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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Labour will soon be forced to make clear its stance on Brexit

The Great Repeal Bill will force the party to make a choice on who has the final say on a deal withg Europe.

A Party Manifesto has many functions. But rarely is it called upon to paper over the cracks between a party and its supporters. But Labour’s was – between its Eurosceptic leadership and its pro-EU support base. Bad news for those who prefer their political parties to face at any given moment in only one direction. But a forthcoming parliamentary vote will force the party to make its position clear.

The piece of legislation that makes us members of the EU is the European Communities Act 1972. “Very soon” – says the House of Commons Library – we will see a Repeal Bill that will, according to the Queen’s Speech, “repeal the European Communities Act.” It will be repealed, says the White Paper for the Repeal Bill, “on the day we leave the EU.”

It will contain a clause stating that the bit of the bill that repeals the European Communities Act will come into force on a date of the Prime Minister's choosing. But MPs will have to choose whether to vote for that clause. And this is where Labour’s dilemma comes into play.

In her Lancaster House speech Theresa May said:

“I can confirm today that the Government will put the final deal that is agreed between the UK and the EU to a vote in both Houses of Parliament, before it comes into force.”

Later that day David Davis clarified May’s position, saying, of a vote against the final deal:

“The referendum last year set in motion a circumstance where the UK is going to leave the European Union, and it won’t change that.” 

So. The choice the Tories will give to Parliament is between accepting whatever deal is negotiated or leaving without a deal. Not a meaningful choice at all given that (as even Hammond now accepts): “No deal would be a very, very bad outcome for Britain.”

But what about Labour’s position? Labour’s Manifesto says:

“Labour recognises that leaving the EU with ‘no deal’ is the worst possible deal for Britain and that it would do damage to our economy and trade. We will reject ‘no deal’ as a viable option.”

So, it has taken that option off the table. But it also says:

“A Labour approach to Brexit also means legislating to guarantee that Parliament has a truly meaningful vote on the final Brexit deal (my emphasis).”

Most Brexit commentators would read that phrase – a meaningful vote – as drawing an implicit contrast with the meaningless vote offered by Theresa May at Lancaster House. They read it, in other words, as a vote between accepting the final deal or remaining in the EU.

But even were they wrong, the consequence of Labour taking “no deal” off the table is that there are only two options: leaving on the terms of the deal or remaining. Labour’s Manifesto explicitly guarantees that choice to Parliament. And guarantees it at a time when the final deal is known.

But here’s the thing. If Parliament chooses to allow Theresa May to repeal the European Communities Act when she wants, Parliament is depriving itself of a choice when the result of the deal is known. It is depriving itself of the vote Labour’s Manifesto promises. And not only that - by handing over to the Prime Minister the decision whether to repeal the European Communities Act, Parliament is voluntarily depriving itself of the power to supervise the Brexit negotiations. Theresa May will be able to repeat the Act whatever the outcome of those negotiations. She won’t be accountable to Parliament for the result of her negotiations – and so Parliament will have deprived itself of the ability to control them. A weakened Prime Minister, without a mandate, will have taken back control. But our elected Parliament will not.

If Labour wants to make good on its manifesto promise, if Labour wants to control the shape of Brexit, it must vote against that provision of the Repeal Bill.

That doesn’t put Labour in the position of ignoring the referendum vote. There will be ample time, from October next year when the final deal is known, for Labour to look at the Final Deal and have a meaningful vote on it.

But if Labour supports the Repeal Bill it will be breaching a clear manifesto promise.

Jolyon Maugham is a barrister who advised Ed Miliband on tax policy. He blogs at Waiting for Tax, and writes for the NS on tax and legal issues. 

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