Where have the left-wing Liberal Democrats gone?

New Lib Dem group decries the party's role in supporting this "heartless, right-wing Tory government

The last 22 months have been uncomfortable for many of us on the left of the Liberal Democrats. Many of us have had to think long and hard about whether to stay and fight, or throw in the towel. Some of us have decided to do the latter and are now seeking to fight back collectively through the establishment of Liberal Left.

We haven't been in hibernation since the establishment of the coalition. We have all, in our different ways, been active in challenging the party internally and externally and in doing our best to work towards the elusive "realignment of the left".

The current leadership narrative has been around taking the centre ground, "we're all centrists now" the mantra, equidistance the declared aim. But the truth is, we have never been equidistant. We have always been a party of the centre left and that self-evidently means we are always going to have more in common with the parties of the left than of the right. So as Liberal Left we have two clear aims, to provide a voice within the Liberal Democrats, opposing the party leadership on economic and fiscal policy, and advocating a positive alternative; and to seek every possible opportunity to build good relations across the left, between Liberal Democrats, Labour, the Greens, and the non-party liberal left, recognising that organisations such as Compass offer a thriving space for such dialogue around democracy and sustainability.

Now, of course our stance has earned us criticism from both left and right, but we take our lead from the declared aim of the party, namely "to build and safeguard a fair, free and open society, in which we seek to balance the fundamental values of liberty, equality and community, and in which no-one shall be enslaved by poverty, ignorance or conformity". And it is clear that the grassroots of the party have not abandoned that aim. Particularly noteworthy has been the internal campaign against the Health and Social Care Bill.

This week we published our first pamphlet, Challenges for the Liberal Left, thoughtful essays laying out in more detail our ideological position. Exploring some of the most pressing issues, the economy, the role of the state, the impact of coalition policy on women, liberalism and the liberal left.

In exploring liberalism and the liberal left Richard Grayson, former Lib Dem Director of Policy, reminds us that "as a party we argued during the last election that eliminating the structural deficit in a single parliament, as the Tories proposed, would remove growth from the economy. We also said that the impact of such a plan would fall disproportionately on those least able to afford the cuts, increasing the gap between the rich and poor and further dividing the country. This is exactly what has happened and we must not as a party stay silent and accept it as the best deal possible."

Stephen Knight calls for radical thinking from the liberal left regarding how the state can best support a sustainable, stable, green economy with real distributive justice, while Simon Hebditch draws on his wide experience in the third sector to explore the contested role of the state. He critiques the contradictions in current policy and concludes that true localism must imply local sustainability if the theory of local power is to be realised.

Jo Ingold explores the disproportionate and adverse impact of current coalition policies on women, specifically in relation to tax, benefits and childcare policies; Ruth Bright strongly argues that the party is fooling itself if it does not understand that the need to appeal to women voters cannot be separated from the need to make the party itself look democratically representative of the country.

Ed Randall's historical analysis challenges us to consider seriously how as Liberal Democrats we should be responding to the current economic crisis and Stephen Haseler argues that the deficit reduction programme is not dealing with the underlying debt crisis but is in fact making it worse. He urges the party to ditch the Orange Book and Conservative neo-liberalism and return to our social liberal roots.

Our official launch will take place on Saturday evening -- 8pm in Hall 2 at the Sage Gateshead. We expect a lively debate, so if you are there, do come along. And if like us, you are a Liberal Democrat committed to Liberal Democrat values but dismayed at our party's role in supporting one of the most heartless, right wing Tory governments ever; do join us.

Linda Jack is the chair of Liberal Left.

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Who will win in Copeland? The Labour heartland hangs in the balance

The knife-edge by-election could end 82 years of Labour rule on the West Cumbrian coast.

Fine, relentless drizzle shrouds Whitehaven, a harbour town exposed on the outer edge of Copeland, West Cumbria. It is the most populous part of the coastal north-western constituency, which takes in everything from this old fishing port to Sellafield nuclear power station to England’s tallest mountain Scafell Pike. Sprawling and remote, it protrudes from the heart of the Lake District out into the Irish Sea.

Billy, a 72-year-old Whitehaven resident, is out for a morning walk along the marina with two friends, his woolly-hatted head held high against the whipping rain. He worked down the pit at the Haig Colliery for 27 years until it closed, and now works at Sellafield on contract, where he’s been since the age of 42.

“Whatever happens, a change has got to happen,” he says, hands stuffed into the pockets of his thick fleece. “If I do vote, the Bootle lass talks well for the Tories. They’re the favourites. If me mam heard me saying this now, she’d have battered us!” he laughs. “We were a big Labour family. But their vote has gone. Jeremy Corbyn – what is he?”

The Conservatives have their sights on traditional Labour voters like Billy, who have been returning Labour MPs for 82 years, to make the first government gain in a by-election since 1982.

Copeland has become increasingly marginal, held with just 2,564 votes by former frontbencher Jamie Reed, who resigned from Parliament last December to take a job at the nuclear plant. He triggered a by-election now regarded by all sides as too close to call. “I wouldn’t put a penny on it,” is how one local activist sums up the mood.

