Tag Archives: liberal-democrats

Election 2019: my Lib dilemma

By even more than my usual standards this is a dreadful ramble, being as it is an attempt to nail down my thinking about the state of the Liberal Democrat and Labour parties right now. tl;dr: I’m just so tired of this shit.

So, now that both the Lib Dem and Labour manifestos have been launched, I find myself in a bit of a dilemma: I definitely prefer the Labour version to the Lib Dem one, with one very major exception (which ought to be obvious but don’t worry folks, I’ll be joining the dots below). Worse, I actually prefer Labour’s campaign thus far.

Disclaimer: I haven’t read either manifesto in very great detail, and this isn’t really the focus of this article other than first impressions and where the parties are placing their emphasis. If you think I’m misrepresenting either manifesto here, feel free to point it out in the comments below.

I voted Labour in both the 2015 and 2017 general elections. In 2015 I had no qualms about doing so; in 2017 I was very deeply conflicted about it and nearly couldn’t go through with it. I’ve hated how Labour have conducted themselves so much that I went into this election pretty sure there was no way I’d do it again.

This is an election of grim ironies. Labour under Corbyn has turned “Blairite” into a catch-all insult. We are to believe that Blairite = melt = moderate = centrist = liberal = neoliberal = conservative = fascist — such has been the level of discourse within the left over the past four years that these words no longer have any meaning other than to other people. And yet, just as moderate-hating Labour supporters were keen to brag about how moderate Labour’s 2017 manifesto was, this manifesto wouldn’t look that out of place with 1997 Tony Blair’s irritating grin beaming off of it (to add more irony, the wavy text on the front is more reminiscent of the Kinnock-era Labour Party Logo — I guess it was commissioned by Michael Foot technically?). Indeed, the keynote policy of a windfall tax is a carbon copy of Blair’s own 1997 windfall tax, right down to it raising approximately the same amount of money in real terms. In that respect, at least, I think the Lib Dem manifesto is at least more honest, pledging to raise taxes a little for all people rather than pretend it can just be covered by easy scapegoats.

But, to be fair to them, it is on the economy that their manifesto feels much stronger. While the Lib Dem manifesto says good things about devolution and creating opportunity, the emphasis in the Labour manifesto is on levelling up. And this is important. We are in the mess that we’re in as a country right now in no small way because of how lopsided our economy has become, and how large swathes of the country has been left behind. Politicians have been keen to brag about how their policies have strengthened the economy over the past few decades, much less keen on ensuring that the country as a whole sees those benefits — and that’s been a crashing failure.

The signs are that Labour understand that problem; I don’t really get a sense that the Lib Dems do. To be fair to them, they do also have a welcome focus on wellbeing and shifting focus of economic policies away from growth — but it feels like a bolt-on to the economic policy at the end, not a core focus.

Obviously, my big issue with the Labour manifesto is Brexit. Again, it’s deeply ironic that the leader who has defined himself in opposition to centrism has made his position on the single most important policy of the day a matter of the most studied triangulation that would make Bill Clinton blush. My biggest problem with Labour’s Brexit “policy” (scare quotes very much intentional) is that I don’t believe it, and don’t believe it is credible. I don’t believe that Corbyn will negotiate a Brexit deal, based on his priorities, and then expect the Labour Party to sit out a subsequent referendum. I don’t believe there will be a subsequent referendum if Corbyn thinks he can possibly get away with it. The Lexiteers in Corbyn’s inner circle have made it perfectly clear that they will not allow a referendum to happen, and if you think they will you need only look at how this policy was agreed upon by Labour conference — forced through by a chair who could plainly see that the vote was split and refused to take a card vote.

I get that this seems like an obscure detail to get hung up on, but it’s in details like these that decisions gets made. The agreed upon policy was that after negotiating a deal, Labour will have an emergency conference to decide what its policy should be. The way Labour’s constitution is formulated easily allows for Corbyn to push through a motion reversing the policy of a referendum. I’m not saying he’ll definitely do it, and I’m not saying it wouldn’t massively backfire on him. What I am saying is that he’d like to do it, that many of his closest advisers intend for this to happen, and that he has form in shooting himself in the foot in the name of ideology — I present his entire 4+ years handling of the Brexit referendum and beyond as evidence.

