Tuesday, September 26, 2017

GUEST POST The Lib Dems and Brexit: How a shot in the arm became a shot in the foot

Neville Farmer says the Liberal Democrats should have adopted a bolder position on Brexit.

I love conference, but something always happens to shake my faith. A classic example happened in Bournemouth.

An unscheduled Sunday motion proposed that an elected Liberal Democrat government would reverse Article 50 without need for a further Brexit referendum. It was crudely drafted but it was strong and clear and answered Paddy Ashdown’s call for some party radicalism – "Put Vince in No 10 and we’ll end Brexit." Sounded good to me.

When they heard that the planned and impotent Brexit 'consultation' had been changed to a debate, the party leadership flipped. A blocking amendment was tabled reverting to the 'first referendum on the facts' option, sweetened with votes for over 16s and expats.

In the debate, the choice of speakers was skewed. Speakers for the motion included first-timers with off-subject anti-Brexit comments, while the amendment was backed by MPs and peers.

Tim Farron said supporting the motion denied the will of the people, blocked the young and expatriated from a vote and showed an illiberal loyalty to first-past-the-post. Others claimed the motion would make us seem like a 'one-trick' party.

The only party senior supporting the motion was brave former MEP Liz Lynne.

The spoiler amendment passed by a mile and, instead of a shot in the arm for the party fortunes, we shot ourselves in the foot.

How? Think for a second. How can we get another Brexit referendum if we’re not elected? How can we get rid of first-past-the-post elections if we’re not elected? How can we give over 16s the vote if we’re not elected? How can we do anything we debate at conference?

We can’t. So, let’s give the country a policy to elect us on.

A general election is a referendum. They're brutally unfair, but they’re what people know and a promise to end Brexit is more likely to win votes than "Vote for us for another chance to vote."

The May government is tottering. Labour Remainers have realised Corbyn is pro-Brexit.

There are many millions in the middle of British politics crying out for someone strong to wake Britain from the Brexit nightmare while we offer a policy that just helped lose 375 Lib Dem electoral deposits!

I’ve heard members say we lost them because of the press campaign against Tim’s views on gay sex. Come on!

Others say we were too obsessed with Brexit and should have been stronger on the NHS, but the British Electoral Study says more than a third of people cited Brexit as their number one voting motivation. Oh, for a third of the vote!

Even if we didn’t win power, we would have attracted such a popular swing we would embolden Tory and Labour Remainers to push for a referendum anyway.

And if media rips into us, bring it on! It’ll be nice to be noticed for a change.

Neville Farmer was the Lib Dem candidate for Wyre Forest 2010, a West Midlands Euro candidate and editor of Who’s Who In The Liberal Democrats. He is currently a town councillor in Corsham - follow him on Twitter.

1 comment:

Phil Wainewright said...

Like Neville, I was disappointed conference didn't embrace a clear stance of opposing Brexit. Backing the motion wouldn't have ruled out the option of a new referendum, but it would have given clarity about what LibDems stand for instead of yet more prevarication.

The mainstream view in the party seems to be that we dare not go against 'the will of the people' although TBH it's a bit late for our party to start worrying about what voters will think if we do the opposite of what they want. The first step towards rebuilding trust has to be adopting stark positions and sticking to them.

Instead of trying to negotiate some convoluted bargain with leave voters we should be saying that Brexit won't deliver what they want and that only an exitfrombrexit allows the country to get on with actually fixing its problems such as housing, NHS, education, regional investment etc.