Wednesday, 14 March 2012

Leaving the Lib Dems

James Graham
Daniel Furr
Chris Ward
James Hargrave

These are some of the people I know about who have left the Lib Dems in the past few weeks. In the case of Chris Ward, he only left today. And I only know these people because I'm friends with them or follow their blogs. I can't help but wonder how many people I don't know about are leaving. Not to mention those who have left who I know about personally but don't have convenient links for.

All of these people are sensible Lib Dems. These aren't people who left simply because they prefer being perpetually in opposition. And many of them are politically to the right of me, some of them I've often disagreed with. So this isn't simply a case of these being disenchanted lefties. Chris Ward, for example, is one of those who actually voted to approve the coalition agreement and who has always been a supporter of the coalition (he's also the one who signed me up to the party, was my local councillor for two years and is a good friend). And they're not defecting to other parties either - they're simply dropping out of party politics, the only political home they ever had no longer somewhere where they feel happy.

I also know others who are seriously considering leaving. One of them is Andrew Emmerson - a man who I heard someone at conference describe as the most right wing person in the Lib Dems. (UPDATE: Just to clarify, Andrew is considering leaving because he doubts whether the membership are capable of setting themselves in the right direction rather than over doubts about the leadership) And even people who I know are definitely staying, who are stalwart defenders of what we've achieved in government, have been expressing serious worries.

And that's not even mentioning the likes of Jennie Rigg, or myself for that matter, who are remaining members of the Lib Dems but who are very upset about several key issues.

These people aren't fools. They're not swing voters who constantly shift position and who are a dime a dozen. These are activists. These are candidates. These are men and women who are liberals to the core. And yet they're leaving or considering leaving or are thinking about leaving.

And why?

Because they see things like the Health & Social Care Bill, the Welfare Reform Bill, tuition fees, cuts to legal aid, that weren't in the coalition agreement, that will devastate lives and which they know will damage and taint the party. And, for all people, there comes a time when you have to ask what the point is in sticking with a party that seems not to bear any resemblance to the one you joined. A party where you see good friends leaving, and where you see people who share your views becoming increasingly marginalised, will eventually become one you no longer feel at home in.

And it doesn't help when the leadership keeps on walking into elephant traps and policy disasters which members have tried desperately to warn them about (see: fees, the NHS, etc.). It certainly doesn't help when the leadership say that members who disagree with them are backing Andy Burnham and generally happily and barefacedly ignore the result of any conference vote they don't like. Or when other party members dismiss those who are leaving as "disillusioned perpetual party of opposition" voters.

Now, we might be getting some new members as a result of being in coalition. But these are a) fresh, brand new members without experience of activism for the party and b) noticeably more right wing than our existing membership - so this means that, not only are we losing many of the dedicated, veteran activists that we desperately need, we are also drifting rightwards. And, quite frankly, there's only room for one right wing party in the UK and that's the Conservatives. If we drift too ideologically close then we'll disintegrate.

So where do I stand?

I used to tell myself that I didn't mind being in coalition because the coalition agreement seemed sensible enough. But then I saw the leadership allow through major tory policies, that weren't in the coalition agreement, time and time again while only achieving "administrative wins" to make up for it.

So then I told myself that we were a democratic party, that members could still change party policy and influence the coalition government. But then I tried that, I went to conference, got the support of Liberal Youth and got a motion passed about the Welfare Reform Bill. And then, for my pains, the motion got completely ignored and our MPs and peers meekly backed the Bill without showing a twinge of conscience.

So then I got angry and told myself that I could go to conference and kick up a fuss about it. But then I got to conference last week and the best I could manage to achieve was a symbolic protest which was completely ignored by the media. And I saw conference vote against the leadership on the NHS only for Nick Clegg to ignore the issue completely in speech, and the leadership to announce its intention to ignore the vote, just hours later.

So, one by one, all the political reasons I've had for staying in the party have gone.

Now, I don't mind it when I'm in a minority opinion within the party and when the leadership are prepared to make the intellectual argument for their course of action and win - but I find it impossible to stomach them just ignoring completely the will and opinions of the majority of the membership. And not just ignoring but treating us with contempt - not even having the decency to pretend to be listening.

I've been forced to realise that all the justifications I gave to the party have been proved to be false.

So where does that leave me?

It leaves me determined to remain a member of the party, that's what.

This is partly because I still support people in my local party - I know they are good people who would be brilliant champions of their communities and it would be utterly selfish of me to stop campaigning for them just because I'm angry with the leadership

But the main reason I'm going to stay is sheer bloody mindedness. I refuse to be forced out of my own party. I am, and always will be, a liberal and I will fight for liberalism come hell or high water - and if that means that I have to fight and oppose my own party's leadership then so be it. They're not getting rid of me that easy.