And if he can’t stitch up conference, again like Blair, he simply ignores it — as is the case of Labour’s position on immigration. It’s hard to dismiss this as anything other than a dog whistle and it suggests that Labour’s Brexit positioning is hardening again. In 2017, they proudly stood on a platform to end free movement as part of their preferred Brexit deal, a position which they have spent the last two years slowly softening thanks to pressure within the party. Now we are likely to see them once again make it part of their Brexit deal. Assuming they do go ahead with a referendum (which assuming Labour wins I’ll concede is probably the most likely outcome eventually, regardless of what Corbyn wants or tries to do), we are likely to see it once again fought on immigration and a repeat of all of the ugliness that we saw in 2016. Corbyn is doing this with his eyes wide open.

The cynicism is breathtaking. In an interview before the manifesto was finalised, Len McCluskey stated his opposition to free movement, arguing that “If we don’t deal with the issues and concerns, we will create a vacuum that will be filled by a far right seeking to become the voice of the white working class.” In that respect he’s right: if people don’t see the benefits of immigration then we are playing into the far right’s hands. But the answer to that is to deal with those underlying issues, which is what a manifesto is meant to do, not give the far right what they want anyway with a pat on the head and a wink. Ultimately, this reads like a vote of no confidence in Labour’s wider economic policies — an admission that Labour don’t really feel they’re capable of rebalancing the economy. And I struggle to get past the fact that if McCluskey and Corbyn get what they really want and we leave the EU, he’s right: their economic policies won’t be worth a damn if they are having to also deal with the political, diplomatic and economic fallout of Brexit.

For me, the dog whistling about immigration and the charges of antisemitism are impossible to divorce. When Corbyn was first elected leader, I felt minded to defend him on the latter issue. The fact is, there most definitely are people on the right of Israeli politics who seek to use charges of antisemitism as a deflection over criticism over Israel’s treatment of Palestine. We’ve seen plenty of bad faith arguments being employed, such as Maureen Lipman’s claim that “Corbyn made me a Tory” four years after telling people to oppose Labour in protest over the position of Ed Miliband (who happens to be a secular Jew) on Palestine. And you are deluding yourself if you think that the Tories’ rightward shift is in any way more in the interests of British Jewry than Corbyn in Number 10: I hope more sensible people can see Johnson and company’s far more explicit Islamophobia and see that as a red flag and a warning of what to expect.

But none of that is to deny the charge that antisemitism exists within Labour and has been allowed to fester. There are simply too many examples of explicit antisemitism and we have seen too little action. The fact that Richard Burgon remains a shadow minister after is not only saying that “Zionism is the enemy of peace” but then denied saying it speaks volumes.

The problem is, it’s a complex issue which is more about how people on the hard left view the world than explicit racism. When Corbyn sees a mural leaning into fairly blatant antisemitic tropes, he doesn’t recognise it as such because what he does see is a mural about evil capitalist bankers plotting wars and division on the backs of everyone else. I don’t actually doubt his sincerity when he argues that he simply didn’t look closely enough at the image: he saw what he wanted to see. I’m completely confident that most people on the hard left who share his world view don’t see this as antisemitic and sincerely believe you can divorce these tropes from their source. The problem is you can’t, and this worldview is entirely at odds with the world works.

There is no grand global capitalist conspiracy to keep us under heel; that tragedy is, as Marx himself spelled out 150 years ago, there doesn’t need to be. You don’t even need to be a Marxist to see that without any form of regulation markets lean towards monopolisation, poor standards and the privatisation of wealth. And while I’m as in favour of greater lobbying transparency as anyone (it was my job to campaign for it for a decade, after all), the problem isn’t people working in the dark over some wicked grand design — it’s individuals and companies looking out for themselves and their short term interests. Even when you look at worrying trends such as Russia’s interference in the democratic process worldwide, it’s important to remember that this isn’t merely a case of Putin pulling the strings; it’s Putin finding allies who feel they can profit equally from the fallout and taking advantage of problems countries like the UK had festering for decades. The fact that there is no grand plan is far more scary than the comfortable fiction that there is one.

