Opinion: Make a clean break – You shouldn’t flirt behind your partner’s back

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On Saturday evening at Brighton, I attended a meeting organised by the Social Liberal Forum (SLF) with the controversial title ‘Disengaging with the Tories before 2015’. A number of equally controversial speakers were featured, including Neal Lawson (Chair of Compass), Stuart Weir (former Director of Democratic Audit) and Green MP, Caroline Lucas.

Between them, they suggested essentially that we break up the coalition as soon as possible and form a progressive leftist coalition. (Lord Renard and Tim Farron were also there and clearly stated that, in their opinion, it was not the right time to end the coalition.)

At this point, I should declare myself. I tend to the progressive left of the Liberal Democrats. I would much prefer to be in a left wing, progressive coalition. I feel deeply pained by some of the compromises and decisions that the “Condem” coalition has made – in particular, our legal aid cuts and the NHS reforms.

However, the SLF meeting made me extremely angry. So angry that I asked a generally inarticulate question, which seemed hostile, tribal and anti-Labour.

Later, lying in my bed that night I thought things through. I wasn’t angry with the Labour party for flirting with us. I was angry that they had been invited. Angry that our democratic conference (the main reason I am still in the party at all) has ben undermined.

While I think we should discuss the direction of our party and whether we should stay in the coalition until 2015, I feel this should be an in-house discussion. We, as Liberal Democrats, should decide what Liberal Democrats do. We should have the discussion honestly, openly and fully, deciding the issue like the Liberal Democrats we are.

Small organisations, unassociated with the party, like the SLF do not have the right to begin moving in that direction or building those relationships, until they have the consent of our sovereign conference.

After all, how would we feel as Liberal Democrats if we discovered that the Tories were having separate talks with other parties? Betrayed? Angry? Less willing to compromise? Damn straight.

Do such discussions show us to be honest, open members of a coalition?

So let us have the discussion. But let’s have it between Liberal Democrats. Let’s hear both sides and vote on it. Let’s think about it and decide between us the right path to take. But don’t for goodness’ sake let us be forced out of an agreement we made, a contract we signed, on the basis of one small part of party.

* Ruth Edmonds is a Liberal Democrat activist from the Derbyshire Dales. She has worked in Simon Hughes' office. She is about to go up to Brasenose College, Oxford to read Philosophy, Politics and Economics.

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  • i would ask that the party calls for the goverment chief whip to be removed from his post straight away,
    its disgusting the way he spoke to the police on the gate showing no respect to the police and even worse at a time when officers are like us remembering to heros shot down and murdered in manchester last week,
    because if like i beleave will happen both parties will try and sweep this under the carpet and hope it goes away.
    also on the deputy prime minister saying sorry about the rise in student fee rises despite a pre election not to do so well if he is really sorry he should vote against the rise and stand by his word because the party was elected on these pledges along with many others and should not change there minds once they get power along with large pay packets thrown in

  • “Small organisations, unassociated with the party, like the SLF do not have the right to begin moving in that direction or building those relationships, until they have the consent of our sovereign conference”

    I’m not sure that they claim the right to do that or anything like it. As you say SLF are unofficial – and none of the other participants seem to be there in an official Labour capacity

    If we are talking about politics becoming less tribal then you would expect links to be formed all over the place. As two illustrations:
    1) it was obvious in the run up to 2010 that the Conservatives were developing a stronger emphasis on civil liberties (particularly with David Davis in a leading role). Davis is not by any stretch of the imagination, however he is a strong civil libertarian (who had won the support of Liberty for example). That led to a degree of common ground over eg scrapping ID cards which gave some foundation to the coalition agreement and also built the personal relationships between people in the two parties – it’s perhaps not coincidental that Clegg was also home affairs spokesman.

    2) There was notable co-operation between Labour and the Liberal Democrats in the run up to 1997 agreeing a joint platform of constitutional reform (Devoluiton, Human Rights Act, Freedom of Information etc) which had all been key party priorities for many years. (Indeed my question about whether the 97-01 Parliament delivered more Lib Dem prioirities for constitutional reform than the 2010-15 Parliament will remains unanswered when I ask it of leading party figures).

    I don’t really get your point. One the one hand your worrying about being tribal – but your whole piece suggests very tribal thinking. “this is my party’s view and it shall not be challenged”. I’m not sure what resolution the “sovereign conference” can pass to control the activities of non-official bodies (and if it tried I’d be pretty quick to oppose it if it covered anything other than bodies brining the party into disrepute).

    There is a sense among activists on the left that somewhere there is a progressive left-of-centre coalition to be formed in which there are only roses and cute puppy dogs. Simple fact is that the main blocks to a progressive left of centre coalition were in the Labour party (messrs Reid, Blunkett et al) and such a coalition post 2010 would, had it happened, be delivering pretty much the same cuts as we’re seeing now (except that the coalition would have collapsed in acrimony long before now as you tried to keep the various groups onside without any margin for MPs voting against things).