EDIT: By the way, if you're about to leave a comment complaining about the imminent dismantling of the NHS then please don't. I despise the NHS reforms for being shoddy, ill-thought through and pointless, but they won't privatise the NHS. Just thought I'd make that clear as someone invariably mentions the NHS in these situations.

UPDATE: I've just found the link for Liz William's resignation - hat-tip to Alex Marsh.


  1. *claps*

    Hang on in there. Be the spanner in the works. The voice of conscience. The grit in the oyster.

  2. You realise Alex was joking when she called me the most right wing lib dem! I don't think Zadok Day will be to happy that i've stolen his label!

    1. Meh - I can't tell you two apart to be honest. I don't see people, I see ideologies ;)

  3. Good for you for sticking it out.

    I'd seen the posts today by Daniel and Chris and I'm sure they won't be the last. If the leadership are not sensing that the foundations upon which their position is built are slowly crumbling then they really are totally out of touch.

    Your diagnosis of the situation feels right to me, as does your sense of the slow ebbing away of the reasons for staying. A drift to the right seems inevitable if those who are disillusioned with the leadership's capitulation to the Tory agenda all exit.

    So staying and trying to drag the party back to the territory it has traditionally occupied - which is precisely where the leadership doesn't want it to be - is the only alternative to extinction (which is, of course, precisely the Tories' (and Labour's) preferred outcome). I agree that a move to the right would be catastrophic - there'd be no reason to vote for the Tories-lite when you can vote for the real thing.

  4. Very thoughtful piece. In the end politics is not well served by cutting and running. As with many aspects of coalition politics, life is a compromise but I am still proud that without our influence the Tories would have been far more right wing. It is also just as true that a coalition with Labour was not possible under Brown and in any case just didn't add up.

    1. The only problem is that it's also impossible to escape the fact that some of the things that are happening (such as the Welfare Reform Bill) could not have happened without our support - so in those areas we're enabling the tories to be more right wing.

      Don't get me wrong, I'm still supportive of the coalition in principle, and of our party and its policies, but there are quite a few big areas where I find it impossible to endorse the coalition's record.

  5. It seems that you and I are on the horns of a dilemma, albeit for different reasons. I assume that those people you mentioned joined organised politics for good solid (if misguided in my personal view) reasons. So when they leave the Lib Dems are they lost to politics? If so, then that is a shame because whatever this Country needs now it is people of good conscience willing to fight for the weak and the vulnerable. Therefore, decent people leaving Party politics is driving the Party and the politics centre of gravity rightwards.

    All of which means that the Lib Dems will become more and more Right Wing and less and less the Party that you joined. It is a kind of vicious circle as those on the Liberal end of the Party will be further marginalized.

    The saddest thing is that many of us predicted that the Tories would use the current state of the economy to lurch Rightwards post election and we have not been disappointed. I have never hidden my dislike and distrust for the Tories, but I truly wish that I had been wrong regarding the direction they are driving the Party.

    We need to learn from the mistakes from the eighties when the Left became fragmented.

  6. There's a line in Sunset Blde, when Desmond says, in reply to an assertion that she "used to be big": "I am still big; it's the pictures that got small".

    It reminds me of your situation. You've stayed a Liberal George. It's the leadership that have ceased to be.

    I too used to vote Liberal; then I voted SNP because I want my own country back so much it hurts, but once we get independence, then what?

    I could never be a Tory; their ideology repels me, and Labour is almost Tory in England and so incredibly pathetically awful and amateur in it would probably have been the Liberals again. But Nick Clegg (to think I really rated him) and Willie Rennie (nuff said) do absolutely nothing at all to encourage me back. And as for Danny Alexander and Michael Moore? Well, they are probably history at the next election anyway, so why waste time with them?

    I really feel for you. If my party behaved the way yours has, I'd have been gone long since. But then, I'm not you; I don't have your grit.

    Power to your elbow, George.

  7. Given his working as an intern (?) with Tories Nick Clegg gives every impression of being a Tory plant at the heart of the Lib Dem party. First he lies to the electorate about tuition fees. Now he plays the Tory patsy in their moves to destroy the NHS. Just wait until the Lib Dems next face the electorate. Lib Dems you have a viper in your bosom

  8. Here's another one you didn't know about.
    And you're wrong about the NHS.

  9. tris has touched on something important that I'm not seeing Lib Dems, present or past, acknowledge. With the collapse of the Lib Dem vote in Scotland at all levels the Coalition no longer represents the interests of Britain, so much as England and parts of Wales.