You should take the charge of antisemitism within Labour seriously because you should believe the victims of any form of racial or ethic abuse and stand in solidarity with them. But even if that wasn’t the case it should concern you because underlying it is a toxic world view that will influence how Labour governs. The problem isn’t merely the more blatant abuse — it’s the spectrum that it lies on. And when we see McCluskey and his fellow Lexiteers seeing this an election as an opportunity to throw migrants and settled European citizens under a bus for political gain (regardless of the mealy-mouthed language he couches it in), it’s all part of a similar trend which casually dehumanises people who are politically inconvenient to them.

Labour has always had a tribal problem. It’s been bizarre watching Tom Watson reinvent himself over the past decade from Labour’s headbanger in chief (jeez, in a previous life I used to run a parody website about him) to the “above it all” gracious statesman he likes people to now see him as. It reminds us that much of the mindless tub thumping that has characterised Corbyn’s leadership was around long before he got to take charge. But the combination of it with the plain nastiness of the hard left has been a tough thing to watch over the last few years. I used to think that over time it would burn itself out and the grownups would slowly begin to reassert itself; now I think the way it resolves itself will be much more convoluted and painful.

And it is worth emphasising how nasty the hard left can be. I feel that the generations ahead of me don’t really get what the fuss about Militant was; my awakening was joining the Lib Dems in the mid-90s and meeting teenager after teenager whose Lib Dem parents had had to deal with threats to murder their children delivered by brick through their living room windows at 2am. I’ve seen friends beaten up for the “crime” of winning a student union election. I’ve sat in Stop the War coalition meetings seeing the AWL gleeful at the fact that we had failed to stop the war because it now meant the “gloves could come off”. And I’ve seen friends lives and careers ruined because some trumped up little twerp sees himself as the next Gramsci and is going to use their position to take over some minor voluntary sector organisation in the name of The Cause. Tom Watson really wasn’t the great force in politics that his admirers think he was, but what is replacing him looks set to be far worse.

So, to recap: on strict policy lines I can absolutely see the attraction of Labour’s manifesto but the Brexit policy and the culture of the party behind it makes me sceptical that it can deliver. So it should be a slam dunk for me to back the Lib Dems, the party I spent most of the last three decades supporting, in this garbage fire of an election. So why do they have to make it so damn hard?

Because here’s the plot twist. With all that said about Corbyn — for all his failings that make me deeply wish almost anyone but him was leading the Labour Party right now — there is no possible outcome of this election that I can see that doesn’t involve either Corbyn or Johnson in Number 10. It’s one thing two years into a parliament for the Lib Dems to fail to offer Corbyn their support in trying to muster up the votes needed to install him as Johnson’s replacement — the numbers weren’t there even within the Labour Party for that to happen. It’s quite another thing to rule out backing Corbyn under any circumstances, as the Lib Dems have now done.

It is worth pointing out that the Lib Dems have equally ruled out backing Johnson under any circumstances too. But assuming that the Conservatives win a plurality of the seats in the House of Commons (currently the most likely scenario), here’s what this new formulation of equidistance means in practice:

  • with Corbyn unable to secure a majority, the Queen will invite Johnson to form a government;
  • Lib Dems vote against and Johnson fails to secure a majority;
  • Corbyn is invited to form a government; Lib Dems vote against and Corbyn fails to secure a majority;
  • repeat for two weeks until another damaging election is called (in which the Lib Dems will be wiped out), OR the Lib Dems abstain and Johnson becomes Prime Minister by default, OR the Lib Dems massively climbdown and agree to back Corbyn, breaking an election promise and having given away all of their leverage.

I can’t see any other outcome. There’s absolutely no reason for Corbyn to stand down at this stage — he will rightly be able to claim a fresh mandate and with no independent MPs for the Lib Dems to hide behind, the smaller party will have no negotiating position. I’d like someone to be able to convince me I’m wrong, but I just can’t see it.

