Opinion: Time for a real English party

It’s time for Liberal Democrats to get serious about England. Although we are, in theory, a federal party, we certainly don’t act like it in practice. In Scotland we stand as the Scottish Liberal Democrats. In Wales we stand as the Welsh Liberal Democrats/Democratiaid Rhyddfrydol Cymru. But in England we just stand as the Liberal Democrats.

We have Scottish and Welsh conferences to handle Scottish and Welsh policy but no English conference so our “federal” conference is dominated by policy on England only matters. We have federal committees in the party but they have Scottish and Welsh representatives added on separately. We have Welsh and Scottish Lib Dem HQs but the greatest concentration of our staff and resources is at party headquarters in London where there’s no distinction between staff focusing on federal matters and England matters.

We have an English party but it is run by an executive who are elected from representatives elected from regional conferences by regional voting representatives who are in turn elected by their local parties. So in practice most members in England don’t even know that it exists. And while the Scottish and Welsh Lib Dems have their own websites the English party is only belatedly getting its own section tucked away on the federal party website.

Meanwhile we have strong policy for devolution/federalism for Scotland and Wales made by the Scottish and Welsh parties but for England we have a wishy-washy “devolution on demand” policy, some regional parties with policies for their own regional assembly/parliament and a former leader, Nick Clegg, who spent his time as Deputy Prime Minister pushing for city devolution with metro-mayors.

Yet the backdrop to this in England as a whole is the steady early rise of English nationalism, stoked by UKIP and the Tories, a growing sense of unfairness over the devolution settlement in the UK and the Tories dodging the issue of real devolution in England by with an unworkable English Votes on English Laws stitch-up.

There is a massive need for a liberal voice in England which is patriotic, rational, open-minded, welcoming and tolerant. One which will address the very real problems inflicted on England by Westminster, which is proud of our country and yet which opposes the divisiveness of poisonous nationalism.

In order to achieve this the Liberal Democrats in England need to embrace Englishness (multicultural Englishness, not mythical racial Englishness) and to be able to organise, campaign and make policy effectively. The current party structure prevents that, simultaneously managing to neglect England whilst relegating Scotland and Wales to the side-lines in our federal structure.

We need change. What form that change might take is debatable but at the very least we should start running in English elections as the English Liberal Democrats, handle our own policy making, have our own HQ and adopt some headline measures to establish our credentials on English issues. Perhaps the latter could involve things like a proper call for English devolution or for St George’s Day to be made a public holiday.

But if we do nothing, if we avoid embracing an English identity in England, then we leave the future of English civic and national consciousness in the hands of UKIP and the Tories. And that is something we absolutely cannot allow to happen.

* George Potter is a Vice-Chair of the Social Liberal Forum and a campaigner for Guildford Liberal Democrats, writing in a personal capacity.

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47 Comments

  • The observations are spot on and I like the general idea .
    Though as a party of ‘real’ federalism I wonder whether we ought to have regional English parties for say a handfull of counties each rather than one big centralised English party. Cornwall or London being two obvious examples of the need and demand for regional English parties.

  • Peter Davies 5th Jul '15 - 9:47am

    There is a natural level of organisation which is the distance you can travel for an all-day meeting. Our regions generally fit that requirement and our regional conferences attract people who can’t make federal conference. England doesn’t. That’s an argument against an English parliament or an English conference.

  • david walker 5th Jul '15 - 9:57am

    Well said. We should be bold in being patriotic at all levels of the UK, be it nationally, internationally or indeed England, the regions and locally. Structures should be based around how people identify themselves, not necessarily what is convenient and avoids travel. Then we have all bases covered properly.

  • Quite right George, I know you are looking at this from an English perspective, but I can tell you that the Scottish party members (and presumably Welsh too) would love it if the English party could sort itself out like this. We are sick of ‘federal’ conferences being taken up by English-only stuff. And its hard for us to make the case for a truly federal UK when we cant even get it right in our own party.

  • Peter, I agree on the general point, but the problem is, with the regions massively under-powered as they are, the reality we’re currently dealing with is that England is effectively a unit – and if nothing else, in public consciousness, it’s on the same level as Wales and Scotland despite the issues you describe. So until we can get to the point where the regions or other devolved areas are up and running properly, we’ve got to deal with ‘England’ as a unit.