    There is no sense here that the Coalition care about Scottish issues or concerns and the rise in support for the SNP reflects this. There is no only one truly national British party, and that's Labour, who, for all their problems, can claim wide geographic support. It would be a tragedy for us Scots who believe in the union to see the Lib Dems become another party of English interests.

    The trouble is to retain support in Scotland the Lib Dems will have to leave the Coalition, simply being in the same room as a Tory is electoral suicide in Scotland.

    I would like to see Lib Dems move beyond insular internal dissent and actively engage with their responsibilities to represent the interests of the parts of the UK that are not England. This failing of their leadership is not something I have seen discussed.

  10. The difference between political theory and political practise. In theory, you can create perfect models which in practise become modified by varying degrees of compromise. Some people are purists, made for opposition and protest, whilst others are more comfortable with the cut and thrust of debate and compromise. Some see compromise, and so coalition, as having bricks thrown at their perfect model, whilst others seem to remain more optimistic and perhaps can "lasso" a future point-in-time that resembles their model and are able to draw themselves to it through the obstacle course of the here and now. Of course, some people have a definite "line-in-the-sand" on some particular issue that they feel is beyond compromise - and we can all appreciate that.

  11. Amusing to see Emmerson pop up here, given that his tweets during conference about 'trolls' disgusted so many social media watchers.

    Still, thanks for your efforts on WRB (well, WRA now) & NHS.

    1. What did his tweets about 'trolls' say? Just curious, heard about him through twitter recently and he seems an interesting character.

  12. Hi George,
    This is a good piece, heartfelt and honest. I don't want to say 'I told you so!' But, you will remember the spat we had last year on when I did suggest to you that the problem was that the Tory part of the coalition is ideologically driven, whereas, in my view the Lib-Dems (certainly the party i worked for and stood for) was always in reality a pragmatic mix of liberalism and social democracy - there was never an ideological suspicion of 'the state' as there is with the Tories, it was always something that accepted, respected and strove to work hard to utilise for the common good.
    The coalition is now a mess and as an ex-Lib-Dem who was once the Party's Senior Parliamentary Researcher that appals me!
    You are right not to leave though - but I fear that politically the party may spend some time in the philosophical and electoral wilderness - but, I hope, not too long!

  13. Hang on in there George.If you leave and others like you leave,the more to the right the LibDems will swing.

    I do think your party will get hammered in 2015.Those who think not have there heads in the sand.

    I always thought of LibDems as good honest decent people,a lot are,but a lot would be better in joining the Conservative party because they are even outdoing the Tories on being Right Winged.

    But after you get hammered in 2015,and Clegg is probably a European Commissioner,I mean he is not helping Cameron for nothing,he must have been bought.
    People like you will be the reformers of the party.Dragging it back from its right swing.

    Hang in there,don't let bullies push you out,I doubt if they could,you are a pretty tough guy in battles from what I have seen.You have earned the respect of many,justifiably so.You have earned the respect of me and I am a cynical old,well you know what I mean.

    Take care George,don't let them grind you down.

  14. A thoughtful and thought-provoking piece, George. Sadly I am one of the 'rank-and-file' members who has withdrawn from the Party and who will not be voting Liberal Democrat again any time soon. There are too few people like you and far too many who only have their eyes on the prize - my own constituency MP being one. Having been rewarded with a tin-pot Junior Ministry he now believes that his loyalties lie with the Government rather than with his constituents, who, to a man [and woman] are against everything this appalling Government stands for. When men like you are once more the backbone of the Party, maybe I'll consider voting for them again.

  15. If nobody gets up and turns the Lib Dems into democrats again then the whole party is lost. Personally I wont be voting for them again as they are no longer the party I thought they were - They meeky did nothing to stop NHS thing nor did they do anythign about welfare reform but back the conservatives. Seems all they did was lie down and turn blue. What sort of a party is that - One that does what the conservatives say all the time and fail to stand up for that which they believe? Seems to me that LibDems are no longer what they were and as they will have lost 99% of the lib dem voters - I see no reason to vote for them again - They didnt stand uo for me or anybody like me so Us broken people are taking our votes elsewhere! The Conservatives hate us cos we are disabled and scum. Labour havent the backbone or care to stand up for us as they are pathetic and dont care any more Miliband being a cretin. Lib Dem just meekly follow Cameron and dont have the nouse to stand up for what they might or might not believe any more. So we are taking our votes elsewher or why bother voting when now - All three main parties are all unfeeling uncaring people who would probably stamp on a disabled person because we are apparently scum!

  16. And to the next squliion people who ask me, that's why I'm still an activist and member of the Labour Party.

    How ironic that your conflict with your party is almost identical to mine.