The thing is, I get it. There’s a soul-deadening hypocrisy in our political discourse that dictates that when the Lib Dems fail to court Labour they are condemned for tribalism while nobody expects Labour to court the Lib Dems. We’ve seen this with tactical voting and the debate over standing down candidates; people are very quick to express outrage over the Lib Dems’ determination to fight in Canterbury and yet Labour have not come under any pressure to do the same in any Lib Dem-Conservative marginals. On an emotional level I share the Lib Dem frustration over this. I just think that if you’ve spent years attacking your rivals left and right for pursuing Brexit unicorns, arguing that your belief in a political Loch Ness Monster isn’t an especially credible position to take.

The tragedy is, this is so unnecessary and so distracting from the party’s anti-Brexit core message. I would dearly loved to have seen the Lib Dems look at each Labour MP in turn, stand down in the marginal seats where the MP has a strong Brexit track record and continue to oppose the sitting MPs who lack one – this isn’t about pacts, it’s about messaging. I get that part of the thinking behind ruling out any coalition is to avoid the debate degenerating into an obsession with rehearsing the coalition talks before they’ve even happened, as legend has it was the case in 1992. But a formulation must have been possible which didn’t involve pledging something that is impossible to actually deliver; accepting Corbyn can’t be got rid of is not the same as, for example, saying that Seamus Milne shouldn’t be let anywhere near Number 10.

I’m not suggesting for a minute that crafting the right message around possible coalitions and deals is easy. What I am saying is that the current position ruling out any kind of deal at all is completely at odds with reality and that the party has had time to game plan a different option.

At the heart of this problem is the elephant in the room: the 2010-2015 Lib Dem-Tory coalition. The Lib Dems can argue until the cows come home that they are not picking sides between Labour and the Tories, and insist that they are criticising both parties equally — but people will assume that they are hefting to the right if they don’t see more being done to attract the left than they have done in this election thus far. The Labour answer to each and every Lib Dem criticism of them is the coalition and the Lib Dem voting record during that period. Now, I personally feel that ultimately the coalition has proven to have been a mistake. Nonetheless I can sit here and explain how that is the nature of coalitions for junior parties to have to support a lot of the senior party’s policies, that the party made a sacrifice in the national interest and that the alternative to the coalition would have been a far worse Tory government. But trust me, no matter how right it is, that argument doesn’t land. If you want to look like you aren’t crypto-Tories to any soft Labour supporters, you don’t have to spend your lives apologising for the coalition years but you do need to send a very clear signal that you aren’t the Tories in disguise.

As it stands, the Lib Dems positioning has felt from my perspective that it is as opposed to Labour as it is to Brexit, and that doesn’t feel like the hopeful message I was hoping the party would adopt in this election. It feels nihilistic. It feels like nostalgia for the salad days of “coalicious” when the Tories were our moderate, reasonable, only very slightly evil friends who only had our best interests at heart. In short, it feels like the empty, vacuous and dishonest politics of Clegg which I thought the Lib Dems had moved on from.

I was kind of just sad about this and the party’s failure to get its message across until I saw it’s baffling decision to release an attack video on Corbyn, featuring a Corbyn puppet attacking reality. Just about the best thing I can say about this video, which has now been taken down, is that it was such a spectacular miscalculation that it hasn’t even worked as a dead cat earning the Lib Dems lots of appalled media coverage in the way that the Tories’ fake factchecking service and Labour manifesto have. I thought the even-handed attacks on Labour were part of a well researched targeting operation focused on getting disaffected Tory voters on side and that it’s only alienating me because I’m awkward; now I’m starting to think that it’s more about how the party’s senior advisors and strategists really thing — and that’s an incredibly depressing thought.

For all this, I think I will probably still vote Lib Dem. I live in Hendon, a constituency that was extremely close for Labour in 2017 but one with a heavily Jewish population where the Lib Dems actually won in the European elections this year. With tactical voting websites split over whether I should vote Labour or Lib Dem and Labour failing to campaign in any meaningful, visible way, my suspicion is that the Tories are a shoo-in and so I might as well vote for the least bad option. I just wish I felt like I was a part of a greater cause this time around rather than having to choose between two distasteful options.

Revoke or Referendum?

