Lib Dems prepare to challenge Clegg over secret courts betrayal

Party members will support emergency motion opposing secret courts at this weekend's conference after just seven Lib Dem MPs voted against the bill.

There's disappointment and some anger among Lib Dem members this morning after just seven of the party's 57 MPs voted against the government's plans for secret courts last night. The party's new boy, Eastleigh MP Mike Thornton, had a legitimate excuse (he hasn't been sworn in yet) but the rest stand accused of ignoring the wishes of party members, who voted overwhelmingly to oppose the policy at last year's autumn conference. As Richard Morris wrote on The Staggers yesterday, after winning the ground war in Eastleigh, Lib Dem activists wanted "payback". 

Last night's rebellion may have been small but it was significant. Party president Tim Farron and deputy leader Simon Hughes were among those who voted in favour of Labour's amendments, including the introduction of a public interest test for secret courts, with Sarah Teather, Julian Huppert, Greg Mullholland, Mike Crockart and John Hemming joining them in the no lobby. As Stephen Tall notes at Lib Dem Voice, Teather, not the flavour of the month among progressives after her vote against equal marriage, posted this statement on her Facebook page:

I rebelled on a series of votes this evening on the Justice and Security Bill. Having spent most of my time in Parliament campaigning against rendition, guantanamo bay and torture I take a close interest in matters like this. My Libdem colleagues Julian Huppert and Mike Crockart have done a great job getting changes to the bill during the committee stage and there is no doubt it is a better bill, but I still didn’t feel the safeguards the Government has given on the use of secret courts were convincing enough.

The battle will now move to the party's spring conference in Brighton this weekend, where Lib Dem members will vote on an emergency motion tabled by activists calling for the party to reaffirm its opposition to secret courts.

After the party's by-election success, most have assumed that Nick Clegg will face an easier ride than in previous years. But the opposite is likely to be true. Had the party lost the seat, members may have closed ranks for fear of provoking an ever greater crisis. But victory in Eastleigh has encouraged a new mood of assertiveness among the grass roots. With activists also angered by the government's new backdoor NHS privatisation, expect fireworks this weekend. 

Nick Clegg speaks at last year's Liberal Democrat conference in Brighton. Photograph: Getty Images.

George Eaton is political editor of the New Statesman.

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Why the Liberal Democrats by-election surge is not all it seems

The Lib Dems chalked up impressive results in Stoke and Copeland. But just how much of a fight back is it?

By the now conventional post-Brexit logic, Stoke and Copeland ought to have been uniquely inhospitable for the Lib Dems. 

The party lost its deposit in both seats in 2015, and has no representation on either council. So too were the referendum odds stacked against it: in Stoke, the so-called Brexit capital of Britain, 70 per cent of voters backed Leave last June, as did 62 per cent in Copeland. And, as Stephen has written before, the Lib Dems’ mini-revival has so far been most pronounced in affluent, Conservative-leaning areas which swung for remain. 

So what explains the modest – but impressive – surges in their vote share in yesterday’s contests? In Stoke, where they finished fifth in 2015, the party won 9.8 per cent of the vote, up 5.7 percentage points. They also more than doubled their vote share in Copeland, where they beat Ukip for third with 7.3 per cent share of the vote.

The Brexit explanation is a tempting and not entirely invalid one. Each seat’s not insignificant pro-EU minority was more or less ignored by most of the national media, for whom the existence of remainers in what we’re now obliged to call “left-behind Britain” is often a nuance too far. With the Prime Minister Theresa May pushing for a hard Brexit and Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn waving it through, Lib Dem leader Tim Farron has made the pro-EU narrative his own. As was the case for Charles Kennedy in the Iraq War years, this confers upon the Lib Dems a status and platform they were denied as the junior partners in coalition. 

While their stance on Europe is slowly but surely helping the Lib Dems rebuild their pre-2015 demographic core - students, graduates and middle-class professionals employed in the public sector – last night’s results, particularly in Stoke, also give them reason for mild disappointment. 

In Stoke, campaign staffers privately predicted they might manage to beat Ukip for second or third place. The party ran a full campaign for the first time in several years, and canvassing returns suggested significant numbers of Labour voters, mainly public sector workers disenchanted with Corbyn’s stance on Europe, were set to vote Lib Dem. Nor were they intimidated by the Brexit factor: recent council by-elections in Sunderland and Rotheram, which both voted decisively to leave, saw the Lib Dems win seats for the first time on massive swings. 

So it could well be argued that their candidate, local cardiologist Zulfiqar Ali, ought to have done better. Staffordshire University’s campus, which Tim Farron visited as part of a voter registration drive, falls within the seat’s boundaries. Ali, unlike his Labour competitor Gareth Snell and Ukip leader Paul Nuttall, didn’t have his campaign derailed or disrupted by negative media attention. Unlike the Tory candidate Jack Brereton, he had the benefit of being older than 25. And, like 15 per cent of the electorate, he is of Kashmiri origin.  

In public and in private, Lib Dems say the fact that Stoke was a two-horse race between Labour and Ukip ultimately worked to their disadvantage. The prospect of Nuttall as their MP may well have been enough to convince a good number of the Labour waverers mentioned earlier to back Snell. 

With his party hovering at around 10 per cent in national polls, last night’s results give Farron cause for optimism – especially after their near-wipeout in 2015. But it’s easy to forget the bigger picture in all of this. The party have chalked up a string of impressive parliamentary by-election results – second in Witney, a spectacular win in Richmond Park, third in Sleaford and Copeland, and a strong fourth in Stoke. 

However, most of these results represent a reversion to, or indeed an underperformance compared to, the party’s pre-2015 norm. With the notable exception of Richmond’s Sarah Olney, who only joined the Lib Dems after the last general election, these candidates haven’t - or the Lib Dem vote - come from nowhere. Zulfiqar Ali previously sat on the council in Stoke and had fought the seat before, and Witney’s Liz Leffman and Sleaford’s Ross Pepper are both popular local councillors. And for all the excited commentary about Richmond, it was, of course, held by the Lib Dems for 13 years before Zac Goldsmith won it for the Tories in 2010. 

The EU referendum may have given the Lib Dems a new lease of life, but, as their #LibDemFightback trope suggests, they’re best understood as a revanchist, and not insurgent, force. Much has been said about Brexit realigning our politics, but, for now at least, the party’s new normal is looking quite a lot like the old one.