    A few lone voices trying to break the consensus eh George? "Erm, no the WRB isn't at all OK" etc etc as both of our parties try to race the Tories in the "who can be the nastiest bastard" race.

    But if we go who's left eh?

    Gives you a whole new respect for Dennis Skinner.

    1. I think that most Lib Dem party members would agree that the WRB is wrong - the problem is that most of our leadership probably wouldn't.

  17. To my mind, the Lib Dems have stayed in the coalition because they like the status of being Ministers, they like the higher salaries and all the rest. They know they will be toast at the next general election, and nobody will ever trust them again, and they don't want to bring it on any quicker by rebelling now. People voted for them because they believed the Lib Dems were the remaining social democrats now that the Labour party had been taken over by closet Tories. That section of their vote will go to Labour, and perhaps to smaller parties like the Greens, or the nationalists in Scotland and Wales. A few of their MPs will get re-elected (my money's on Ian Swales and maybe Simon Hughes) but most will be on the scrap-heap. I won't vote for Ed Davey again, that's for sure.

  18. George.. we met at Sue's filling envelopes to persuade the peers and MPs to vote against the Welfare Reforms. I see that Sue has got here before me and has said what I was going to say in her inimitable way :) I stayed in the LP for the same reasons, in spite of opposing the leadership from the election of Blair in 94.

    I wanted to share my understanding that there has been a hollowing out of democracy because democracy cannot co-exist with the ‘wisdom of the markets’. The two ideologies are irreconcilable.

    Tony Blair said that there were only two parties; one comprised of those who believe in market solutions and the other comprised of those who believe in the power of the state to be protective and furthering the interests/potential of its citizens. Unfortunately, the divide does not correspond with our mainstream political parties but instead, cuts across all three such that the divide is between the leadership and their respective grassroots. Arguably, One Nation Tories, socially liberal LDs, the centre and left of the LP have more in common than they do with the Thatcherites (Cameron’s modernisers), the Blairites and the Orange Bookers who are economically virtually indistinguishable. Given that the latter have been in power for the last 32y, the electorate has been conned into believing that their vote will make a difference. I hope that you will not mind me linking to a Think Left post which expands my argument:

    The media discussion about the centre being the electable position is ludicrous. There is a great chasm rather than a political spectrum. A more refined analysis would also suggest that those who believe in ‘market solutions’ only do so if it is convenient. They have no hesitation in employing the power of the state in order to promote the interests of the transnational corporations… for which they are inevitably hansomly rewarded. I believe that we must make parasitology a core curriculum subject in school.

    The great thing for you personally is to know that, unlike so many of your colleagues, you are seeing a reality instead of turning yourself inside out justifying the unjustifiable with cognitive dissonance :(

  19. Thanks for thought and debate provocing article. I can understand where you are coming from, but I think it's like striking -when you've nothing else to throw on the fire, you withdraw. They won't listen, you send a message by leaving. My husband disagrees -like Sue, he brings in Skinner, and Benn. Changing the party from the inside. But he's been a member of a political party, I haven't. Perhaps thats the point -he sees what you can change from the inside, I don't want to be tied to someone elses ideals and principles. Good luck to you!

  20. Excellent post Mr Potter - agree with you all the way. Even as a Labour member I'd like good, principled people like you to stay within that party and make sure it doesn't fall off a cliff.

    As Sue said, many of us on the left of Labour face the same issues.

  21. "but they won't privatise the NHS"

    Are you absolutely, 100% sure about that? Because greater NHS experts than yourself may well beg to differ.

  22. Strangely enough, I only recently joined the Labour party when I realised what a terrible situation we face with the coalition parties. But like Sue, I am totally realistic that they have lapped up the scrounger narrative and were themselves making policy on that basis when in government. Like Sunny, my problem is that Labour is no longer a left wing party, but I take the view that the only possible way of changing a political party is from the inside, where there is, at least in theory, a right to speak.

    What I think is so ironic is that not too long ago left wingers were being forced to vote Lib Dem because Labour had become, and still is, so right wing. I remember when a good friend, a teacher in the Brick Lane area of east London, was bemoaning the fact, several years ago, that she couldn't work out who to vote for because no party was sufficiently left wing. If anything, that situation is now worse than ever in relation to the 3 main parties.

    Whatever happened to the post-war consensus and to decency in modern society?

  23. I've often wondered why you remain in the party, but am grateful that you have. Most in the LDs couldn't give a shit about disabled people, people who can't afford private healthcare, etc. People like me need people like you to remain a thorn in the side of those that would happily throw us poor people under the bus just to get a ministerial car.

