The Lib Dem leadership finally sees sense on Secret Courts

No government policy has made party members unhappier. Fortunately, Clegg is about to pledge to repeal it.

One of the best things about being a member of the Lib Dems is that twice a year you get to have a blazing row with your leadership about why they don’t know their arse from their elbow and that time is shortly upon us once again. Yes folks, conference season starts next week.
 
And as per normal there’s no shortage of rows on the horizon as the leadership suggests the party faithful back Osbornomics, ask us to agree that they were right all  along about tuition fees, and invite us to keep Trident. Oh, it’s going to be a corker this year…
 
But one of the other nicest things about being a member of the Lib Dems is that from time to time, the leadership listens, holds its hand up, accepts it go it wrong – and changes stuff. And one of those occasions will also happen next week. It seems the leadership has accepted that the party faithful may have had a point over what was THE row of Spring Conference 2013 and is prepared to reverse the legislation on Secret Courts.
 
You’ll have to hunt hard for proof of this, but fortunately I know a man with both a magnifying glass and the inside track. And in the penultimate debate of conference, a motion is being proposed by David Laws and seconded by Duncan Brack (each representing, I think it's fair to say, opposite ends of the party) inviting conference to endorse the manifesto themes paper.
 
With a foreword by Nick Clegg, hidden away on Page 22, it says:
 
We will find practical alternatives to the use of closed material proceedings within the justice system, including the provisions of the Justice and Security Act 2013, with the aim of restoring the principle of open justice.
 
Now, while the party will argue endlessly with itself over various aspects of policy on health, education, defence or the economy, give it a civil liberties issue and it will unite in a moment. Because that’s the main reason why most people join the Liberal Democrats. And as a result Secret Courts is probably the thing that’s happened in government that makes folk unhappiest.
 
And joy of joy – Nick’s held his hand up and concurred. Hats off.
 
Now, there’s a way to go yet. Conference has to vote for it, the full manifesto has to be written – and we’ve got  to be part of the next government to repeal the current legislation. There’s a way to go yet.
 
But at least we’re on the right road.
 
Richard Morris blogs at A View From Ham Common, which was named Best New Blog at the 2011 Lib Dem Conference
Nick Clegg speaks at last year's Liberal Democrat conference in Brighton. Photograph: Getty Images.

Richard Morris blogs at A View From Ham Common, which was named Best New Blog at the 2011 Lib Dem Conference

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How worried are Labour MPs about losing their seats?

Despite their party's abysmal poll ratings, MPs find cause for optimism on the campaign trail. 

Labour enters the general election with subterranean expectations. A "good result", MPs say, would be to retain 180-200 of their 229 MPs. Some fear a worse result than 1935, when the party won just 154 seats. Rather than falling, the Conservatives' poll lead has risen as the prospect of electing a government concentrates minds (last night's YouGov survey, showing the Tories a mere 16 points ahead, was an exception).

Though Conservative strategists insist they could lose the election, in an attempt to incentivise turnout, their decision to target Labour MPs with majorities as high as 8,000 shows the scale of their ambitions (a Commons majority of circa 150 seats). But as well as despair, there is hope to be found in the opposition's ranks.

Though MPs lament that Jeremy Corbyn is an unavoidable drag on their support, they cite four reasons for optimism. The first is their local reputation, which allows them to differentiate themselves from the national party (some quip that the only leaflets on which Corbyn will feature are Tory ones). The second is that since few voters believe the Labour leader can become Prime Minister, there is less risk attached to voting for the party (a point some MPs make explicit) "The problem with Ed Miliband and the SNP in 2015 was that it was a plausible scenario," a shadow minister told me. "It was quite legitimate for voters to ask us the question we didn't want to answer: 'what would you do in a hung parliament?' If voters have a complaint it's usually about Jeremy but it's not the case that he looks like he can become prime minister."

The third reason is the spectre of an omnipotent Tory government. MPs appeal to voters not to give Theresa May a "free hand" and to ensure there is some semblance of an opposition remains. Finally, MPs believe there is an enduring tribal loyalty to Labour, which will assert itself as polling day approaches. Some liken such voters to sports fans, who support their team through thick and thin, regardless of whether they like the manager. Outgoing MP Michael Dugher (who I interviewed this week) was told by an elderly woman: "Don't worry, love, I will still vote Labour. I vote for you even when you're rubbish."

Ben Bradshaw, the long-serving MP for Exter, who has a majority of 7,183, told me: "We're not anything for granted of course. On the current national polling, the Tories would take Exeter. But having covered five polling districts, although the leadership is undoubtedly a big issue on the doorstep, most people say they'll still vote for me as their local MP and we're not detecting any significant shift away from 2015. Which is slightly puzzling given the chasm in the opinion polls." Bradshaw also promotes himself as "the only non-Tory MP in the south-west outside Bristol": a leaflet shows a blue-splattered map with a lone red dot. The Labour MP warns voters not to be left in a "one-party state". 

As in 2010, Labour may yet retain more seats than its vote share suggests (aided by unchanged boundaries). But the fate of the Liberal Democrats in 2015 - when the party was reduced from 56 MPs to eight - shows that local reputations are worth less than many suppose. Theresa May has succeeded in framing herself as a figure above party interests, who needs a "strong hand" in the Brexit negotiations. At the very moment when a vigorous opposition is needed most, Labour has rarely been weaker. And when the public turn resolutely against a party, even the best men and women are not spared.  

George Eaton is political editor of the New Statesman.

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