Liberal Democrat president Tim Farron at the party's spring conference in Brighton last year. Photograph: Getty Images.
Show Hide image

The next Lib Dem leader must come from the party's left

Rather than Jeremy Browne, the party needs a centre-left figurehead, such as Tim Farron, to revive its fortunes.

You can tell a series of elections are on the way, as speculation abounds again about the leadership of Nick Clegg and the future direction of the Liberal Democrats. I once, famously, and I admit wrongly, speculated about it myself on this very blog site when I wrote a post in anger (never a good thing to do) about Clegg.

Although I’m undoubtedly from a different wing of the party to him, I respect the leadership he’s shown on issues including our membership of the European Union and equal marriage. I accept that Clegg will likely lead our party into the 2015 general election and, possibly, beyond. But it’s a plain fact that one day he will stand down and a new leader will be elected. So, it’s on that basis that I suggest that the next leader of the party should come from its centre-left.

There’s no doubt that many people who consider themselves on the centre-left of the party- social liberals and social democrats -have left to join other parties or to be a member of no party because they couldn’t stand some of the things Lib Dem ministers were signing up to as part of the coalition.

But I’d still argue that the majority of the party’s membership remains - broadly speaking - on the centre-left of the political spectrum. Given some of what we’ve had to swallow, we’ve remained very disciplined, far more so than the disgruntled elements of the Tory party have.

I hope that whenever Clegg decides to stand down (and that could be years away) it’s an MP from the party’s centre-left who takes over. My personal choice for our next leader would be Tim Farron. His profile has slowly risen during his exemplary presidency of the party where he’s taken on the task of being the representative of the party’s left on a number of issues, from opposing the bedroom tax to always speaking up for the poorest and most vulnerable in our society.

We also shouldn’t count out Vince Cable. The argument that he’s “too old” is spurious and offensive. A more reasonable argument for him not succeeding Clegg is that, as Business Secretary in this coalition government, he’s just as responsible as the current Lib Dem leader for the bad bits of this administration’s record. But he certainly shouldn’t be ruled out.

Then there's Steve Webb, not much known outside Westminster yet but making a big name for himself and forcing through a number of significant Lib Dem wins in a notoriously difficult department.

As for potential candidates from the right of the party, my view is that Jeremy Browne has shot himself in the foot with his statements on various media platforms whilst promoting his book over the past week.  If what he’s espousing is “authentic liberalism” then I’d gladly be called an inauthentic liberal. I will never agree to further privatisation of our National Health Service or to an expansion of Free Schools.

I believe in an enabling state, which gives people opportunities, whatever their background or present circumstances, which provides certain services not for profit but because they’re basic fundamental services and which people already pay for in general taxation. Yes, I’m a social democrat and a social liberal and proud of it; two fine traditions in our party and flames which burn brightly despite the knocks they’ve taken in recent years.

I believe we, as a party, need to remember our founding beliefs and begin to live up to them. The preamble to our constitution states: “The Liberal Democrats exist 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.”

A party living up to those values is not ‘pointless,’ Mr Browne. It is vitally needed in a country where both of the two major parties prove time and again that they are far from liberal.

Mathew Hulbert is a Liberal Democrat Borough and Parish Councillor in Leicestershire

Photo: Getty
Show Hide image

Brexiteers want national sovereignty and tighter borders – but they can't have both

The role of the European Court of Justice is a major sticking point in talks.

Why doesn't Theresa May's counter-offer on the rights of European citizens living and working in Britain pass muster among the EU27? It all comes down to one of the biggest sticking points in the Brexit talks: the role of the European Court of Justice.

The European Commission, under direction from the leaders of member states, wants the rights of the three million living here and of the British diaspora in the EU guaranteed by the European Court. Why? Because that way, the status of EU citizens here or that of British nationals in the EU aren't subject to the whims of a simple majority vote in the legislature.

This is where Liam Fox, as crassly he might have put it, has a point about the difference between the UK and the EU27, being that the UK does not "need to bury" its 20th century history. We're one of the few countries in the EU where political elites get away with saying, "Well, what's the worst that could happen?" when it comes to checks on legislative power. For the leaders of member states, a guarantee not backed up by the European Court of Justice is no guarantee at all.

That comes down to the biggest sticking point of the Brexit talks: rules. In terms of the deal that most British voters, Leave or Remain, want – a non-disruptive exit that allows the British government to set immigration policy – UK politicians can get that, provided they concede on money and rules, ie we continue to follow the directions of the European Court while having no power to set them. Britain could even seek its own trade deals and have that arrangement.

But the problem is that deal runs up against the motivations of the Brexit elite, who are in the main unfussed about migration but are concerned about sovereignty – and remaining subject to the rule of the ECJ without being able to set its parameters is, it goes without saying, a significant loss of sovereignty. 

Can a fudge be found? That the Article 50 process goes so heavily in favour of the EU27 and against the leaving member means that the appetite on the EuCo side for a fudge is limited. 

But there is hope, as David Davis has conceded that there will have to be an international guarantor, as of course there will have to be. If you trade across borders, you need a cross-border referee. If a plane goes up in one country and lands in another, then it is, by necessity, regulated across borders. (That arrangement has also been mooted by Sigmar Gabriel, foreign minister in Angela Merkel's government. But that Gabriel's centre-left party looks likely to be expelled from coalition after the next election means that his support isn't as valuable as many Brexiteers seem to think.)

On the Conservative side, a new EU-UK international body would satisfy the words of May's ECJ red line. On the EU27 side, that the body would, inevitably, take its lead from the treaties of the EU sans Britain and the ECJ would mean that in spirit, Britain would be subject to the ECJ by another name.

But it comes back to the Brexit dilemma. You can satisfy the voters' demand for non-disruptive control of British borders. You can satisfy political demand for sovereignty. But you can't have both. May – and whoever replaces her – will face the same question: who do you disappoint?

Stephen Bush is special correspondent at the New Statesman. His daily briefing, Morning Call, provides a quick and essential guide to domestic and global politics.

0800 7318496