in the way of being DPM.
    Because of the electrol system we may still win 50+ seats after 2015 but what values will the party have left by then?

  • Stephen Donnelly 10th Mar '13 - 1:41pm

    @David Wilkinson. ‘because of the election system we may still win 50+ seats after 2015’. With 10% of the vote we should get 65 seats, it would be better to say ‘in spite of the election system we may only have c50 seats after 2015’. With more seats we would need to compromise less.

    Politics is the art of compromise, and resigning from the only party that takes this issue seriously is cutting of your nose to spite your face.

  • David Wilkinson 10th Mar '13 - 2:10pm

    I have no intention of leaving, I have been in the party for 34 years and will continue to fight for Liberal values even though the party’s leadership find them too difficult to live with.
    This party however cannot afford to lose people like Jo Shaw, who has decided there better ways of doing things than sticking with Cleggie who does not want to know about values.
    A Liberal leader has voted for secret courts and that is directly opposite to Liberal values. He has sold his soul for a devil’s idea.

  • @Alix, Sorry Alix, if you’re moving a motion – particularly an important one like this – you’re there in the conference hall ready and prepared, ahead of time, seriously you are.

    Despite all of Jo’s commitment, resolve, dedication and passion, on an issue where I agree with her and voted with her this morning, I have to be honest and say that the way she flounced out of the Party mid-speech, willing to put at risk the positive coverage the LibDems were due after our recent success (as anyone who heard the Radio 4 lunchtime coverage will know), was very disappointing. The only consolation is that we found out before some hapless local party had selected her and dedicated £ and a huge part of their members’ lives gettting her elected to something, only to find that she did the same to them.

  • It doesn’t make sense to resign from the party over secret courts, when the party has today reaffirmed its opposition to that measure. If the leadership has acted against party policy on this issue, the logical response is to stick with the party and call for a vote of no confidence in the leadership.

  • Given the point about protecting a free and fair society which we have in our Party constitution, by supporting secret courts are the Leadership and the MPs who support it technically breaching the Constitution, and therefore liable to some form of sanction if this is the case? What’s the process for triggering such an investgation, if indeed there is one?

  • Greg Foxsmith 10th Mar '13 - 5:32pm

    I understand why some will criticise Jo (or anyone) who resigns for “disloyalty”.
    But Political Parties , unlike football teams, shoul deserve loyalty and continue to earn it.
    In a political system that favours two parties, Lib Dems often work hard to “borrow” or win voter support and membership from other parties. It sometimes seems that many voters vote Tory or Labour because they “always have” (and often as their parents did before them).
    Despite this, many Labour voters/members left over the Iraq War, and many more left over Civil Liberties issues under Blair. Those were applauded, courted and welcomed by the Liberal Democrat Party. We. Praised their honesty and integrity on leaving a Party that no longer reflected their values. I know this well, as I am one of their number.
    So life-long Lib Dems, who will always stay in the Party no matter what, are (like their Labour and Tory equivalents) to be admired for their loyalty, albeit sadly their numbers are fewer. But I respectfully suggest they should reflect carefully on the reasons why other supporters, high profile or not, may leave.
    Those reasons are likely to be the same as Jo- careful, consciencous and in sadness.- the very opposite of “flouncing out”.
    Jo Shaw and Dina Rose are canaries in the coal-mine. It’s not about them-its about the Party.
    Iin politics, if your values and beliefs remain the same, but those of the Party Leadership do not, you can continue the fight internally, but it is also permissible to leave the Party. For those who choose the former, I simply ask you to consider is there any- I mean ANY – issue which if contravened would trigger your resignation? Well for some, this is one of those issues.
    The Emergency Motion today showed that the core beliefs of the Party Membership remain sound (and we should give some credit to the Party for allowing the debate–I can’t imagine that happening at Labour or Tory Party Conference)
    But that was already true following Autumn Conference, and what we have learned since then is that this counts for nothing (contrary to what the Party says about. democratic policy making)
    As I said earlier, Jo was not the first, and will not be the last.
    Not flouncing, but resigning.
    Kafka not a manual, but a warning.

