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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Everyone's forgotten the one issue that united the Labour party

There was a time when Ed Miliband spoke at Momentum rallies.

To label the row over the EU at Thursday’s Labour leadership hustings "fireworks" would be to endow it with more beauty than it deserves. Owen Smith’s dogged condemnation of John McDonnell’s absence from a Remain rally – only for Corbyn to point out that his absence was for medical reasons – ought to go down as a cringing new low point in the campaign. 

Not so long ago, we were all friends. In the course of the EU referendum, almost all of the protagonists in the current debacle spoke alongside each other and praised one another’s efforts. At a local level, party activists of all stripes joined forces. Two days before polling day, Momentum activists helped organise an impromptu rally. Ed Miliband was the headline speaker, and was cheered on. 

If you take the simple version of the debate, Labour’s schism on the EU appears as an aberration of the usual dynamics of left and right in the party. Labour's left is supposedly cheering a position which avoids advocating what it believes in (Remain), because it would lose votes. Meanwhile, the right claims to be dying in a ditch for its principles - no matter what the consequences for Labour’s support in Leave-voting heartlands.

Smith wants to oppose Brexit, even after the vote, on the basis of using every available procedural mechanism. He would whip MPs against the invocation of Article 50, refuse to implement it in government, and run on a manifesto of staying in the EU. For the die-hard Europhiles on the left – and I count myself among these, having run the Another Europe is Possible campaign during the referendum – there ought to be no contest as to who to support. On a result that is so damaging to people’s lives and so rooted in prejudice, how could we ever accept that there is such a thing as a "final word"? 

And yet, on the basic principles that lie behind a progressive version of EU membership, such as freedom of movement, Smith seems to contradict himself. Right at the outset of the Labour leadership, Smith took to Newsnight to express his view – typical of many politicians moulded in the era of New Labour – that Labour needed to “listen” to the views Leave voters by simply adopting them, regardless of whether or not they were right. There were, he said, “too many” immigrants in some parts of the country. 

Unlike Smith, Corbyn has not made his post-Brexit policy a headline feature of the campaign, and it is less widely understood. But it is clear, via the five "red lines" outlined by John McDonnell at the end of June:

  1. full access to the single market
  2. membership of the European investment bank
  3. access to trading rights for financial services sector
  4. full residency rights for all EU nationals in the UK and all UK nationals in the EU, and
  5. the enshrinement of EU protections for workers. 

Without these five conditions being met, Labour would presumably not support the invocation of Article 50. So if, as seems likely, a Conservative government would never meet these five conditions, would there be any real difference in how a Corbyn leadership would handle the situation? 

The fight over the legacy of the referendum is theatrical at times. The mutual mistrust last week played out on the stage in front of a mass televised audience. Some Corbyn supporters jeered Smith as he made the case for another referendum. Smith accused Corbyn of not even voting for Remain, and wouldn’t let it go. But, deep down, the division is really about a difference of emphasis. 

It speaks to a deeper truth about the future of Britain in Europe. During the referendum, the establishment case for Remain floundered because it refused to make the case that unemployment and declining public services were the result of austerity, not immigrants. Being spearheaded by Conservatives, it couldn’t. It fell to the left to offer the ideological counter attack that was needed – and we failed to reach enough people. 

As a result, what we got was a popular mandate for petty racism and a potentially long-term shift to the right in British politics, endangering a whole raft of workplace and legal protections along the way. Now that it has happened, anyone who really hopes to overcome either Brexit, or the meaning of Brexit, has to address the core attitudes and debates at their root. Then as now, it is only clear left-wing ideas – free from any attempt to triangulate towards anti-migrant sentiment– that can have any hope of success. 

The real dividing lines in Labour are not about the EU. If they were, the Eurosceptic Frank Field would not be backing Smith. For all that it may be convenient to deny it, Europe was once, briefly, the issue that united the Labour Party. One day, the issues at stake in the referendum may do so again – but only if Labour consolidates itself around a strategy for convincing people of ideas, rather than simply reaching for procedural levers.