The Eastbourne Ultimatum

November 16, 2018 § 16 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.

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§ 16 Responses to The Eastbourne Ultimatum

  • I think you’re absolutely right James. If Stephen believes he must honour a pledge to his electorate, that’s right too (remember the trouble LibDem MPs got into the last time they backed down from a pledge). But if he chooses that course he must resign the whip or, if he is not willing to do so, have it withdrawn.

  • You seem terrified of being attacked by Labour, but their MPs range from hardline Brexiteers such as Kate Hoey, to ultra Remainers. It would be far more damaging for the Lib Dems to present themselves as an intolerant pressure group, incapable of allowing some diversity of opinion.

    • jubalbarca says:

      John, as I said in the piece, I have no wish for the Lib Dems to be an intolerant pressure group and am happy for not only some but significant diversity of opinion to exist. That doesn’t mean that people should be able to act literally however they want whilst still holding the parliamentary whip, though. I’m happy for our MPs to have differences and vote according to their conscience when times demand within the broad constitutional framework of the party. I cannot, however, reconcile May’s Brexit deal with that constitutional framework – I think it is simply far too far outside it for it to be a reasonable thing for one of our MPs to support.

  • Paul Holmes says:

    Stephen Lloyd is acting as a very principled individual. He made a specific commitment to his voters in the 2017 election and he is keeping the promise he made to them. If only our MP’s had done the same with regard to a number of promises they made in the 2010 General Election.

    You claim that we lost ‘huge number of members’ over Cable and Farron missing a vote. Can you quantify that please? We certainly didn’t lose any over that issue anywhere that I know of.

    • jubalbarca says:

      You make a fair point regarding membership numbers. Of course I’m not privy to numbers on membership, and I should have been clearer that that point was based on my perception of the situation – I certainly directly heard and saw significant numbers of people claiming to be quitting the party at the time. I do absolutely believe that it did us significant damage though – it was a news story that undoubtedly cut through and which I was hearing about a lot from people well outside Liberal Democrat circles. I’ll edit the piece to clarify that point – I do absolutely stand by that the Cable/Farron event did us significant and notable damage amongst our obvious supporter base, though, and I’m surprised if you genuinely didn’t notice any of that.

      As to Stephen’s principles – if Stephen feels this is absolutely the only way to uphold his pledge, that’s up to him. My suggestion is simply that if he believes that is his only course of action, it is incompatible with holding the Liberal Democrat whip at the present time. I have no wish to attack Stephen in any sense, I simply think that we have to be cognisant of the damage we risk doing to ourselves as a party if it appears that the party has no red lines over its principles – an unfortunately common perception thanks to the problems with past promises you mention. It’s vital that we rebuild a liberal identity in the eyes of the public, and having proportionate, reasonable action taken to ensure that our basic constitutional principles are followed by MPs voting under our whip seems to me to be a fairly moderate suggestion towards that.

      • Paul Holmes says:

        You must certainly move in very different circles to me as I have heard no one say they were leaving the Party simply because Vince and Tim missed a vote (poor politics as that was). I’m quite willing to believe that there are some but I have to say that we are not a single issue pressure group but a serious political party. Well, we used to be anyway.

        Your intolerant proposal is the last thing that would help ‘rebuild a liberal identity’. Quite the reverse.

    • Lorenzo Cherin says:

      I agree with Paul and believe this action by James is awful and does not fit with a Liberal or Democratic philosophy. There is nothing in the constitution of this party that insists on anything with regards to the cut and paste that is politics. Federalism is as open to interpretation as is any ism. I am a Liberal, do I not believe in Liberalism because I also believe in patriotism? Am Ia patriot in the sense of my country right or wrong? Are we Liberals in the sense of the Liberal Democrats right or wrong? Instead of this cabalistic bullying method, you, James et al , could write a friendly, pungent letter, a persuasive argument, to Stephen, rather than to the Chief whip, about him, open, but behind , manipulative, plain illiberal, and undemocratic. Radicalism, like the above isms, is open to interpretation, here it is radically wrong. I am very much against this deal, but respect the supporters of any deal or no deal, Brexit, more than , no conscience liberalism.

      • jubalbarca says:

        Lorenzo, if you consider my actions to be bullying, I encourage you to submit a formal complaint to the party and I’m happy to undergo any relevant process of examination. If you’re merely being hyperbolic, I don’t think it’s quite reasonable to make what is in any event a serious claim.

