Don't put purity before growth, Lib Dem grassroots warned

Alistair Carmichael, the party's chief whip, cited the party's Brexit-inspired membership boom in an at times uneasy defence of the defection of Philip Lee.

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Grassroots anger over the admission of Philip Lee to the Liberal Democrats — the big story of the first day of the party’s autumn conference — shows no sign of abating. Alistair Carmichael, the Lib Dems’ Commons chief whip, bore the brunt of the backlash while giving his annual parliamentary report this evening.

Although the session saw Carmichael speak alongside Dick Newby, the party’s leader in the Lords, and Catherine Bearder, the leader of its European Parliament group, all four questions from the floor were directed at him — and all were critical of his decision to admit Lee, whose defection was met by the resignation of the chair of the party’s official LGBT wing.

The Orkney and Shetland MP’s at times uneasy defence of the decision was at once a challenge to the grassroots and a sop to its democratic instincts. Carmichael - who stressed that local parties had a constitutional responsibility to admit defecting MPs to their ranks, and thus a veto over their admission. 

That reminder that members had the right to bar those defectors whose politics they disagreed with was accompanied by an implicit promise that they would not have to use it. Carmichael said that the party would consult with the representatives of minority and liberation groups before taking a similar decision again, something he revealed had happened before Angela Smith, who was forced to apologise after describing black and minority people as having a “funny tinge” live on the BBC, was confirmed as a Liberal Democrat MP last week. He also pledged never to admit a homophobe, racist or sexist to the party. 

Carmichael concluded, however, with an audibly exasperated appeal for perspective. Citing the party’s Brexit-powered surge in membership numbers from 55,000 in 2015 to over 120,000 today, the nub of his message to the party was simple: do not let ideological purity be the enemy of growth. As the ranks of the Lib Dem parliamentary party continue to swell with disaffected Remainers from both Labour and the Conservatives, its leadership will have to grapple with that question more often.

Patrick Maguire is the New Statesman's political correspondent.