I’ve been fascinated by the response to the new Lib Dem position to fight the next election on a platform of revoking Article 50 and doing so if (and at the moment, it’s a big if) they win an outright majority. Polly Toynbee has denounced it as “extremist” with Emily Thornberry deciding to up the ante by comparing the party to the Taliban (I don’t know where I stand with regard making jokes about this reaction, possibly because I haven’t come up with any good ones, but I think Rajin Chowdhury makes some strong points about the unfortunate racial dimension that, as a white man, I’m privileged to not be impacted by).

Even Caroline Lucas has got in on the act, describing the policy as “arrogant, self-indulgent, cynical and very dangerous” – her point being that the policy is likely to ignite divisions rather than heal them.

There’s a few things to unpack here. Basically, there are three questions: is the policy undemocratic?; is the policy divisive?; and, is the policy likely to be a vote winner?

In terms of the latter, I’ve heard a lot of people express the worry that it isn’t – including, funnily enough, some of the six million people who signed a petition a few months ago demanding article 50 be revoked without a referendum (indeed, I don’t recall Lucas, Thornberry or Toynbee denouncing that petition). All I can say to that, aside from that time will tell, is that I would imagine the Lib Dem leadership team did their research very seriously before committing to this position and that, thus far, the polls have borne that out.

Is it undemocratic? Well, this is an interesting one. I’m still trying to keep up, as a constitutional reformer, with the situation that all my opponents have switched from saying that parliamentary sovereignty should and does trump everything else to seeing them consistently argue the exact opposite, including by people who for decades argued to leave the EU on precisely these terms. Before the crazy started, a party pledging to keep the nation’s status quo constitutional arrangements after winning a democratic mandate in a general election wouldn’t be considered noteworthy, let alone undemocratic or extremist.

Of course, you can argue that if the Lib Dems were to do this it is still unlikely they would win more than 50% of the popular vote. This is of course true. Nor was there a majority in the popular vote to impose austerity in 2010. Nor was there a majority voting for a whole host of policies which have had a major impact on our lives since time immemorial. This is a problem the Lib Dems have always recognised and pledged to do something about; neither Labour nor the Conservatives have ever made any such commitment.

There is also the argument that a general election result cannot trump the specific mandate of the 2016 election. This is where things start to slide into the third question, which is largely about politics. But I would point out at this stage that not only does that referendum result have no legal status whatsoever, but also that any democratic regime in the world which has referendums as a central mechanism for making major decisions, particularly Switzerland, would likely have stricken that result down as unconstitutional a long time ago.

If you think referendums should form a part of decision-making, then it is incumbent on you to prevent them from being quite so open to abuse as they currently are. The UK is very, very bad at holding referendums: we don’t have a legal framework to do so other than one that was sketched out in 2000 to deal with, at the time, a series of abandoned referendums for regional assemblies. We haven’t significantly updated referendum law since them, despite the debacle of the 2010 AV referendum providing us with a very salutary warning as to what might happen in a higher stakes national ballot.

It is perhaps Cameron’s greatest failing, having decided to hold that cursed referendum in 2016, to imagine that the unfair practices done in his name in 2010 would be done against him in 2016 – despite knowing that a number of the same people were involved in both campaigns. Not only did he not take that into account, but he doubled down, unjustly excluding 16 and 17 year olds and even EU citizens from the debate, for no reason other than to hand the leave campaign an unfair advantage by excluding the people with some of the greatest stakes in the result from being able to take part.

In short, if you are going to make this claim that the 2016 result should be binding, you need to at least be able to make the case that it was held democratically. In that regard, I fear, you would be on a very sticky wicket.

Finally, as in all things, we are left with the argument that this policy is divisive, and that we should be healing divisions between remainers and leavers, not deepen them. And this argument certainly has some superficial merit: the country is indeed deeply divided.

I guess my counter to that is that I’m not at all convinced that a compromise exists that can heal those divisions, and that the best approach would be to adopt the position that will at least end this ongoing festering wound. Revoking article 50, for all its risks, would at least give British politics a chance to breathe, and to start a dialogue about something, anything, other than Brexit – a great many of which would help heal those rifts. Keeping the debate going by contrast will only ensure those divisions continue.