    One possible way around the day’s travel rule would be for England-wide meetings to be held in different locations to enable a broad spectrum of attendees. Either way, George’s substantive point is spot on.

  • Graham Evans 5th Jul '15 - 10:50am

    I totally agree that we need to establish a separate English Liberal Democrat Party. This will deal with the immediate question of the Party having some sort of English identity. I hope however all the constituent parts of the federal party would remain committed to the United Kingdom, unlike the Scottish Greens who support independence for Scotland, and the England & Wales Greens – note they have no separate parties for the two countries – who have washed their hands on the whole issue of the breakup of the UK. However, I think we should see this as a first step towards further devolution. If the Cornish and London parties for instance, and in due course, wish to set up separate parties (rather akin to the CSU which only operates in Bavaria, whereas the CDU campaigns in the rest of German) then they should be allowed to do so. However, it is important to identify whether there are any matters on which the federal party has the last word, and in this respect we need to look at what happens in other federal states, such as Canada, Australia, the USA, Germany, and Switzerland.

  • Mick Taylor 5th Jul '15 - 11:35am

    I disagree very very strongly with the thrust of this approach. What we actually need in England is stronger regional parties and the abolition of the whole ‘English Party’ structure.
    We are a party of devolution and regional identity is far stronger and more meaningful that englishness, which unlike being Scottish or Welsh is a rather nasty nationalistic idea with strong overtones of xenophobia and racism, summed up brilliantly in the Flanders and Swan song ‘The English are best’.
    We should practise what we preach and devolve power to regions. After all, Yorkshire has the same population and GDP as Scotland! If we can’t do this as a party, how can we preach devolution as a policy choice for our country.

  • Agree very strongly with the article. The relationship between Scotland and England especially needs to be much more autonomous if we are to make it less toxic. The situation within England is very different, but this alliance of liberals and democrats for England idea can be compatible with the call for well defined regional parties, probably attached to and focused on the combined authorities as they emerge.

  • Mick Taylor, in many ways I wasn’t English until I came to Scotland. Nasty xenophobic nationalism has just been a fact of life here, and I reject any suggestion that it is a uniquely English phenomenon. Englishness is now largely inevitable, even if only as all that remains after Scottishness and Welshness have been taken out of Britishness by their respective nationalist movements. We should be about making it more than that.

    I won’t use their terms myself, but if the nationalists here can call themselves ‘civic’ and handwave all the problems that emerge, then in England we can be the patriots who care about their country against the nationalists who hate their neighbours.

  • George Potter 5th Jul '15 - 1:11pm

    We have to deal with the world as it is rather than as we’d like it to be. I want regional devolution in England (though not the artificial euro regions).

    But practically speaking there’s no such thing as Yorkshire policy or Surrey policy or Cumbria policy. There’s English policy. There might be an argument for separate state parties in Cornwall and in places, like London, which end up with their own form of devolution, but generally speaking if you want to have England-only policy made in England then it has to be at an English conference and you’ll need an English campaigning HQ to turn that policy into campaigning activity on the ground. And besides which many regions simply aren’t strong enough to take on the burden of being a state party in their own right.

    One option might be to democratise and reform the English party, abolish regions within it, and instead switch to large local parties covering entire counties with their branches taking the place of current local parties. Or instead of counties as the focus we could switch to police authorities since they’re the largest unit which has elections in England (see: http://www.justiceinspectorates.gov.uk/hmic/media/police-force-map.pdf).

    But the populist solution of “scrap the English party and upgrade the regional parties” really wouldn’t do much to match up with what’s on the ground or help us campaign more effectively.

  • I agree with Mick Taylor that strong regional parties are desirable, but it seems to me that an essential precondition for that is the independent English Party that George Potter proposes.

  • Stephen Hesketh 5th Jul '15 - 3:35pm

    Just as the UK is culturally and economically diverse, we must recognise this to be true for England and its regions also. The continuation of strong regional parties is a must.

    Any national English party must have its offices and meetings in the Midlands not in London!

