The Chamber of the House of Commons.
On April 4th next year I will have been a member of my Party (including its predecessor) for 50 years. I can say with total clarity that I have never known times like these. The referendum on BREXIT seems to have set in play new forces which have broken, and broken for good, the two Party system which we have laughingly described as the ‘greatest democracy in the world”.
Of course it never has been the greatest democracy in the world. We have a rigged electoral system that gives overall majorities in parliament to minorities and in which the second chamber is un-elected. Our process has always been legal and transparent and with very limited amounts of corruption and electoral fraud. We have much to be proud of but a system which has evolved over the centuries and especially since the Great Reform Act of 1832 now lies shattered.
In May 2015 the Country elected a new Government with an overall majority with just 37% of the vote. David Cameron stormed to victory; was hailed as a conqueror and 14 months later retired in ignominy. Battered not by corruption but by the cowardice that he had shown in not standing up to the very unpleasant right wing of his Party. There was no leadership election to replace him as MPs in the Tory Party could only effectively agree one name to go forward. Now there is a new turn up for the books in Richmond Park. It must surely be unprecedented in modern history for a governing party not to fight a seat in a by-election caused by the resignation of one of their own members. Surely this shows the total lack of conviction of that once great Party?
Labour are in no better place. Their Leader has now been elected twice and on the surface seems to be uniting his Party. But still waters run deep. Most of his MPs realise that they cannot replace him and are seeking other jobs in Parliament and elsewhere. But 3 of his more intelligent MPs have already suggested that Labour should not fight the Richmond Park by-election. I can just see the Labour squeeze leaflet already being drawn up in Lib Dem HQ!!
The Greens are showing their irrelevance. Any Party that thinks you have two half leaders rather than one Leader is living in a dream world.
What then of UKIP. How can one write about UKIP without sniggering? They elected a Leader who lasted 18 days. Two of their MEPs have been biffing each other. The best potential candidate to leave the Party has quit in disgust and they are now going to back Zac Goldsmith as an Independent Candidate.
This leads us then to Richmond Park where the fabled Lib Dem by-election team was in action within minutes of Goldsmith resigning. Interesting legal points come up. Although there is no Tory standing against him he presumably cannot use Tory mailing lists and voting data bases because that would be a breach of information laws. The same would surely apply to Tory staff and premises. The by-election will not be a referendum on Heathrow because the Lib Dem candidate is also anti Heathrow expansion.
So the by-election will be a vote on Brexit. UKIP and the Tories come together on the need for a hard BREXIT. Labour and the Greens have no established or at least known policy on hard or soft. It leaves the Lib Dems to fight the corner for an intelligent interpretation of the Brexit vote and to stand for an intelligent discussion of the future relationship with Europe.
Never before has there been a by-election on which so much turns. Of course winning in Richmond Park will be a good thing for the Liberal Democrats. Already the national media are looking at us differently because of the21 gains (and no losses) in local elections since May and the 19%+ swing to the Party in the Witney by-election last week.
More importantly than that will be the way politicians and the press view the Richmond Park result. If the independent hard line Brexiteer Zac Goldsmith gets elected the line will be that people chose to elect someone who was committed, as was his father before him, to leave the EU swiftly and abruptly. If he fails and the Lib Dem gets elected than the Press and the Government will need to take heed of the fact that there is a majority made up of those who voted remain and those wanted a soft but continuing relationship with the EU. A Lib Dem success will change the negotiating stance of the Government and will provide a welcome boost for commerce and industry who are grappling with the after effects of June 23rd.
It will also give a spine to these Tory MPs who know that what the Government is doing is wrong. As Tim Farron puts it so well, “in the referend um people decided that they wanted to leave. They did not say where they wanted to end up”. The Yes/No nature of a referendum allowed no room for a finite expression of the people’s will. That is always in a representative democracy left to those who have been elected to exercise their judgement on complex issues. The ‘Clarkite’ Tories must stand their ground if we are jointly to prevent our Country becoming a minor island on the edge of the continent.
I haven’t a clue what will happen to our political parties in the coming years. I am very confident about the future of my own Party with our new members and the money that comes from that membership. Only today I was approached by a resident in Wavertree Ward about joining us. He’s had enough with the Corbynite Labour Party and has already left them. He is now, like many others, pondering the next step of his political journey. He will be welcome to join us!
How many others have the guts to put aside the tribalism of the right and left? As Labour and the Tories suffer their own internal fights and their factions vie for supremacy how will they find time to address the real needs of the nation in a calm and pragmatic way?
That’s the Lib Dems task for future years. Our growing team in Liverpool and the Country are putting forward the real ideas which can take the Country forward whilst Labour and the Tories yearn for the certainties of the 1960s and 1970s. This is a task which we willingly undertake.