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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I'm far from convinced by Cameron's plans for Syria

The Prime Minister has a plan for when the bombs drop. But what about after?

In the House of Commons today, the Prime Minister set out a powerful case for Britain to join air strikes against Isil in Syria.  Isil, he argued, poses a direct threat to Britain and its people, and Britain should not be in the business of “outsourcing our security to our allies”. And while he conceded that further airstrikes alone would not be sufficient to beat Isil, he made the case for an “Isil first” strategy – attacking Isil now, while continuing to do what we can diplomatically to help secure a lasting settlement for Syria in which Assad (eventually) plays no part.

I agreed with much of David Cameron’s analysis. And no-one should doubt either the murderous barbarism of Isil in the region, or the barbarism they foment and inspire in others across the world.  But at the end of his lengthy Q&A session with MPs, I remained unconvinced that UK involvement in airstrikes in Syria was the right option. Because the case for action has to be a case for action that has a chance of succeeding.  And David Cameron’s case contained neither a plan for winning the war, nor a plan for winning the peace.

The Prime Minister, along with military experts and analysts across the world, concedes that air strikes alone will not defeat Isil, and that (as in Iraq) ground forces are essential if we want to rid Syria of Isil. But what is the plan to assemble these ground forces so necessary for a successful mission?  David Cameron’s answer today was more a hope than a plan. He referred to “70,000 Syrian opposition fighters - principally the Free Syrian Army (FSA) – with whom we can co-ordinate attacks on Isil”.

But it is an illusion to think that these fighters can provide the ground forces needed to complement aerial bombardment of Isil.  Many commentators have begun to doubt whether the FSA continues to exist as a coherent operational entity over the past few months. Coralling the myriad rebel groups into a disciplined force capable of fighting and occupying Isil territory is a heroic ambition, not a plan. And previous efforts to mobilize the rebels against Isil have been utter failures. Last month the Americans abandoned a $500m programme to train and turn 5,400 rebel fighters into a disciplined force to fight Isil. They succeeded in training just 60 fighters. And there have been incidents of American-trained fighters giving some of their US-provided equipment to the Nusra Front, an affiliate of Al Qaeda.

Why has it proven so hard to co-opt rebel forces in the fight against Isil? Because most of the various rebel groups are fighting a war against Assad, not against Isil.  Syria’s civil war is gruesome and complex, but it is fundamentally a Civil War between Assad’s forces and a variety of opponents of Assad’s regime. It would be a mistake for Britain to base a case for military action against Isil on the hope that thousands of disparate rebel forces can be persuaded to change their enemy – especially when the evidence so far is that they won’t.

This is a plan for military action that, at present, looks highly unlikely to succeed.  But what of the plan for peace? David Cameron today argued for the separation of the immediate task at hand - to strike against Isil in Syria – from the longer-term ambition of achieving a settlement in Syria and removing Assad.  But for Isil to be beaten, the two cannot be separated. Because it is only by making progress in developing a credible and internationally-backed plan for a post-Assad Syria that we will persuade Syrian Sunnis that fighting Isil will not end up helping Assad win the Civil War.  If we want not only to rely on rebel Sunnis to provide ground troops against Isil, but also provide stable governance in Isil-occupied areas when the bombing stops, progress on a settlement to Syria’s Civil War is more not less urgent.  Without it, the reluctance of Syrian Sunnis to think that our fight is their fight will undermine the chances of military efforts to beat Isil and bring basic order to the regions they control. 

This points us towards doubling down on the progress that has already been made in Vienna: working with the USA, France, Syria’s neighbours and the Gulf states, as well as Russia and Iran. We need not just a combined approach to ending the conflict, but the prospect of a post-war Syria that offers a place for those whose cooperation we seek to defeat Isil. No doubt this will strike some as insufficient in the face of the horrors perpetrated by Isil. But I fear that if we want not just to take action against Isil but to defeat them and prevent their return, it offers a better chance of succeeding than David Cameron’s proposal today. 

Stewart Wood is a former Shadow Cabinet minister and adviser to Ed Miliband. He tweets as @StewartWood.