  • Mick Taylor 5th Jul '15 - 3:55pm

    George Potter
    I can’t speak for other regions, but here in Yorkshire we have our own conference and make policy as a region and yes, we do have Yorkshire Policy and there are specific Yorkshire problems.
    By the way, this debate is nothing new. At my first Liberal Assembly in Edinburgh in 1968 we had a huge debate on whether we should have an English Parliament with no less a person than Jo Grimond arguing that we should. He was roundly defeated by those of us who felt (and still feel) that this kind of setup would be hugely overbalanced as the vast majority of UK citizens liver in England, which has many regional identities that would not be catered for by an English set=up, because it would be dominated by London centrics.
    We really must reject the idea of an English only setup in our party too, because it does not and cannot allow for regional diversity.
    And no George, we don’t have to accept things as they are. We are a radical party that sets out to change the world and we have to go out in front and lead.

  • Duncan Brack 5th Jul '15 - 4:00pm

    We do have already have an English party, and before the major review of the party’s constitution in 1993, it had its own policy-making structure, with its own policy committee and conference (which took place immediately before the Federal conference). It dealt with issues such as education, housing and social services. No one in the media – and hardly anyone in the party – understood what it did or what its purpose was, because there was no English government for it to mirror – so in practice anything it debated was totally ignored by the outside world and largely by the party as well.

    No one who remembers that structure would want to go back to it. Indeed, when we reformed the constitution in 1992-93, there was a lively debate about whether people wanted the structure we have now or a more decentralised set-up, with regional parties carrying out what the English party does now – but no one at all wanted to keep the previous structure.

    Fighting the elections as ‘English Liberal Democrats’ seems to me to be a good way to be confused with the English Democrats.

  • George Potter 5th Jul '15 - 4:04pm

    @Duncan

    Fortunately almost nobody even knows who the English Democrats are. They might risk being confused as us but not the other way round!

    And judging by other comments here it’s certainly the case that the Scottish and Welsh members don’t really appreciate an allegedly federal conference being taken up by England only policy. So whatever solution we end up with should have English policy making occurring separately from federal conference (and at a completely different time).

  • George Potter 5th Jul '15 - 4:08pm

    I actually think that the way it should work is as follows:

    Democratic reform of the English party to include a directly elected executive and OMOV.
    Devolution of all England only elements of the federal party to the English party.
    New regions in England being formed by a bottom up clubbing together of local parties.

    There’s no reason why parties in Yorkshire might not decide to recreate the same region and they could still organise their own policy making conference. But that doesn’t have to mean that Yorkshire could be a state party.

    Mind you, if regions wanted to become state parties they should still be able to do so but largely I imagine that most of the new regions would be much smaller than the current ones and would not want to, or be able to cope with, being state parties in their own right.

  • Peter Davies 5th Jul '15 - 5:22pm

    So you are in fact arguing for replacement of those bodies that currently organise devolved policy making conferences with one that covers too large an area to do so and several that are too small to organise one.

  • George Potter 5th Jul '15 - 6:04pm

    @Peter Davies

    At three years of regional conference in my region we have debated precisely zero real policy motions.

    What I’m talking about is having the England-only policy making which happens at federal conference done at specific English conferences and separately having new regions which would also have conferences and debate policy.

    But, for instance, a Surrey conference would be likely to have more substantive policy points to talk about than a South East region conference would since the former actually has an elected body to make party policy for.

  • George Potter 5th Jul '15 - 6:06pm

    And the last time a substantive policy motion was submitted to my regional conference (on transport in the region) it was rejected in case it caused confusion with policy decided at federal conference.

  • George Potter 5th Jul '15 - 6:11pm

    So much for devolved policy making.

  • Mark Valladares Mark Valladares 5th Jul '15 - 7:05pm

    Hmmm… new Regions formed from the ground up, which leaves the question of what those Local Parties that are left behind do, and how you build viable Regions that can employ staff to perform essential functions. And then, there’s the organisation of European Parliamentary selections.

    Odd though, because I remember having an exchange (http://liberalbureaucracy.blogspot.co.uk/2008/12/english-democrats-since-when-was.html) with a young man about the English Democrats about six years ago. He said at the time that he was not a member of the English Democrats because he did not trust internet banking. His name… George Potter. Just a coincidence, I’m sure…

  • George Potter 5th Jul '15 - 8:36pm

    I don’t think that there would be likely to be any local parties left behind – if any were left behind they’d probably quickly pick a neighbouring region to join. Viable regions would again be fairly simple – if a single local party can employ an organiser then there’s no reason why even a small region couldn’t be able to do the same. With organising European selections that’s a problem already faced in the south east and the south west and once again we seem to manage it without much difficulty.