    It’s based on a romantic, idealised portrait of Labour as “being for nice things” – something which is not borne out by their record in office and seems to require people to have a lot of amnesia!

  • Oh – and Northerner’s go down to the South. That way we constantly remind them of our ineffable superiority to them in all respects 🙂

  • Old Codger Chris 24th Sep '12 - 12:23pm

    The party is commited to the coalition till 2015. Or would we prefer to split into 2 Lib Dem parties, as per the Liberals between the two world wars? That didn’t end well for the party…………

    Also, wouldn’t a coalition with Labour also involve some uncomfortable compromises?

  • Matthew Huntbach 24th Sep '12 - 12:48pm

    Old Codger Chris

    Also, wouldn’t a coalition with Labour also involve some uncomfortable compromises?

    As does a coalition with the Conservatives.

    Look, it seems to me to be obvious that if Labour with its 35% of the seats sat and blocked everything that wasn’t Labour policy, the Conservatives with their 45% of the seats sat and blocked everything that wasn’t Conservative policy, and we with our 10% of the seats sat and blocked everything that wasn’t Liberal Democrat policy, the country would be ungovernable (the seat proportions are something like that, but I haven’t checked the exact figures). Something has to give – that’s politics, finding the most acceptable compromise, which may not be what you personally prefer. That is why I find the accusations thrown at us that we haven’t managed to achieve every one of our policies in the Coalition and we have had to let through some policies which are not what we really want to be daft, even though they seem to be the basis of most attacks on us by the Labour Party.

    I would very much like to have a more grown up politics in which we accept this. I also was at the same SLF meeting as Ruth, and I also was accused of being a “tribalist” for shouting out in anger at the Labour spokesperson. But my anger was for the opposite reason to Ruth’s, I would very much like us to have positive and co-operative relationships with Labour, but I am angry that Labour won’t let it happen. Instead, Labour are attacking us relentlessly for being democrats – for accepting the results of the last election, and for trying to work within those results, and for not doing what they know is impossible i.e. converting all the Tory MPs to LibDem policies. Instead, Labour seem to want just to see us destroyed, and are blocking everything we try to do, to the aid of the Tories. In particular, by blocking constitutional reform they are laying the grounds for an extremist pure Tory government to take over in future, with no LibDems to stop the worst of it.

    Grown up politics shouldn’t use the sort of silly language which is being used here, where the coalition is likened to a marriage (or civil partnership …). A marriage is based on love and has at least the hop of going on forever. I very much hope that neither of these applies to the Coalition.

    Grown up politics should instead accept that it is in the best interest for ALL politicians to interact with other, find common ideas and discuss ways of moving forward. For the sake of efficiency it is necessary for some sort of agreement to be made to establish a stable government, so that things can be got done because on mist things there’s a mutual support agreement of enough MPs to get it through Parliament. But to suggest this means we have to rule out work to think about alternatives is just childish, and certainly not the sort of co-operative pluralist approach to democracy that I have been a long-term member of our party to promote.

  • @Hywel
    “Oh – and Northerner’s go down to the South. That way we constantly remind them of our ineffable superiority to them in all respects ”

    …Except perhaps in their ability to use apostrophes correctly. Would it be acceptable for a southerner to go on about his or her “superiority” over northerners? I think not.

    Anyway, back on topic:

    “I think we should discuss the direction of our party and whether we should stay in the coalition until 2015”

    I think we should prepare for the inevitable parting of the ways, but leaving the Coalition before 2015 when we will need every month available before then to repair the economy and to see through policies like the ÂŁ10,000 personal allowance and Pupil Premium would be extremely counterproductive. It would also be used by Tories to tag us with yet another label, along with all the others, of being somehow “opportunists” and “unprincipled”. Of course, that accusation should be met with a derisory laugh when coming from Labour and the Tories, but it won’t stop their press lackeys from doing their bidding.

  • “…Except perhaps in their ability to use apostrophes correctly. Would it be acceptable for a southerner to go on about his or her “superiority” over northerners? I think not. ”

    My sense of humour is sufficiently well developed for me to survive such a posting – remember – lot’s of planets’ have a north 🙂

  • @Ruth
    ‘Left’ and ‘progressive’ lost all remaining meaning when relativism overtook the British political lexicon in the mid-90s and ‘third-way’ politics emerged as realistic, viable and successful.

    The terms are no longer a nod and a wink in a particular policy direction as desired, but a declaration of submission to harmful dogmas – nobody knows what the terms mean, but everybody knows it means picking favorites and prescribing favours.