        I also don’t see how, as a party member, my communicating my preferences for how the party conducts is business to the responsible officers of the party is in any sense undemocratic? I’m an ordinary member with no party offices or concrete influence to speak of, and I’m just making my feelings on these processes – and those of fellow party members – known. Clearly, given the strong feelings on both sides around this issue, the boundaries of acceptable behaviour within the Liberal Democrat whip and whether there indeed are boundaries is an area that the party doesn’t have a consensus on and this seems to have caused a necessary and reasonable, if sometimes overly heated, debate being had on those issues.

        Finally, I think you’re wrong (and apparently have not read my post) in suggesting that I do not respect Stephen or his achievements. My suggestion is simply that when it comes to flagship political issues, it’s reasonable to treat those votes in the same way as we would for, say, budget votes, and that suspension of the whip is still a normal, proportional response in those cases. Both to the party and the country, the ‘meaningful vote’ on May’s deal is significantly more important than a budget. As such, I find the cries of “illiberal” for suggesting we should treat this with what is an entirely ordinary collective approach for high-level votes to be really quite surprising.

  • […] 5. The Eastbourne Ultimatum by James Baillie on Thoughts of Progress. “Even a broad church has to put its walls somewhere.” […]

  • Lorenzo Cherin says:

    Thanks to a good approach here, I am fine with this . James, you misunderstand and do not in a really accurate way get to my comments substance. I make no accusation of you as a bully. I constantly engage with people with , it must be said, too much courtesy, to let this go unchallenged. Your attitude usually is one of really decent and intelligent ways and points made.Hyperbolic, no, accusation, no. Bullying you are not, directly, nor the other god members, the effect, yes, that is my concern. I hate to paraphrase the wretched Marquis of Q, ” I am not saying that you are, am saying that you look it!” I do not even imply, let alone state, you do not respect Stephen. Where you get this am not aware. But you could write to him, your letter is well put together, the members could perhaps change his mind. As it is yuk, must be his thought when he reads it. II reckon you are correct, this is too heated. I am a tepid, not so warm fan, no backer of the EU, so not much heat from me, but as with on abortion, prostitution, etc, my views are progressive, but the pushy stance which some engage with, not much room for conscience, bothers me. Please consider that radical is also the ability to be different, that might mean being moderate when your, my, knee jerk, tells you otherwise.

  • Lorenzo Cherin says:

    As an aside, undemocratic, meaning, you seem to not realise Stephen gt elected on also, a personal stance, a promise he made, as P Holmes says, he is of a mind or view to keep it. And illiberal, in you not seeing that we are in need of unity , decency, more than anything, but not unanimity, that is illiberal. There are no hard and fast rules, nor do I say anything without respect.

    • jubalbarca says:

      I don’t think I’m asking for general unanimity, just a minimum standard of unity on really core issues; I certainly wouldn’t have made this call if he’d decided to abstain on the vote. I think we do need to weigh people’s dislike of whipping our MPs against both the needs of the party and the extreme illiberalism represented by the hard brexit stance in this deal. Stephen is, as I’ve said above, welcome to vote for such an illiberal proposition; I am in no position to determine his actions for him and I don’t seek to do so. I just think that if he wants to vote that way, he shouldn’t be doing so as an official member of our parliamentary group and our shadow cabinet, both positions he currently holds and which it would be reasonable, for the time being, for him to step down from if this is his preferred course of action. Whilst we respect a wide range of views in our MPs on a great many issues, some minimal standards of collective responsibility need to apply to avoid the wrong and damaging impression – already sadly deeply ingrained in the minds of many voters – that we are simply a values-free party rather than a liberal political movement.

  • Nigel Jones says:

    When we local Lib-Dems were in a council coalition, our principle was that if one of our members opposed our party view after much private discussion and ‘persuasion’ that person was allowed to abstain.

  • Nigel Jones says:

    I should add that when a member opposed the party line because of a public commitment to the people in that member’s ward, we encouraged that member to abstain.

    • jubalbarca says:

      Yes – abstension would seem the normal option to take in the event of a significant clash between a member’s opinions or local commitments and a strong party line. I’m a little surprised that Stephen doesn’t seem to be doing that.

  • Roger Stephens says:

    When we’ve got Tory MPs calling for a free vote of their lot, which we would applaud as it would help to defeat this mad Brexit endeavour, why are we insisting on a whipped vote of our lot?

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