William Wallace writes: As seen from Westminster

Parliament is back – and humming with rumours of plots about hijacking the order paper, conversations with disillusioned Conservatives, and speculation about when the election will get under way.

Outside (on Tuesday afternoon, and into the evening) there are hundreds of demonstrators, the overwhelming majority of them opposed to Brexit.  The arrival of the Yorkshire for Europe group, marching behind a tuba down the middle of the road, was a highlight for me; but when I went out to greet them I found Devon for Europe flags, a piper playing the Ode to joy on his bagpipes, and sustained chanting of ‘Stop the Coup’ all round the media on Abingdon Green.

The Remainers are a happier crowd than the minority of Brexiters, which makes a definite impression on those who come in and out of Westminster: threats, shouted claims of conspiracy, placards reading ‘Traitors in Parliament’ don’t win wavering hearts and minds.

Inside it’s impossible to say what will happen from one hour to the next.  We have welcomed Philip Lee crossing the floor to become the sixteenth Liberal Democrat MP in this Parliament – and wonder if there may yet be one or two more to follow in the days that remain before prorogation.  The Prime Minister looked rattled at times in answering questions on the G7 Statement on Tuesday afternoon: more like the stand-up comic that he should have been than the statesman that he aspires to become. I’ve talked in the corridors with MPs and peers of both the ‘old’ parties, who are as consumed by the situation as everyone else.  I found one Conservative I knew and liked struggling between his conscience and his loyalty to his party.  I was happily surprised to find a Labour MP already thinking about some form of informal arrangements at local or regjonal level if it comes to an early election.

We Liberal Democrats are not – we have to recognise – in an easy position at Westminster, or on Abingdon Green.  We are the fourth largest party in the Commons, with the media turning to us only after they have quizzed the SNP.  And the divisions within Labour and the Conservatives encourage commentators to assemble panels entirely composed of antagonists from within a single party.  Jo Swinson, Tom Brake and others have been doing their best to catch media and public attention, aided by our small and hard-working press team.  The Times on Tuesday has the Liberal Democrats on 21%, with Labour on 22%; but Wednesday’s story will be about discussions within the Labour Parliamentary Party on whether they will vote for an early election without conditions, or cooperate in imposing conditions first.

What should we be doing to gain ground, and to prevent ourselves being pushed to the side by Labour MPs and strategists who insist that they are the only credible alternative to this Vote Leave government?  We should all be talking to disillusioned members of the other parties, including local councillors (and MPs when we can reach them), to win them over, to persuade them that the two-party system is broken and that the more open-minded of them would be happier moving over to us.  We should be bombarding local, regional and social media with messages about the constitutional trickery that Johnson is attempting, about the wide gap between the easy Brexit promised in 2016 and the hard Brexit we now face.  Tuesday’s Daily Mail, with its scoop on the disaster scenario the government’s own briefing has warned about if we crash out, deserves to be beamed into every Brexiter’s home.

Of course we have to step up preparations – and fund-raising – for an election, whenever it may come.  And be ready for whatever emerge in terms of proposals for a ‘Remain Alliance’, which could require hard bargaining.  The Guardian last week argued that Labour candidates would clearly be chosen for most ‘Remain Alliance’ approvals, that Liberal Democrats would be approved to fight some Conservative-held seats and would be ‘happy’ to come back with up to 40 MPs.  Many commentators are still writing about us winning back seats in Scotland and the South-West of England, ignoring our potential in London and other cities.

And we need to make and explain the case for Liberalism, far more than for just stopping Brexit.  Liberal democracy, the rule of law, respect for minorities and for diversity, are all principles that are threatened by right-wing populism; there’s now a sympathetic audience for us to win over.  The chaos at Westminster makes it easier – and more urgent – for us to argue for constitutional reform and a more open democracy.  Johnson’s promises of increased spending offer us an opening also to make the case for regional and individual redistribution, and for investment in a more sustainable economy.  There’s a lot for us to do.

* Lord Wallace of Saltaire is a Liberal Democrat member of the House of Lords.

