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.

Photo: Getty Images
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I'll vote against bombing Isis - but my conscience is far from clear

Chi Onwurah lays out why she'll be voting against British airstrikes in Syria.

I have spent much of the weekend considering how I will vote on the question of whether the UK should extend airstrikes against Daesh/Isis from Iraq to Syria, seeking out and weighing the evidence and the risks.

My constituents have written, emailed, tweeted, facebooked or stopped me in the street to share their thoughts. Most recognised what a difficult and complex decision it is. When I was selected to be the Labour candidate for Newcastle Central I was asked what I thought would be the hardest part of being an MP.

I said it would be this.

I am not a pacifist, I believe our country is worth defending and our values worth fighting for. But the decision to send British Armed Forces into action is, rightly, a heavy responsibility.

For me it comes down to two key questions. The security of British citizens, and the avoidance of civilian casualties. These are separate operational and moral questions but they are linked in that it is civilian casualties which help fuel the Daesh ideology that we cannot respect and value the lives of those who do not believe as we do. There is also the important question of solidarity with the French in the wake of their grievous and devastating loss; I shall come to that later.

I listened very carefully to the Prime Minister as he set out the case for airstrikes on Thursday and I share his view that Daesh represents a real threat to UK citizens. However he did not convince me that UK airstrikes at this time would materially reduce that threat. The Prime Minister was clear that Daesh cannot be defeated from the air. The situation in Syria is complex and factionalised, with many state and non-state actors who may be enemies of our enemy and yet not our friend. The Prime Minister claimed there were 70,000 ground troops in the moderate Free Syrian Army but many experts dispute that number and the evidence does not convince me that they are in a position to lead an effective ground campaign. Bombs alone will not prevent Daesh obtaining money, arms and more recruits or launching attacks on the UK. The Prime Minister did not set out how we would do that, his was not a plan for security and peace in Syria with airstrikes a necessary support to it, but a plan to bomb Syria, with peace and security cited in support of it. That is not good enough for me.

Daesh are using civilian population as human shields. Syrians in exile speak of the impossibility of targeting the terrorists without hitting innocent bystanders. I fear that bombing Raqqa to eliminate Daesh may be like bombing Gaza to eliminate Hamas – hugely costly in terms of the civilian population and ultimately ineffectual.

Yet the evil that Daesh perpetrate demands a response. President Hollande has called on us to join with French forces. I lived in Paris for three years, I spent time in just about every location that was attacked two weeks ago, I have many friends living in Paris now, I believe the French are our friends and allies and we should stand and act in solidarity with them, and all those who have suffered in Mali, Kenya, Nigeria, Lebanon, Tunisia and around the world.

But there are other ways to act as well as airstrikes. Britain is the only G7 country to meet its international development commitments, we are already one of the biggest humanitarian contributors to stemming the Syrian crisis, we can do more not only in terms of supporting refugees but helping those still in Syria, whether living in fear of Daesh or Assad. We can show the world that our response is to build rather than bomb. The Prime Minister argues that without taking part in the bombing we will not have a place at the table for the reconstruction. I would think our allies would be reluctant to overlook our financial commitment.

We can also do more to cut off Daesh funding, targeting their oil wells, their revenues, their customers and their suppliers. This may not be as immediately satisfying as bombing the terrorists but it is a more effective means of strangling them.

The vast majority of the constituents who contacted me were against airstrikes. I agree with them for the reasons I set out above. I should say that I have had no experience of bullying or attempts at intimidation in reaching this decision, Newcastle Central is too friendly, frank, comradely and Geordie a constituency for that. But some have suggested that I should vote against airstrikes to ensure a “clear conscience” ’. This is not the case. There will be more killings and innocent deaths whether there are UK airstrikes or not, and we will all bear a portion of responsibility for them.

A version of this article was originally sent to Chi Onwurah's constituents, and can be read here