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.