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9 Comments

  • Katharine Pindar 4th Sep '19 - 4:57pm

    Thank you for this Insider’s view of the current, fascinating and hopeful national political situation, William. I have only one objection – your reference to both the ‘old’ parties. The Liberal Party, enriched as it has been by the Social Democrats but still holding the same principles, is of course much older than the Labour Party!

    There is of course a danger of the two-party governmental alternation between Conservatives and Labour reviving, so that a renewed collective determination of the smaller parties and independents to push now for a fairer voting system seems essential. In view of the disunity of both the large parties that also seems opportune, though in the strange churn of political fortunes it now seems it is the Conservative rather than the Labour party which is the more likely to disintegrate: how are loyal Tories meant to choose between the rival claims of Philip Hammond/Kenneth Clark/Rory Stewart et al and the Johnson cabal?

    Fortunately our own revived party has no such problem of disunity, but as the author here says, there is much work for us to do. I look forward to hearing your important input, Lord Wallace, into the debate at the Conference on the vital A Fairer Share for All motion, which needs strengthening.

  • Pity most people rubbished my article on LDV a year ago proposing, effectively, a Remain Alliance. We might actually have had the time to sort out some sensible arrangements if we’d started talking to other parties back then.

  • Graham Jeffs 4th Sep '19 - 6:19pm

    So the SNP are girding themselves up to help provide Johnson with the GE he seeks in order to steam-roller his views. What a surprise!

  • William Wallace 4th Sep '19 - 8:34pm

    Tony Hill: a Remain Alliance is NOT easy to negotiate. A year ago any negotiation with Labour Associations would have been next to impossible. Now some of them are recognising that there MIGHT be mutual advantage in talking, if only their leadership did not block it. LibDems have constructively engaged with the Greens and with Plaid in several areas. The impression I still get from Labour contacts is that they think they are the natural and entitled alternative to the Tories, and that we should be grateful if they offer us a crumb or two. Furthermore, we are their main competitors in many urban areas.

  • Katharine Pindar 5th Sep '19 - 12:28am

    Right-wing populism has now been exposed by the Johnson cabal as being as red in tooth and claw, ironically, as any supposedly ‘Marxist’-led government here could possibly be. If Momentum has managed deselection of some moderate Labour MPs, the clean sweep of 21 Tory MPs who ventured to vote against their Leader’s orders ~ our PM who has himself voted against his predecessor’s will, and who has as yet no democratic legitimacy ~ is as ruthless an action as we can imagine from any British leader. While Kenneth Clarke (apologies for the ‘e’ of his name slipping earlier from my fingers) was one of those intending to retire at the next General Election, what will become of the majority of the moderate rebels, including the erstwhile Chancellor Phillip Hammond and the leadership contender Rory Stewart? And how are Liberal Democrats in their constituencies or the constituencies of deselected Labour MPs and Independent or Change MPs to act in the forthcoming struggle? The field for local alliances may have suddenly broadened, but there are also going to be many difficult decisions to be made by our local parties.

  • Sue Sutherland 5th Sep '19 - 1:15pm

    I agree with Joseph Bourke that we do need to win back more of the university educated social liberals. I think that’s a given, but we also need to appeal to the working class voter. In fact I believe that this is much more in line with our Preamble and our belief that there should be social justice which is sadly lacking in our divided society. So, our hearts should be with those whose lives are a constant struggle to make ends meet. This concern should also make sense to our political intellect. We need to persuade Labour voters, and, if possible, some Tories and BXP voters that their lives will improve dramatically under a Lib Dem government if we want to make a leap forward in our number of MPs. We have to persuade them that membership of the EU can provide the wealth to make life fairer for them, that the future lies with us.

  • Katharine Pindar 6th Sep '19 - 1:38am

    Well said, Sue. And we do have a programme to support everyday folk, especially the poorest and most disadvantaged. which hopefully will be strengthened by the motion at Conference on A Fairer Share for All when it is amended.

    Strangely, though, tonight I am thinking of what more we can achieve in London. In Orpington! For I see that Jo Johnson who is resigning is MP for Orpington. Well, for a Liberal of my vintage, perhaps of yours too Sue, Orpington with Eric Lubbock was an inspiration. a delight and a dream. It couldn’t last for ever. But let us win Orpington back now, and it will seem as if the dream has come true again!

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