From where we are now, I can’t see a compromise that will keep most people relatively happy. There certainly was a window of opportunity. In the summer of 2016, like a lot of people, I worked on the assumption that we were going to end up with the softest of soft Brexits and that, by 2019, would effectively have a trading arrangement akin to Norway. The result was close enough that no-one could reasonably argue that there was a strong mandate for a “hard” Brexit in which the UK went it entirely alone. Better yet, from monitoring the debate, both Vote Leave and Leave.EU had consistently argued that claims that we would drop out of the EU without a deal were “Project Fear” and specifically cited Norway as a model example.

To be clear, it wasn’t an option that I exactly relished: the Norway model is essentially the Leave position made manifest. We’d have to pay billions to the EU and have very little say in return – certainly no more votes in the European Parliament or Council of Ministers. But hey, there was a mandate, and I guess we have to listen to the will of the people. What’s more, only a few absolute headbangers were calling for a harder Brexit and surely Theresa May wasn’t going to listen to them?

How wrong I was. The subsequent conduct of the May administration appeared to work on the basis that the referendum had been a thumping victory for leave and not the narrow one that it was in reality. And as they did so, so did leave opinion harden. One of the greatest acts of gaslighting of the last few years has been to attempt to argue that the subsequent debacle has been because of remainers refusing to compromise and secretly undermining the talks, rather than leavers. Theresa May made a deliberate decision to put them in the driving seat and leave everyone else out in the cold.

So we ended up with a deal that didn’t please anyone and a leave contingency even more determined to leave at all costs, and this crazed government we have now. I didn’t do anything to create this situation and neither did Jo Swinson. The response by politicians on the leave side following Jo Cox’s murder by an extremist was not to pause for thought but to double down on the rhetoric about “saboteurs” and “enemies of the people” – and indeed we now have a government that has shut down parliamentary scrutiny, legally due to our shoddy constitution, or otherwise.

To be clear: this is not the situation we were in in 2016 where there was legitimate hurt on both sides that needed to be addressed. We’re in a situation where one side of that divide has been radicalised, and the other side has been repelled as a result. I’ve criticised the idea of centrism in the past, arguing that politicians shouldn’t be aiming for the moving target of the middle way because they are then entirely subject to the whims of their opponents, but it increasingly feels that trying to find a middle way here isn’t merely fudge but appeasement.

You don’t deradicalise a significant body people by trying to meet them halfway. Not only are people like Stephen Kinnock’s attempts to exhume the withdrawal agreement doomed to fail; if they had been successful they would be lumped in as filthy traitors just as much as the rest of us. Equally baffling is this idea that a Labour negotiated withdrawal agreement would somehow satisfy anyone, least of all the Brexiteers.

And so we return to the topic of a second referendum. For years, despite my misgivings of referendums, I thought this was the least worst option. I could see how revocation would be simpler, and it would certainly be my dream option, but I couldn’t see how it could be a politically acceptable solution to anyone other than a small cadre of remainers. I supported attempts to bring Labour on board and finally get off the fence by supporting this position; if they had done so a year ago we would likely have had the referendum by now.

But the question of what options you put in the referendum has become increasingly hard to answer. Six months ago, if Parliament had supported such a proposal, it was still just about possible to hold a referendum on remain versus Theresa May’s deal; I can’t see how that could be seen as anything other than a stitch up now. You could put crashing out of the EU with no deal at all as an option, but while people might relish the fight, it is surely not a responsible option any respectable political party could consider – it would be putting people’s lives up for debate in a public poll.

The other option is for the leave option to be a new withdrawal agreement. This is roughly what Labour seems to be tearing itself apart over now. The problem is, it’s an incredibly silly policy. Do you argue for remain and put forward a withdrawal deal that you don’t believe in? Do you say you’re going to support the withdrawal deal that you negotiate, and thus alienate your remain supporters? Or do you stay scrupulously neutral, as if that could possibly mean anything? Labour has got itself into such a mess that it might actually be for the best for them to have a formal position to remain, but give Jeremy Corbyn a free rein to negotiate the best deal he can come up with and campaign for it in the subsequent referendum in a personal capacity. That I can say that in all seriousness shows quite how hard to sustain the referendum position currently is. What looks likely is that Labour will end up committing itself to a policy almost identical to the one that David Cameron campaigned on in the 2015 general election; and look how well that turned out.