  • Richard Marvell 11th Mar '13 - 1:59am

    Sorry but the way to change policy within a party is to be within a party. Whatever her motives, Jo Shaw has grandstanded and appeared petulant and she’s not a big enough personality within her party to carry that off. Yes, she has her few seconds of fame – which will no doubt be used by Lib Dem enemies to flay the party and try to destroy it.

    A more mature and less ostentatious approach would in the long run have paid dividends, both in the terms of her personal ambition and the long term well being of the Lib Dems in the full glare of a media which in the main has malevolent intentions towards a party they believe has no right to be at the top table dictating national policy.

    Pity a few more members cannot wash their dirty linen in private if they really care for the party they claim they care so much for.

  • Richard Dean 11th Mar '13 - 5:32am

    This has been about a conflict between two of the three principles that Jo mentions.

    One is fairness, which requires that a defendant be able to mount a defence. In particular the government should be able to defend itself when sued.

    The other is about is openness, which requires that court proceedings be visible.

    Both fairness and openness are helpful in maintaining a society that is free from the improper use of power. But in this instance fairness and openness are in conflict because openness means that the defendant – the government – cannot present a defence in some cases.

    Jo appears to believe that openness is more important than fairness. Of course this is attractive to people who believe the government is guilty until proved innocent, and/or that freedom means that they should be able to see whatever they want to see. This is a different idea of what freedom is.

    Other people believe that fairness is more important than openness, and that the independence of the judiciary and the oversight arrangements and safeguards in the bill will allow this to be achieved, without compromising the freedom from improper use of power.

    I hope Jo comes back to continue working to promote fairness, freedom, and openness, while recognizing that these principles are sometimes in conflict, and that mature and practical choices must then be made.

  • Roger Mullenger 11th Mar '13 - 10:45am

    As said above this is a case where it’s principle versus pragmatism. As I have not read the bill there may be nuances I’m not aware of, but as the argument is to assist the Government’s civil defence in a few cases as far as I’m aware the litigant has to prove the case, albeit to a lower standard than in a criminal case.
    I think principles sometimes come at a price, and this is one of them. If this bill favoured the government as litigant there really could be no argument, it should be dismissed out of hand. However in this case there is a balance, but we should still stick to our main principle of openness and fairness for both parties to the case. If there is no evidence to start with then the case will go nowhere. As others have found, past sins can catch up with you, in the (last) government’s case allowing rendition is one of them.

  • nigel quinton 11th Mar '13 - 11:44am

    As others have mentioned the debate started earlier than scheduled and I arrived to hear the last minute or two of Jo’s speech. I was shocked and saddened by her resignation but by the end of the debate I think I understood why she had decided ‘enough was enough’

    The previous day I listened to Nick Clegg defend his position, with passion and certitude in a way that very nearly convinced me that his points (about this only being about civil cases, and that money was being paid out to terrorists under the current system, and that we had achieved significant changes already in the bill) had some merit. He presented his differences with Jo as honestly held disagreements that he respected.

    But by the end of the debate, those arguments had been demolished. David Howarth’s summing up was masterful. As Sarah Ludford said, this bill should never have seen the light of day. (Just like the NHS bill!)

    All of which put Clegg’s passion in perspective as totally misplaced, and if Jo had had to put up with this sort of disingenuity in her private discussions with him I can well understand her deciding to quit.

    There was much to celebrate about our resilient and remarkably optimistic party at conference, but the leader’s position on this and on benefit reforms, and Jo Swinson’s acceptance of Shares for Rights as an acceptable price to pay for coalition, mean I came away buoyed but still mutinous.