    ‘Left’ and ‘progressive’ don’t mean making either balanced or principled judgements, they’re code for buying votes and burying the bodies.

    please could the SLF make it more clear that their aim is to advance liberty and democracy via the means of winning more votes and seats for LibDems, rather than becoming the new ‘Cooperative Party’ (led by those most cooperative of people, including Ed Balls)?

    Either it is an internal organisation supportive of the party, or it is an open faction and running sore open to infection.

    I have no qualms about people signing up for the Cooperative Party (as any other), only that people actually know what they’re signing up for.

    Equally the SLF should take stock and reconsider its role. It may like to portray itself as the self-styled saviour of the party, but its singular existence undermines our valued plural balance by polarising debate with the result that multiple alternate voices are silenced.

    The SLF is in a delicate position, it should encourage steps to enhance wider party democracy or its supporters will be guilty of becoming the block on our beliefs – liberalism is as much a methodology as an ideology.

  • Matthew Huntbach 24th Sep '12 - 11:17pm

    Ruth Edmonds

    While I think we should discuss the direction of our party and whether we should stay in the coalition until 2015, I feel this should be an in-house discussion. We, as Liberal Democrats, should decide what Liberal Democrats do. We should have the discussion honestly, openly and fully, deciding the issue like the Liberal Democrats we are.

    Small organisations, unassociated with the party, like the SLF do not have the right to begin moving in that direction or building those relationships, until they have the consent of our sovereign conference.

    This is essentially a Leninist view of politics. It is a mark of the decline of true liberal thinking in the party that lines like this should be so often uttered, sadly often by younger people who have grown up in an era when politics has become so dominated by the top-down leader-oriented model, which ultimately derives from Leninism, is often just assumed as the only possible model that could exist.

    What Ruth is actually saying here is that members of the party should be BANNED from organising and thinking for themselves. Instead they should be permitted only to cheer on The Party Line. Oh, yes, it’s a “democratically” produced Party Line, but then the Leninists always insisted theirs was as well. The point is how can The Party Line ever be changed, if every time someone initiates a discussion which is different from it, they are condemned as traitors by the likes of Ruth? With this sort of mentality even though in theory the party congress meets and can change The Party Line it never gets done and can never get done because the sort of preparation needed to get the change initiated is banned. The only people who can change The Party Line in the model of party which Ruth endorses here are its leaders because banning of organisation within the party except when that organisation strictly follows The Party Line means they have complete control of the party agenda.

    If I am seeming harsh and cruel here to someone much younger than myself, it is because I feel very strongly about these issues. I have worked for the Liberal Party and its successor and never wanted to join Labour, even though my politics are to the left, because I am so very much opposed to the top-down party-centred view of politics of the Labour Party. This too is why I was an opponent of merger with the SDP, because that merger was very much about pushing that model of party onto the Liberals – despite the success the Liberals had had in building up and alternative decentralised model of politics.

    My view of politics is one of pluralism and free discussion in which parties are networks for bringing together people to co-operate, not Leninist organisations producing rigid Five Year plans. I am sorry that the model of politics which I have always supported seems so little understood in Britain today., and that so much political discourse, including most of the discussion on the Coalition by both its supporters and its opponents, is based on an assumption of the Leninist model of politics.

  • Geoffrey Payne 25th Sep '12 - 12:31am

    I find myself having to try and second guess your views, but honestly I think this coud be settled with a face to face discussion. Even so maybe I coud settle a few issues here.
    I sometimes organise events for SLF, albeit not fringe meetings. I would say it is not out of the question that I coud invite a Tory. For example the “Big Society” is a new direction for the Tories and it would be good to compare it with the “Good Society” from Compass and our own community politics.
    When it comes to public debates you can decide to select people with roughly the same views in order to put across a particular point of view, or people with contrasting opinions where you can hear different points of view and decide for yourself.
    For this fringe meeting Chris Rennard and Tim Farron knew they were debating with people from other political parties and that didn’t stop them.
    I quite liked to see the tribalism being challenged at this event. Some of that tribalism came from Caroline Lucas – although I still found it useful to hear where the Greens are these day – and some of the tribalism came from the “I’am Lib Dem right or wrong types”. Party politics is competitive and giving your opponents negative stereotypes that you can shoot down is always appealing to a party activist who wants to win at all costs. However that is not what we are about in the SLF. We just want an honest debate about how things actually are.

  • If we are to demonstrate that we are stable coalition partners — equidistant between Labour and Conservatives — then it is essential that we don’t pull out of the coalition.

    This is also essential if we are to maintain that we have a distinctive voice, rather than being the centre annex of Labour (or of the Conservatives).

    I suspect that a majority of us lean more to the left than to the right, but the ability to work in government with a party with whom we have profound disagreements does show that we can make coalition work.