    On the topic of the English Democrats I could very easily say it was just a coincidence but, alas, I am the one and the same as the George Potter you spoke to seven years ago. I had some very odd views back then which make me cringe in hindsight but happily I got better quite quickly because, after flirting with the English Democrats for a couple of months, I ended up joining the Lib Dems the next year. Basically because I’d had some rather right wing friends at school, was quite keen on the idea of an English Parliament, got interested in the English Democrats and then ran away as fast as I could when it became apparent how racist and thoroughly horrible the people running it were. I think I’ve always been a liberal but my journey to realising I belonged in the Lib Dems was quite a rocky one. And since joining the party my views on several issues have changed even more considerably. Which I think is a credit to the level of debate in the Lib Dems.

  • Now, then.

    As a Yorkshireman living in Scotland I’d like to make a couple of particularist points,

    Number one : that picture’s got nowt to do with England – it’s Ribblesdale in Yorkshire…. a million miles from the scenery in Guildford.

    Now if our chum in Guildford thinks there should be a Yorkshire Parliament – he’s spot on. Same population as Scotland and fully capable of fielding a cricket team to beat the Aussies.

    Second point – a public holiday for ‘hardworking families’ on 23 April ? To celebrate some Greek bloke who didn’t really kill a dragon in Palestine ? Come off it, lad.

  • Rather than create an English party, how about beefing up the present regional Lib Dem parties? That models devolution within England, which seems a wise option. It also provides an easier point of connection for members whose local parties are weak.

  • George Potter 5th Jul '15 - 9:40pm

    I think it can be said that there are lots of things the English party and the federal party in England does which regions are too small to cope with. Disciplinary rules and tribunals, for instance and membership services.

  • Mark Valladares Mark Valladares 5th Jul '15 - 10:23pm

    George,

    I hate to tell you this, but whilst there are some Local Parties who can afford staff, they’re very lucky ones. My county, Suffolk, couldn’t hope to afford a staff member, and there are entire existing Regions who have always struggled on that score – East Midlands being one.

    But if you were to have a choice of neighbouring Regions, what would be the criteria for doing so – financial support, geography? And who would decide? Could a Region reject a local party wishing to join, would a Region want the responsibility of managing a derelict Local Party, for example? Who would arbitrate?

    European selections are currently easy to organise because the Party Regions sit nicely with the European ones. If the boundaries become more random, it will become more difficult to coordinate parts of Regions to form selections – the South East Euro region included two whole Regions and part of a third when first selected in 1997 (the advantage of being a European Returning Officer (for South East, interestingly, and on three occasions – for the 1999, 2004 and 2009 elections). But even they conformed with the European boundaries for the most part.

    Also, there are still some remnants of regional governance, which correspond to the European regions.

    All of that said though, I have no objection to an English Party which is transparent and accountable. The one that we have currently isn’t either, for the most part. At the same time, many of the Regions have underperformed too, run as they are predominantly by people who are already pretty committed elsewhere.

    On Stephen Hesketh’s point, I will simply note that, when English Council met in Birmingham, as opposed to London, it cost more for people to travel, and attendances were lower. I’m as critical as the next (non-London) person about the over-representation of London and the south-east at the higher organisational levels of the Party. But having things in Birmingham is not necessarily the magic bullet that some think it is.

  • @George Potter

    Good reply to Mark there! People are allowed to change their minds, particularly in the right direction!

  • Mark Valladares Mark Valladares 5th Jul '15 - 11:03pm

    Andrew,

    Let’s just say that I have a long memory and a deep suspicion of narrow-minded nationalism…

  • George Potter 5th Jul '15 - 11:26pm

    @Mark

    It’s a good thing I was never a narrow-minded nationalist. Eurosceptic, keen on the idea of devolution for England and naive, yes. Nationalist and narrow-minded, nope.

  • George Potter 5th Jul '15 - 11:28pm

    On the funding issue, again I think that’s something that would be resolved by reform of the English party. If the English party took on what are currently England only matters handled by the federal party and matching funding then I imagine one of the key priorities would have to be to shift some of that budget downwards to employ organisers for all the reorganised regions. It’s not that long ago that area organisers were a thing in the party after all.

