November 16, 2018 § 17 Comments
An open letter has been circulating, which has a range of over fifty signatories from across the party from ordinary members to federal committee members and a number of PPCs, calling for the suspension of the Liberal Democrat whip from Stephen Lloyd, MP for Eastbourne. I was the author of the text of the letter, and I wanted to put a post out to explain why I took the decision to write the letter.
I did so because, in short, whip withdrawals are a disciplinary tool used for issues as important as the budget or greater. This vote is of significantly greater importance than any single budget in the last half-decade at least; it’s a vote where the government’s position is directly antithetical to our core values, our party policy, and our constitutional position. The idea that we can’t or shouldn’t validly impose a full whip with effective sanctions on a vote of this magnitude is, to me, utterly bizarre. I have absolutely no interest in making a party that is too jumpy to apply sanctions to MPs, and I absolutely respect that MPs should be allowed a significant amount of leeway in disagreements with the party. But even a broad church has to put its walls somewhere, and voting for a relationship with the EU and the world that is as limited and bleak as the one that Theresa May’s deal envisages? That steps outside those walls for me, and for many others across the party.
I say this not as someone who disrespects in any way Stephen Lloyd’s electoral achievements – but we can’t continually put the career of one MP ahead of the wellbeing of our party and our movement. We lost significant quantities of support, and our reputation was damaged well beyond party circles, over Cable and Farron failing to turn up for a Brexit vote a few months back; we can’t afford in terms of manpower or finances to be seen as a split house when it comes to this vote. The question isn’t just one of Eastbourne alone, it’s about balancing Eastbourne with our ability to win across the vast majority of our other targets and held seats. In those circumstances, the suspension of the whip is an entirely proportionate response. Suspending the whip doesn’t revoke someone’s party membership, and it isn’t even necessarily permanent; it is however an important way of signalling to the vast bulk of our members and voters that we are a party led by our values and policies first and that we do require people to uphold them if they want to sit as a Liberal Democrat in elected office. That’s absolutely vital if we’re going to rebuild our political identity with the public.
Some people have expressed concern to me about the optical issues of suggesting disciplinary action against one of our own MPs: the truth is that ignoring this sort of thing won’t make it go away, not when there are much bigger fish in the pond like Labour who are happy, however hypocritically, to repeatedly hammer us on things like this in order to try and stop us recovering amongst centre-left voters. I see people’s concern, but I think it’s based on the false premise that there’s a route to sitting there quietly and hoping this all blows over, which really isn’t the case. Waiting to act until the Labour wing of the media catch up and start attacking us on it is waiting too long: we need to get on and give a firm signal here. People expect us to be a party driven by internationalist values, and signalling that we’re not prepared to take disciplinary action when on vital parliamentary votes an MP votes with the government in opposing our flagship policy and core values is a far, far worse optical message to send than taking clear, calm, measured action to show the public what our values are.
People are welcome to disagree with my assessment of the situation, of course, and I respect that disagreement, but I think the call I’ve made is the correct one. To the people who suggested I should “consider my position” (what position, I’m not sure), I can inform you that I have done and on full consideration I’m content with it. I don’t have any antipathy towards Stephen or anyone else here – but I do think that when it comes to what may be one of the most pivotal parliamentary votes in a generation, it’s reasonable to expect that the party should look after its own interests and values.
If you’d like to join myself and others in signing the letter, you can find it here.
Edit 17/11/18: It was correctly pointed out to me that I had discussed us losing members, rather than simply support, over the Farron/Cable vote failure, which was too specific a claim in view of the fact that we don’t have those numbers available. I did hear from numerous people and sources about that issue at the time, and have edited the text to more generally encapsulate that problem as I saw it. Thanks to Paul Holmes for the query.
November 12, 2018 § 2 Comments
Predictably, I saw yet more memes yesterday lauding the “real men” of the UK’s wartime generations, and comparing them favourably to the “offended, mentally ill gender neutral vegan snowflakes” that men supposedly are today. I didn’t make this post on remembrance day itself because yesterday was a time to reflect more than to argue, but I am going to say it now – that attitude is monumentally disrespectful.
The war generations in the first half of the last century were people like us. They weren’t some kind of invincible demigods, and building them up as if they were doesn’t respect the reality and hurt that they went through. War and the resulting mental ill health damaged those people permanently. Many had post-traumatic stress disorder for life – men who couldn’t listen to the whistling of a kettle without flinching, or for whom loud noises could trigger dangerous flashbacks. For others, the violence of what they had seen made them erratic and dangerous to be around – a knock-on effect that damaged the lives of them and their loved ones.
Living in a society that often didn’t recognise those effects on them, let alone one that severely repressed other parts of their lives for many of them – because yes, we had gay, bi, and gender non-conforming soldiers fighting just like all the others, who had to go through the same hell as everyone else without being allowed to admit to parts of their own identity – wasn’t something that strengthened those people later in life. Quite the opposite, it was something that increased the pain they went through. A lot of the time, rather than being able to admit to who they were or how things were affecting them, they killed themselves. The 1930s, a decade in which many First World War survivors were also having to grapple with being unable to feed their families properly during the depression, saw suicide rates three times higher than they are today.
People today have made significant, though by no means complete, progress towards respecting and accepting people for who they are and towards accepting that mental illness is something that needs compassion and support, not shutting down. And that’s good, for ex-service personnel and for everyone else. So I’m sick of seeing social media posts attacking the fact we have a more caring attitude to trans people, a less rigid attitude to people’s roles in life, a sensible compassionate approach to mental illness. Every time you post or share one of those, you send the message that the military service of those who are trans or those who don’t eat meat is somehow worth less. You send the message, too, that you don’t care about looking after folk who need it, when they need it – hardly the world that the world war two soldiers who came back and voted in droves for a government that would build a National Health Service wanted. Perhaps most self-defeatingly, you send the message that we should paper over what the soldiers on the battlefields of the world wars went through in favour of some sort of plastic cut-out rose tinted view of what people endured.
One final point about “real men”. Think about the men in your life when you read this, the ones you love and care about, and ask yourself a question. If that person was struggling, if that person was trying to deal with horrors in their mind, would I rather know and do something to help? Or would I rather that person kept the mask up, kept trying to be a “real man” like people claim “real men” used to be, until it got too much for them and killed them? I think there’s only one of those answers that really respects what wartime PTSD sufferers, or anyone else with mental health issues, goes through. Which society would you rather live in?
If there is one thing which people of all generations deserve, then, it is this; that we allow them to be vulnerable, that we show them compassion, that we respect, above all, that they were and are human.
Thanks for reading.