  24. Wot Lisa said! And Sue, and Sunny H.

    I always thought of the LDs as my second choice vote, because I could trust that whatever else happened, they would stand for what was right, not what was politically convenient. As a disabled benefit claimant and supporter of the NHS as was, I've been rudely disabused of that by their stance and actions over the course of this parliament, every principle sacrificed for the great god of ministerial office, and I will remember that in my electoral choices for a long, long time to come.

    But you have consistently stood up and spoken up for what Liberal Democracy is supposed to stand for, one of the tiny number of general political activists to have the moral courage to side with disabled people in their fight against WRB, and your party needs that voice in the wilderness to remind them that their leadership sacrificed what was right for immediate self-gratification, no matter the long term consequences to the rest of you, or us.

    I applaud your choice to make a stand by remaining that voice in the wilderness, rather than letting the wilderness swallow you up, but I fear it will be the work of a generation to repair the damage this regime will do to your party's name.

  25. I recommend anyone staying in the party because of their local party & its aims reduce their federal subscription to the minimum possible level & donate the rest directly to the local party - and tell Great George Street why

  26. I left the party a couple of months ago (WRB was last straw). It was my only political home. Thanks for your piece above - it's spot on.
    The only confirmation I got of leaving was an email from Lib Dem Voice to say they'd been notified and were rescinding my login!
    On the NHS, I received a letter from my MP, David Cameron, this week, assuring me that the NHS will not be privatised. I wish I could believe it...
    If/when I can come back to a party I recognise and can conscience, I will thank people like you for sticking it out and guiding it back.

  27. What sort of action would it take your party to do before you considered leaving?

    1. I think the test for me will be what happens after the next general election - if I get the sense that the party has ideologically shifted and that there's no chance of returning to what I believe it stands in then I'll have to seriously reconsider my position.

    2. Is the perceived ideology of the LibDems more important to you than there track record in office?

    3. No.

      But I am a devout believer in certain fundamental values and principles. My engagement with politics is trying to get those values implemented. At the moment, despite the coalition's record, I think that the Lib Dems are the party which best matches what I believe in.

      I'll leave the party if ever I feel that they are no longer the best hope for building a fairer society, but not before.

  28. To all who doubt George.Read his blog posts.They speak for themselves.He is a decent human being who has literally sweated blood to help us.In years to come,it will be the likes of George that will make this society fair again.
    And to those that call our young.Take a look here.This young man has stood out against his party on policies of conscience.If only his elders and so called betters were the same.
    I detest the LibDem leadership,but know there are still many good people at grass roots level who don't like what is going on.
    I can imagine George getting a lot of flack from some in his party,in fact at times I have seen it on these boards.And for that reason,he has my whole hearted support.He is a Diamond as they say.

    Peter Benson.

  29. I'm reading this because I'm thinking of joining the LibDems. Am I crazy? No, I'm a voter who can't abide Labour because they destroyed the economy, and I hate the right wing Conservative fat cats.
    I actually like Nick Clegg, because he's articulate and no matter how much ordure gets thrown at him, he comes back for a return match. I do think, however, that the Tories tend to guide him to the spot with the X on the floor, just below the sewage outlet? Believe me, a lot of people are beginning to notice the tendency of the Conservatives to pass the buck when it comes to facing up to unpopular choices.
    As for me, the more they try to bury Nick in ordure, the more I feel inclined to cheer him on, simply because there seem to be very few voices raised in his support, even though he brought Liberal Democrats to government and made their policies matter.

    Meg Crosby
    Twitter #mcrosby18

  30. Love this post - this is also why I'm staying. It's not Clegg's party, it's ours. If, as seems likely, we get decimated at the next election, we're going to need to build up from nothing again. The current leadership won't be able to do that - they don't know how - but the members can. So I'm staying because I believe in Liberalism and when the dust from these few years settles, they'll be gone and we can build our party up again, only better.

  31. "I refuse to be forced out of my own party. I am, and always will be, a liberal and I will fight for liberalism come hell or high water - and if that means that I have to fight and oppose my own party's leadership then so be it. They're not getting rid of me that easy."

    Thank you, George. Your induction pack for the Lib Dem Awkward Squad is in the post ;)

  32. George, thanks for a very interesting article. You have almost convinced me to remain in the party whatever, but not quite. If, as is almost certain, the Health & Social Care Bill is passed tommorrow then my membership card will be returned. On principle, I can't continue to accept being a member of the party which helped destroy the NHS.
    Like A McGregor in an earlier post, I will continue to work for the local party who have done an excellent job in Newcastle and the money previously sent by DD to headquarters will be given to support the local activists.


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