The Eastbourne Ultimatum
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.