    It was obvious that we would get a hammering for joining the coalition — our PR task is to show that this was the action of a wise and balanced party acting in the national interest (rather than party political interest).

  • @Mark Blackburn
    err, yeah, we’re still waiting for an apology from Will Hutton.

    Admittedly Hutton has since shown enough awareness to moderate his argument after learning how lessons are selectively applied (for example to justify the invasion of Iraq), but he still refuses to accept his own culpability for giving Blair & Co the tools they needed.

    Like with all bibles, beware the zealots who will use it as a weapon.

    He may have called for political pluralism and coalition governments, devolution and independent regulators, and a web of associations (like a big society) to prevent top-down statist intervention, but what happened was the exact opposite – first out of will, then out of necessity.

    Civil liberties, anyone? Lip service.

    And what about stakeholder Britain? With hindsight shareholder and mortgage-holder Britain were encouraged to use his doctrine to exclude vast tranches of society by building up unsustainable debt mountains and passing on the costs to those who played no part in it.

    Hutton’s particularly dogmatic social democratic vision of his ‘third way’ infers it isn’t and mustn’t be the only one – the weakness of his case should pave the way for our open liberal and democratic vision of politics.

    @Mark Argent
    we’re definitely not equidistant between Labour and Conservative (though we might be equidistant from them).

    Quite simply we don’t follow the same agenda of appeasing media barons and bankers or union bosses – we’re not dictated to, we’re a democratic party.

  • Matthew Huntbach 26th Sep '12 - 2:01pm

    Geoffrey Payne

    some of the tribalism came from the “I’am Lib Dem right or wrong types”.

    I was sorry to find myself being dismissed by the Chair and other at that meeting for being of that type, and not given the opportunity to explain my position. I have explained it to some extent in my message of 12.48 on 24 September. I am not angry with Labour because they are Labour, as is being alleged here. I am angry with Labour because I believe the way they have dealt with the coalition situation has advantaged the right-wing of our party, and has advantaged the Conservative Party.

    I am very much wanting to deal with things as they actually are, which is what you say you want to do. As they are, the balance in Parliament made the current coalition the only viable option. I have never heard anyone from Labour who accepts that – instead universally they play up to the fantasy that somehow we voluntary chose to go into the coalition and could have engineered something quite different had we wanted to. By relentlessly pushing this line, they have actually managed to destroy our vote where it counts – in the Tory-LibDem marginals, which are most of our seats. These are seats they are never going to win, all they are doing is helping turn them back into safe Tory seats.

    By dismissing as insincerity or hypocrisy or worthless everything we on the left of the party are trying to do in it, in these difficult coalition circumstances, Labour are giving massive aid to the Liberal Democrat right wing. It means the right-wing can comfortably ignore us because without the backing from outside which the Liberal Democrat right gets when they are trying to push right-wing policies onto us, we appear isolated and we lose the argument with the party’s centre and uncommitted. That is just what we have seen happening in the Brighton conference. The right-wing of the Liberal Democrats are then able to use the argument – which they have, in spades, most brutally in Richard Reeves’ New Statesman article – that left liberalism is a lost cause, and that we who hold to that position are an embarrassment who should do the good thing and quietly disappear – as indeed many of us have.

    By the way, on Caroline Lucas, she didn’t come across to me as tribalist, just incredibly naive and lacking in political savvy. Which is what I generally find the Greens are like. It would have just been cruel to have brought up the issue of the Greens in Ireland with respect to the topic of junior coaltion partners, wouldn’t it?

  • Sorry, Matthew, I think you just have to come to terms with the fact that there are radical activists (Lib Dem, Labour and others who simply DO NOT accept your line of “no alternative”). I am probably the Lib Dem who keeps on most incessantly about it, but I still have not had an answer sufficient in its own terms to make me change my mind – only that most people disagree with me. It doesn’t necessarily make me wrong that I am in a minority! I think you should also acknowledge the support coming from such bodies as Compass, and not blame Labour reaction for so much. We, on our wing should not expect support from Blairite nuLab, and when support comes from the centre left, and democratic left of Labour we should welcome that. I agree with you about naivete among Greens.

  • Ruth Edmonds 27th Sep '12 - 8:56pm

    While I appreciate fringe events aren’t official, they are open and the party as a whole is judged on their content by the press (It’s sad but true). And I do agree we should discuss both sides of the argument. I just wish there was a purely in house forum in which we could genuinely, honestly discuss things without risking upsetting the Tory backbenchers (which may mean that they are less likely to compromise). But now, especially with the media desperate to see a split and with Ed Milliband having publicised the fact that he is in contact with Vince Cable I do feel we have to be careful. It would be great if we could openly talk with politicians all over the spectrum without it causing a massive fuss but that doesn’t seem to be the world we live in.

    And I do agree about Labour’s dreadful civil liberties record,

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