The Lib Dem Leadership Post-Brexit

On Thursday night, two devastating political realities emerged for the Liberal Democrats. First, we had lost our leader, Jo Swinson, far too early. In office for just 144 days, Jo’s premiership was dominated by the unexpected: defections, prorogation, membership surges and finally, a Brexit election. The second reality is that Britain will leave the European Union in just over one month.

Of course there will be time to assess the pros and cons of our unusually presidential campaign and our ambition to put forward a ‘Liberal Democrat candidate for prime minister’. Under Sal Brinton and Ed Davey’s joint interim leadership, this moment of reflection is sure to be full and frank.

But what is clear, from my time campaigning in Sheffield, Cheltenham, Worcestershire and East Dunbartonshire is that, as with every election, the party membership is the passionate, committed and disciplined driver of our liberal movement. It is the Liberal Democrat’s strongest asset.

But as we look into a post-Brexit future, what kind of leadership can we expect over the course of the next parliament?

After the 2015 general election, the Lib Dems were widely derided for returning eight white male Members of Parliament to the House. (Another cruel feature of our First-Past-The-Post electoral system). And yet today, nearly two thirds of our MPs are women and eight were first elected after the coalition.

At the spring conference in York earlier this year, Vince Cable’s proposed leadership reforms were defeated at vote. Part of the package was to give non-MPs the chance to run for the top job. Alongside a new supporters scheme, the thinking behind this proposal was to transform the party into a broader political movement, encouraging new talent to emerge from beyond Westminster. In light of Jo’s defeat, some elements of this package could well be reconsidered at the next conference in March. By then however, the party will have already elected a new leader. 

With many of our MPs having relatively little parliamentary experience and time to establish a strong reputation in the party, Jo has no obvious successor. As deputy, Ed Davey clearly has some advantage over other potential candidates. But as a fellow member of the coalition government, Ed risks receiving the same criticism aimed at Jo these past six weeks for her voting record on welfare and austerity. 

Of course we mustn’t underestimate the immense burden that comes with leading our party. But I hope a wide and diverse field of candidates put themselves forward.

The primary challenge for whoever takes over in the new year is to redefine our purpose in a post-Brexit Britain. The 2016 referendum helped reshape our role in British politics and move on from five years of coalition. But should we make the wrong choices in the months ahead, our prior determination to ‘own’ the Remain brand could seriously backfire. We must find a way to move beyond the slogans of ‘bollocks to Brexit’ and ‘stop Brexit’ we embraced so strongly just a few months ago.

At heart, we are the natural party for pro-Europeans. This will not and should not change. But in wiping out the centre-ground, Thursday’s election is evidence that our existence at the front of the British politics is by no means guaranteed. 

In the run up to the election, I had been critical of the lack of a strong narrative behind our campaign. What tied our policies together? What story could we as Liberal Democrats tell about our country’s future and people’s role in it? But all of this is sure to form part of our election review. Now is not the time to go into detail. 

The next few months are critical for Britain and British liberalism. We may become the party of the (UK) union. We may well roll back on our refusal to change the party’s core structure. We know this country needs strong and rational liberal voices as we approach a new political, economic and cultural era.

But we need to convince this country that it still needs the Liberal Democrats.

We can. We must. We will. 

Labour’s Answer: A ‘People’s Vote’ for party members

Image result for labour.org.uk labour conference
Source: labour.org.uk

Labour Party members should be given a vote in an internal Brexit referendum before MPs vote on another proposed deal from Prime Minister Theresa May.

The ballot would ask:

“Should the Parliamentary Labour Party support Britain’s exit from the EU?”

 

  • Yes  (Leave)
  • No (Remain)

 

An internal party poll would be better than a ‘People’s Vote’ for three reasons.

  1. In 2015 and 2016, Jeremy Corbyn was elected Labour leader having promised to give party members a greater say over party policy. Until now, many allies of the leader have worked hard to get Corbyn-friendly candidates elected onto party bodies. During Mr Corbyn’s leadership however, the membership’s role in influencing party policy has remained unchanged. If Mr Corbyn still believes in empowering grassroots members, then he would support this proposal.
  2. Second, the party would bear the cost of resolving its own split and not the taxpayer through a costly nationwide poll. One leading argument for those who are against another referendum is that it would cost money and take up much needed time on parliament’s already tight timetable. But an internal referendum, asking party members for their advice would not disrupt the existing timetable. The shadow cabinet has spent months explaining its ‘six tests’ and Brexit strategy. Therefore, shadow ministers would not need to embark on a lengthy campaign to persuade party members to vote one way or another. Members would be asked to reflect on an existing policy position.
  3. Third, this route would keep parliament sovereign as the internal referendum would be held at the request of Labour parliamentarians, seeking the advice of party members. Another criticism of a ‘People’s Vote’ is that like all referendums in the UK, they can threaten the ability of parliamentarians to make the final decision on political matters. Although this internal poll would also be unbinding, it is an opportunity for the leadership to better engage with the views of all members of the party.

If members vote to leave the EU, then Labour would whip its MPs to vote accordingly. Labour should request that a cross-party group be established to negotiate the terms of withdrawal instead of a one-party executive.

If members vote to remain in the EU, then the PLP would vote to withdraw Article 50 and seek to block any legislation that did not guarantee the same conditions as full membership.

I make this proposal as a long-time party member and supporter, seeking the most civil solution to an unwanted and artificial problem from the Cameron-era.

52123741_2269420073102093_2435900640480722944_n Tom Parkin is a Labour member, former CLP Youth Officer and Labour NEC candidate. He is currently studying International Relations and Politics at the University of Sheffield. (Twitter: @tompjparkin)