I can still see a referendum still happening as a compromise between the Lib Dems and Labour. Paradoxically, if the Lib Dems kept its position of supporting a referendum, the lack of pressure would probably make it harder to achieve. We’ve now reached a point where Labour feels it has ownership of the policy – helped by the Lib Dems vacating that space – and that will make it harder for the likes of Len McCluskey et al to persuade Corbyn to go back on it if they found themselves in government (I would be amazed if McCluskey didn’t still have a go though).

Ultimately, this muddle only strengthens my case that no position exists any longer that both leave and remain supporters can live with, and the fact that Labour is even considering an attempt at such a byzantine approach says more about the lamentable state it is currently in than anything else.

No Brexit policy is going to heal divisions; it is thus up to political parties to base their policy on what is best for the country, not try to ameliorate people with fudge. The Lib Dems have thus adopted the most responsible, straightforward and open position.

Ultimately, Brexit has only highlighted the deep divide in the UK; it didn’t cause it. If we’re going to ease that rift, we have to start looking at the deep inequality and alienation that was exploited in that poll. I’d have liked to have heard more emphasis on this coming out of Lib Dem conference in Bournemouth last week, and I have heard equally little from Labour conference in Brighton this week (scrapping posh schools, however desirable, won’t cut it). If pro-Europeans are ultimately going to win the peace, they need to start offering a vision of EU-membership from which the entire country reaps dividends, not just London and the major population centres. I don’t think offering a bit more hope would go down too badly in the election, either.

#LDConf: Defective Nuance

After years of being ignored and disparaged, the Liberal Democrats are suddenly the place to be. As well as a successful by-election, over the past few months a total of 6 MPs have joined the party, 3 ex-Labour and 3 ex-Conservative (the careful balancing suggests that there is a certain amount of stage management going on, and that there may yet be more to come), swelling the parliamentary party from 11 to 18.

This has caused a degree of consternation among the party faithful, not to mention some high profile resignations. It’s certainly given me pause for thought, especially with regard to the Conservative defections.

Now, to a large extent, I’m willing to give these people the benefit of the doubt. Philip Lee has apparently stated that his proposals to ban HIV+ asylum seekers was motivated purely out of health concerns and the desire to give asylum seekers the proper treatment; okay (that isn’t what his amendment actually says though). He claims that his abstention on same sex marriage was because he is in favour of all marriages being treated as civil unions and that the state shouldn’t be involved in marriages at all; that isn’t a million miles from my own position (not believing in letting the perfect be the enemy of the good however, I still would have voted in favour of the 2013 Act in his position). Sam Gyimah’s filibustering of the legislation pardoning Alan Turing and other people convicted of scrapped anti-homosexuality laws was a party political bid to ensure that the government’s own (lesser) version of the legislation could be passed instead; that is parliamentary party politics.

I can go further, and say that people must be allowed to change their minds. People grow, especially when placed in different environments. Party politics is a shocking place for tribalism and blinkered attitudes. Defecting to another party is a brave step which inevitably leads to people’s voting records and statements being trawled over with a fine tooth comb; you have to make some allowances for people to not be perfect. What’s more, there is the good of the country to think about. With Labour as weak and divided as it is right now, looking very much like a spent force, high profile defections aimed at boosting the Liberal Democrat’s profile and widening its appeal is a potential way out of this mess.

So I don’t want to rush to judgement on the voting records of individual ex-MPs, can see why there are a lot of positives about these defections, and why the senior party is so keen to encourage them.

But I still hate it. Really hate it.

I hate it so much that, at the height of the party being at it’s most self-congratulatory on Saturday night, as Sam Gyimah was revealed on stage during the conference rally, I had to go on a Twitter break as it was upsetting me too much (I might give it another go after conference is safely over). I had another sleepless night. And hey, it’s 2am now so I guess I’d better make that 2 sleepless nights.

Whatever good reasons there are to promote these defections, the fact is that it has caused massive ructions within the LGBT+ Lib Dems, resulting in its Chair Jennie Rigg, Vice Chair Zoe O’Connell and exec member Sarah Brown to all quit the party, along with several others.

