To depart so dramatically from party policy is one thing. It isn’t the first time it has happened during this Coalition. I’m sure it won’t be the last. But to do so on civil liberties – a topic many see as close to the core of liberalism and a topic particularly dear to the hearts of many activists – is barely credible.
As Jonathan Calder pointed out at Liberal England yesterday, one of the biggest issues in this sorry saga has been the lack of communication. Nick Clegg took a very long time to agree to meet Jo Shaw, who has been leading the campaign against the Bill. There has been little attempt to explain why the majority of the party in the Commons decided to vote against the wishes of Conference.
Paddy Ashdown is undoubtedly right when he is quoted in one of today’s papers as saying that Parliamentarians are representatives rather than delegates. They therefore have the latitude to depart from party policy when it is deemed necessary. But when they do so it would be good to have an explanation as to why it was deemed necessary.
I witnessed a couple of attempted explanations yesterday at Conference, neither of which brought clarity to the situation nor calmed activists’ anger.
Nick Clegg presumably knew that the issue was going to come up in his Leader’s Question and Answer session. So he had time to get his answer ready.
Given that, the tactic he adopted seemed rather unwise. It entailed quite a bit of blustering; attacking sundry strawmen; patronising the audience by suggesting it was all rather technical; arguing that even though the policy might appear illiberal that was, in fact, mistaken; and, finally, misconstruing the questions asked and answering a preferred version. So we saw pretty much every tool deployed from the box marked “evasion tactics for politicians who don’t wish to engage”.
George Potter asked a pretty straightforward question. Given this change was not in the Coalition agreement, it was against party policy, and it was against a principle absolutely fundamental to liberalism, why didn’t the party’s MPs vote against the Bill? Nick Clegg’s answer was that because the party only has 8% of MPs and the Tories and Labour were going to vote in favour the Liberal Democrats couldn’t have stopped the bill from being passed.
But that is the answer to a different question. Potter wasn’t asking why the Liberal Democrats hadn’t defeated the Bill. We know they couldn’t do that on their own. He was asking why they hadn’t voted as a matter of principle en masse against an illiberal measure. If the party isn’t going to stand up for civil liberties – one of its few very distinctive values – then what is the point? It wouldn’t have been a particularly costly strategy – the Tories would have got their illiberal change in the law anyway, courtesy of Jack Straw and his like.
Yet answer there came back none.
There will be at least one further twist in this tale because the Emergency Motion on secret courts came top in the ballot. It will be debated today. It is hard to envisage the outcome being anything other than a reassertion of existing party policy and hence a defeat for the leadership.
It seems to me the likelihood of that outcome has been significantly enhanced by the news that Dinah Rose has resigned from the party in protest at the leadership’s stance on the issue. This is a particularly telling development. Unlike most politicians, who no doubt rely on advisors to explain to them what effect the Bill will have, Rose has encountered closed material procedures – the change at the heart of the dispute – in full operation. And she is damning. As cited in the Guardian:
Rose’s resignation note added: “I believe that I am the only person who has acted in SIAC for the home secretary, as a special advocate, and for appellants.
My conclusion, in common with the overwhelming majority of those who have acted as special advocates, is that CMPs cannot be fairly operated.”
In the past, Nick Clegg has been accused of having a tin ear. In particular, he lacks sensitivity to issues of particular importance to grassroots activists. Secret courts are a paradigmatic case. It is an obscure matter of almost no consequence to the general public. In fact, I wouldn’t be at all surprised if most people were in favour of the legal change. But it is – or at least has become – totemic for Liberal Democrats.
Last weekend on the Daily Politics the pundits were arguing that the success in the Eastleigh byelection had taken the pressure off Nick Clegg. As I tweeted at the time:
— Alex Marsh (@ShodanAlexM) March 3, 2013
You’d perhaps expect these pundits not to have a great feel for the issues, given they are observing from the outside. I claim no great insight, and I’d hardly claim to be on the inside, but it wasn’t hard to spot this coming. If you were paying attention.
If Conference speaks as I expect it to today, and the leadership ignores Conference again, as I expect it to, then that will be a further fraying of the thread that connects the leadership to the activist base.
We should be asking how we have reached the situation where Conference is increasingly being framed as the grassroots against the leadership. That is unsustainable. That way madness lies.
Image: Liberal Democrats via flickr.com under Creative Commons