There are 10,000 people employed at the Sellafield site, and 21,000 jobs are promised for nearby Moorside – a project to build Europe’s largest nuclear power station now thrown into doubt, with Japanese company Toshiba likely to pull out.

Tories believe Jeremy Corbyn’s stance on nuclear power (he limply conceded it could be part of the “energy mix” recently, but his long prevarication betrayed his scepticism) and opposition to Trident, which is hosted in the neighbouring constituency of Barrow-in-Furness, could put off local employees who usually stick to Labour.

But it’s not that simple. The constituency may rely on nuclear for jobs, but I found a notable lack of affection for the industry. While most see the employment benefits, there is less enthusiasm for Sellafield being part of their home’s identity – particularly in Whitehaven, which houses the majority of employees in the constituency. Also, unions representing Sellafield workers have been in a dispute for months with ministers over pension cut plans.

“I worked at Sellafield for 30 years, and I’m against it,” growls Fred, Billy’s friend, a retiree of the same age who also used to work at the colliery. “Can you see nuclear power as safer than coal?” he asks, wild wiry eyebrows raised. “I’m a pit man; there was just nowhere else to work [when the colliery closed]. The pension scheme used to be second-to-none, now they’re trying to cut it, changing the terms.”

Derek Bone, a 51-year-old who has been a storeman at the plant for 15 years, is equally unconvinced. I meet him walking his dog along the seafront. “This county, Cumbria, Copeland, has always been a nuclear area – whether we like it or don’t,” he says, over the impatient barks of his Yorkshire terrier Milo. “But people say it’s only to do with Copeland. It ain’t. It employs a lot of people in the UK, outside the county – then they’re spending the money back where they’re from, not here.”

Such views might be just enough of a buffer against the damage caused by Corbyn’s nuclear reluctance. But the problem for Labour is that neither Fred nor Derek are particularly bothered about the result. While awareness of the by-election is high, many tell me that they won’t be voting this time. “Jeremy Corbyn says he’s against it [nuclear], now he’s not, and he could change his mind – I don’t believe any of them,” says Malcolm Campbell, a 55-year-old lorry driver who is part of the nuclear supply chain.

Also worrying for Labour is the deprivation in Copeland. Everyone I speak to complains about poor infrastructure, shoddy roads, derelict buildings, and lack of investment. This could punish the party that has been in power locally for so long.

The Tory candidate Trudy Harrison, who grew up in the coastal village of Seascale and now lives in Bootle, at the southern end of the constituency, claims local Labour rule has been ineffective. “We’re isolated, we’re remote, we’ve been forgotten and ignored by Labour for far too long,” she says.

I meet her in the town of Millom, at the southern tip of the constituency – the opposite end to Whitehaven. It centres on a small market square dominated by a smart 19th-century town hall with a mint-green domed clock tower. This is good Tory door-knocking territory; Millom has a Conservative-led town council.

While Harrison’s Labour opponents are relying on their legacy vote to turn out, Harrison is hoping that the same people think it’s time for a change, and can be combined with the existing Tory vote in places like Millom. “After 82 years of Labour rule, this is a huge ask,” she admits.

Another challenge for Harrison is the threat to services at Whitehaven’s West Cumberland Hospital. It has been proposed for a downgrade, which would mean those seeking urgent care – including children, stroke sufferers, and those in need of major trauma treatment and maternity care beyond midwifery – would have to travel the 40-mile journey to Carlisle on the notoriously bad A595 road.

Labour is blaming this on Conservative cuts to health spending, and indeed, Theresa May dodged calls to rescue the hospital in her campaign visit last week. “The Lady’s Not For Talking,” was one local paper front page. It also helps that Labour’s candidate, Gillian Troughton, is a St John Ambulance driver, who has driven the dangerous journey on a blue light.

“Seeing the health service having services taken away in the name of centralisation and saving money is just heart-breaking,” she tells me. “People are genuinely frightened . . . If we have a Tory MP, that essentially gives them the green light to say ‘this is OK’.”

But Harrison believes she would be best-placed to reverse the hospital downgrade. “[I] will have the ear of government,” she insists. “I stand the very best chance of making sure we save those essential services.”

Voters are concerned about the hospital, but divided on the idea that a Tory MP would have more power to save it.

“What the Conservatives are doing with the hospitals is disgusting,” a 44-year-old carer from Copeland’s second most-populated town of Egremont tells me. Her partner, Shaun Grant, who works as a labourer, agrees. “You have to travel to Carlisle – it could take one hour 40 minutes; the road is unpredictable.” They will both vote Labour.

Ken, a Conservative voter, counters: “People will lose their lives over it – we need someone in the circle, who can influence the government, to change it. I think the government would reward us for voting Tory.”

Fog engulfs the jagged coastline and rolling hills of Copeland as the sun begins to set on Sunday evening. But for most voters and campaigners here, the dense grey horizon is far clearer than what the result will be after going to the polls on Thursday.

Anoosh Chakelian is senior writer at the New Statesman.