These aren’t people known for their disloyalty to the party. Many of the people most angry about this round of defections actively supported the party during the darkest days of the coalition, when people like me had long abandoned it. The fact that previous regimes had managed to keep them on board, only for it to fall apart now, suggests a very significant failure in both communication and empathy from the current senior Lib Dem team.

A lot of, to use the modern garbage phrase, “the optics” have not been great. Philip Lee’s first response in an interview on BBC News was not to be conciliatory but to imply legal action, stating that “they’re defaming my character and they should be careful about what they say”. A later statement put out by Baroness Liz Barker and Helen Belcher, while making some fair points, frames the controversy as emanating from “a small number of activists” who, as well as accusing Lee of homophobia and xenophobia, felt that “they should have been consulted” – no mention is made of the fact that these activists included the chair of the party’s officially recognised Associate Organisation representing LGBT+ members, let alone any regret that they felt the need to resign.

I feel that too much of this controversy has focused on individuals and not looked at broader trends. We’re still reeling from a party leader who not only declared that homosexuality is a sin (a point that a number of his fellow Christians would take issue with), but that his failure to reconcile that with his leadership of a political party espousing liberal values was liberalism’s failure, not his.

But Tim Farron is ancient history now, even if he remains on the party front bench and will presumably continue to abstain or obstruct any future legislation for gay rights (we’ll have that fight if and when it happens). The swathe of rightwing populism that has resulted in Trump in the US and Brexit in the UK, has also resulted in a nationwide campaign against the rights of transgender people, leading to a massive spike in hate crime. It has lead to an ongoing campaign in Birmingham to ban the teaching of acceptance of LGBT+ people in schools, a campaign actively supported by at least one Labour MP, who remains under the party’s whip (a fact which automatically denies any Labour supporter from taking the moral high ground over the Lib Dems’ own current situation).

Let’s be clear here: we’re seeing a concerted effort to see, in effect, a return of Section 28 – the homophobic legislation banning local authorities from providing any material designed to “promote” homosexuality. And at the same time, we have a national government shutting down parliament and openly attacking the very concept of rule of law.

None of these fights are lost, but I know I’m not the only queer person who can feel the walls closing in on them right now, and is deeply concerned about where all this leads. Having visited Berlin over the summer, I was reminded how the rich, diverse and progressive Weimar-era Berlin culture was snuffed out within a few years. The ease with which the progress we’ve made over LGBT+ rights over the past couple of decades could go into reverse feels very real to me.

More mundanely, there’s the Lib Dems’ own ambivalent experience of defections from the Conservatives in recent years. With the exception of Bill Newton-Dunn, I can’t think of any prominent former Conservative who has managed to make a happy home within the party, and a lot of who have shat the bed while they were in the party. I joined the Lib Dems in 1995, shortly before Emma Nicholson defected to the party; she now sits as a Conservative in the House of Lords. We had the whole debacle of the Pro-Euro Conservative Party joining the party en masse in 2001 after their failure to win any seats in the previous European Election. Among them was future IEA director and prominent, um, Brexiteer Mark Littlewood. This brief excitement about the thought of masses of Tory defections lead to the creation of the Peel Group, but no more prominent actual defectors. You can draw a direct link between this network and the Orange Book, and of course between the Orange Book and many of the most damaging decisions the Lib Dems made while in coalition between 2010 and 2015.

For me, that’s the background: the prospect of the party re-examining its identity once again at a time when the basic rights of LGBT+ people are more open to question than they have been for years. Yet despite all that, I can see the potential wins and I can see the bigger picture. All I’d really like to see is reassurances rather than the contemptuous dismissal we saw in the Barker-Belcher statement, or waffle about Lee having “a very nuanced position”.

Fundamentally, if the Lib Dems are to take a moral stand against supporting Labour over its failure to tackle antisemitism, we can’t then start telling our own LGBT+ members that when it comes to discrimination against them, it’s all a question of nuance and pragmatism. I’m sure a lot of this debacle has been provoked by egos rubbing up against each other, but ultimately I don’t give a fig about that. The party needs to sort this out, and fast.