  • Little Jackie Paper 5th Jul '15 - 11:57pm

    Sorry if this is a dumb question.

    ‘for England we have a wishy-washy “devolution on demand” policy, some regional parties with policies for their own regional assembly/parliament and a former leader, Nick Clegg, who spent his time as Deputy Prime Minister pushing for city devolution with metro-mayors.’

    Isn’t almost by definition, ‘devolution on demand,’ going to produce outcomes that are, ‘wishy-washy?’ Some places will demand, some will not. For that matter some might want centralisation on demand. Isn’t that the nature of the idea. What you think of that is another matter if course. But I would have thought is self-evident that area A may well demand some different devolution to area B. Devolution on demand surely has an implication that some people will not demand it – that’s not wishy-washy.

  • George Potter 6th Jul '15 - 12:20am

    It was wishy washy in the sense that it had no sense of what powers would be involved, what model of accountability devolution would have (e.g. assemblies/mayors/etc.) or how to determine boundaries and cope with areas which didn’t fit the arbitrary population threshold the policy came up with.

  • Any changes to the way the English party works must factor in ways to account for the regional diversity in England. Indeed, an additional English Parliament would solve very little and fail on the same lines that the existing UK Parliament does.

    However, Scotland and to a lesser extent Wales are on a trajectory leading out of the union. Unless something massive and unforeseen changes soon, Scotland will be either fiscally autonomous within the UK, or independent if that continues to be blocked, within the next decade or two. To my view, recognising this and recasting the UK as a confederation between its constituent parts who each stand largely autonomous and with their own sub-country divisions as each sees necessary, makes sense.

    Indeed a potential stable outcome that I would support sees the Commons taking over as the English Parliament in cooperation with powerful, elected regional authorities. The Lords chamber would host a much reduced confederal assembly that negotiates common foreign, defense and constitutional policies for the UK while the rest of politics takes place in other institutions.

    This is all at the level of idealistic fantasy right now of course. But if we misunderstand the situation and try to make a neat federal UK solution that doesn’t recognise that Scotland and the English Regions can’t be brought under a one-size-fits-all policy anymore, we’ll find that by the time we’ve persuaded enough of the regions to buy into the existing devolution settlement, Scotland will have become impatient and walked out. Let it be asymmetric and a bit untidy, as long as it works.

  • peter tyzack 6th Jul '15 - 9:57am

    sorry, George, but I agree with Mike Taylor(did I just say that?). Yes we have an ‘English Party’, but I don’t think even it knows what it is supposed to be doing, let alone having a meaningful function within the Party as a whole. Our Regional Party structure, (being modelled on Euro-constituencies has only that one benefit-though it didn’t really help us win many Euro seats did it), is the format we need to represent the members that we are supposed to be a ‘party of’… but it really needs to be based on the structure by which we communicate with the public, ie the broadcasting Regions.
    So, scrap English Party and its associated committee, beef up the support and funding for the Regional structure, examine critically the regions themselves, re-shape them to be ones that function for our members, and lets create a working campaigning machine.

  • (Matt Bristol) 6th Jul '15 - 11:09am

    I don’t think I’m going to agree with anyone else on here, but I would propose:
    – Dissolving the Federal Party.
    – The Liberal Democrats becoming three parties with a small UK campaigning coordination committee appointed by the three national leaders and the national parties by whatever mechanism they shall determine.
    – The ‘new’ English Party having one leader and one president (both elected via OMOV), with all ‘national’ committees 50% elected by conference and 50% directly elected via postal OMOV.
    – Regional bodies within the English party to have regional leaders/convenors elected via OMOV and regional committees elected 50/50 by regional conferences and OMOV.
    – Any member can attend and vote at national or regional conferences.

    S’just an idea. Don’t shoot me.

  • Tony Dawson 6th Jul '15 - 11:58am

    There are two conflicting traits here which, by and large, do not conflict to the same extent in Scotland and Wales. One is that an awful lot of UK citizens born and raised in England do not have any particular ‘English’ affinity with people from other bits of England. They feel ‘Yorkshireman and British’ rather than ‘English’. The second is that there are undoubtedly many bits of legislation which are presently ‘England-wide.