  • Long-term commitment to a political party is as much an emotional bond as an intellectual one. It is therefore understandable that some people can over time feel that their views are drifting away from that of the party, or vice versa, and that finally a straw breaks the camel’s back, even if, seen in isolation, the issue itself is essentially one of judgement, a choice between the lesser of two evils. Most people in this situation simply fail to renew their membership, but those who maximise the publicity surrounding their personal decision to leave a party surely have a duty to explain what constructive alternative is on offer. In the case of Shirley Williams, and the rest of the Gang of Four, they believed that a new political party could be both viable and influential. Similarly, those who left the Labour Party because of Iraq and joined the Liberal Democrats presumably believed that the Liberal Democrats would be a better vehicle for pursuing their own personal political principles. And of course, there are plenty of instances, particularly at local level, where people switch from one party to another. Jo Shaw may have had her fifteen minutes of fame but what is so significant about her resignation speech and statement, is that no where does she offer a practical alternative to those of us who share her views on Secret Courts but believe that continued membership of the Party is the best option.

  • Surely a wake-up call that we cannot retain someone of Jo’s calibre.

  • “Jo Shaw may have had her fifteen minutes of fame but what is so significant about her resignation speech and statement, is that no where does she offer a practical alternative to those of us who share her views on Secret Courts but believe that continued membership of the Party is the best option.”

    Speaking as someone who left the party nearly five years ago, after two decades as an active member, because I despaired at the direction that Nick Clegg was taking it in (even then), and having seen my misgivings painfully justified time and time again – and in fact that’s an extreme understatement, because I didn’t imagine then his betrayal of the party’s values would extend to the field of civil liberties in the way it has – I have to ask why you think continued support of the Liberal Democrats is the “best option”, considering the damage that the party in government is doing.

    Why continue to support actively a party, which – at least in parliament – is behaving so abhorrently? I can’t suggest any other political party at all as a better alternative, but then again it’s not compulsory for people to be members of political parties – still less active members – is it? When I left the Lib Dems I joined Liberty instead (not that I do anything actively to support Liberty). I feel that is another decision that has been richly vindicated (despite a suggestion I remember to the effect that Liberty had become superfluous once the battle against ID cards had been won).

    Frankly I think the only reason Nick Clegg – along with, I’m sorry to say, most of the other Lib Dem MPs, one of whom I repent bitterly having helped in some small measure to get elected – gets away with what he does, is that many party members will continue to support the party out of loyalty, even though they consider what the (parliamentary) party is doing to be quite wrong. The net result of that loyalty, on balance, is not a positive thing.

  • Dean Clarke 11th Mar '13 - 6:34pm

    How many have now left? Are we in the majority? Time to form new Liberal Party.

  • Martin Lowe 11th Mar '13 - 9:24pm

    Not wanting people to be tried in secret is still a liberal value – despite a number of Liberal Democrat MPs voting for it.

    What needs to happen now is the members of those MP’s constituencies to examine the deselection process in order to remove MPs who clearly don’t believe in liberal values.

  • In my opinion attempting to win Liberal people like Jo Shaw and Dinah Rose QC back to the party should be more of a priority than Tory appeasement on what is an illiberal policy.

  • Dominic Black 15th Mar '13 - 10:50pm

    I too am considering my continued membership of the Liberal Democrats. I joined the Liberal Party in the first week of September 1983. I have only been a member of the Liberal Party/Liberal Democrats. I do not see what is to be gained by being in a Party that claims to be both Liberal and supportive of secret Courts; the two are incompatible. I read the article, on this site, by Tom McNally, I tired doing so with an open mind, but the more I read the more I thought of the Diplock Courts in Northern Ireland. So, what next, a special unit of police to attack a specific minority (I refer the the
    B Specials of course)? This Bill is wrong! Amendments are not enough. Liberal Democrat MPs voting together could stop this Bill. they should stop this Bill. If they do not do so it will not be members like me leaving the Party but the MPs who have left it.

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