    The national boundaries are crazy, anyway. The welsh border comes tight into Chester and everyone knows the capital of North Wales is Liverpool.

  • @(Matt Bristol) why 50/50? Why not just OMOV?

  • (Matt Bristol) 6th Jul '15 - 2:52pm

    Because I don’t feel that relatively inactive members such as myself should have complete control of the party and that conference exists for a function, to facilitate debate on specific issues and make decisions in the light of that debate.

    Therefore, I feel completely downgrading conference(s) to a talking shop with no power is counter-productive as it effectively destroys that function – but that this needs to be counterbalanced with a hefty measure of accountability to all members of the ‘national’ or ‘regional’ structures.

    Anyway, I’d say that processes for all bodies need to be as consistent as possible.

    Either way, I’d say this is a damn sight more transparent adn accountable from what we have at the mo.

    I don’t expect any of this to happen, but I’m just sayin’, mind.

  • @(Matt Bristol) “Because I don’t feel that relatively inactive members such as myself should have complete control of the party and that conference exists for a function, to facilitate debate on specific issues and make decisions in the light of that debate. ”

    OTOH why should uber-activists have complete control of the party? We all pay the same membership dues. There is an argument to say that the “armchair” members are more likely to be in touch with the general populace.

    Conference does perform a useful social function and can also be used for other purposes, such as training of activists, knowledge sharing on campaign techniques etc. But policy is too important to be decided just by the self-appointed.

  • David Evershed 6th Jul '15 - 3:22pm

    The opposite of multicultural Englishness is not racial Englishness but monocultural Englishness.

  • Peter Galton 6th Jul '15 - 5:11pm

    I think that we should look at our regional parties. I would like to see a Wessex Regional Party as I see myself as a Wessex Regionalist. I would like to see the flag of Wessex flown from public buildings However I would to see St Georges Day a public holiday, and at sporting events we must play an English anthem.

  • “We have an English party but it is run by an executive who are elected from representatives elected from regional conferences by regional voting representatives who are in turn elected by their local parties.”

    So I, as an ordinary member, elect someone who elects someone who elects someone to run the English party – or something like that.

    That’s a lot of voting but is is usefully democratic in any meaningful sense? An is it likely to be deliver accountable and effective governance?

    Compare and contrast the recent fortunes of the Co-op (that used to do things broadly that way AFAIK) and John Lewis (that doesn’t) and you have to wonder if we’re not getting this wrong.

  • Graham Evans 6th Jul '15 - 5:43pm

    A lot of the discussion seems to have focused on operational structures. However, while this can be important in getting people elected, in terms of policies we surely have to define the powers and responsibilities which the regional or national authorities exercise. There is little benefit in having a “Yorkshire policy” on say public transport if this remains the responsibility of the Westminster Parliament to pass laws and determine investment. From the start the Scottish Parliament had law making powers, and even the Welsh Assembly had wide discretion in terms of expenditure (if not income). London is often cited as an example on English devolution. However, in reality this is an illusion, resulting mainly from the fact that Transport for London and the Met have huge budgets, and their operations directly affect the lives of most people who live or work in the capital. The power of London derives not from powers of its mayor but from the charismatic character of the tow office holders, Ken Livingston and Boris Johnson. The devolution now promised to Cornwall and Manchester may provide them with a budget and degree of discretion in the control of that budget which justifies the need for regional parties to determine policy in respect of the devolved responsibilities. However until that sort of financial devolution becomes widespread there is little benefit in having regional parties devoting time and effort to developing policies for, say, Yorkshire, which are distinct from what happens in other parts of the country.

  • Richard Underhill 8th Jul '15 - 6:39pm

    Ian Sanderson is right, except for the fact that the Tory government is acting fast now. The result will be variable geometry to put it politely.

  • Neil Sandison 11th Jul '15 - 11:17am

    Since George Osborne is re-introducing labour style regionalisation through the back door there could be a good argument for an English Regional Party and conference so that we can better understand the problems of different regions of England .Share best good practice and campaign on a regional basis .This could help structurally in organising MEPs and Mayoral hopefuls across a region or regions. We need to recognise without a counter English voice we leave the door wide open for UKIP and the Tories to exploit narrow nationalism .The most obvious place to base it would be in the Midlands where it would at least be within a days travelling distance for most members.

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