Tag Archives: Political Parties

What has happened at the Liberal Democrat Conference?

Jo Swinson is the Leader of the Liberal Democrats.

It is Party Conference season and the first major party to hold their conference have been the Liberal Democrats. The other main party conferences are:

Labour: 21–25 September 2019, Brighton.

Conservatives: 29 September – 2 October 2019, Manchester.

The Liberal Democrat Conference had two particularly significant moments. Firstly, Sam Gyimah MP joined the party.

Ex-Tory MP, Sam Gyimah, was given a raucous welcome at the Lib Dem Conference.

He follows Sarah Wollaston and Philip Lee joining having been former Conservatives who have moved to the Liberal Democrats.

Philip Lee ‘crossed the floor’ and joined the Liberal Democrats during one of Boris Johnson’s speech.

Gyimah was one of 21 Conservative MPs who had the whip withdrawn for voting against Boris Johnson over a No Deal Brexit. The arrival of Gyimah takes the number of Liberal Democrat MPs up to 18, up from 12 seats at the 2017 General Election.

The Lib Dem’s are on a high. They are polling at around 20% in national opinion polls and now have roughly the same number of grassroots members as the Conservative Party. There are strong rumours that more defections to the party are on the way too.

However, not all Liberal Democrat’s are happy with the influx of ex-conservatives. They point out, for example, that Sam Gyimah has some issues in his voting record that most Liberal Democrat’s would take umbrage with:

  • He voted against retaining the EU “Charter of Fundamental Rights” as part of EU Law post Brexit
  • He voted in favour of repealing the Human Rights Act (1998)
  • He voted against investigations into the Iraq War
  • He voted for keeping Britain’s Independent Nuclear Deterrent (Trident)
  • He voted against guaranteeing the rights of EU citizens and their right to legally reside in the UK after Brexit.
  • He has voted for the ‘bedroom tax’.
  • He has voted against measures to combat Climate Change.

In addition, in 2016 he filibustered the so-called Turing Bill that would retrospectively decriminalise individuals who had been found guilty of homosexual acts before they were decriminalised in UK law.

It remains to be seen what effect the influx of ex-Tory members will have on the direction of the Labour Party.

The most significant news to come from the Lib Dem Conference, however, is the change in their Brexit policy which was voted on by members. The Lib Dems are the clearest anti-Brexit party. Since the result of the referendum in 2016, they have consistently campaigned to reverse the Brexit division. They have long supported a Second Referendum (a so-called ‘peoples vote’). However, they now have confirmed at their conference that if they form a government they will support the revocation or Article 50 by Parliament as a means to stop Brexit.

The truth is that the Lib Dems, despite their current polling, are extremely unlikely to win a majority in the next election. Third parties often have the freedom of making manifesto promises that they know they will not have to implement. Making this pledge may be a smart electoral move as an attempt to win over anti-Brexit Labour and, to a less extent, Conservative voters. However, for a party which places liberal notions of democracy at its heart, many will believe it is undemocratic of the Liberal Democrat’s to not even seek to question whether the mandate given by 17.4 million leave voters should be revisited.

It will now be interesting to see how Labour react. Currently, Labour support a Second Referendum, but fall short of placing themselves as a remain party. They may be closer to doing so now that the Liberal Democrat’s have taken such an unequivocal position.

What is the significance of the withdrawal of the whip and deselection?

One of the significant results of Thursday’s ’s proceedings in the House of Commons is that 21 Conservative MPs had the whip withdrawn for voting against the Government. These included the grandson of Winston Churchill, Nicholas Soames, and the Father of the House, Kenneth Clarke. Soames had only voted against his own party 3 times in 37 years whilst Ken Clarke has served in the Governments of Margaret Thatcher, John Major and David Cameron, previously holding the titles of Home Secretary and Chancellor of the Exchequer.

Ken Clarke is the Father of the House (the title given to the longest serving male MP) and has now had the Conservative Whip withdrawn after 50 years as a Conservative MP.

This led to criticism of the government from across the House, with reports that even Theresa May had said the MPs affected should be reinstated with the Conservative Whip. The most passionate criticism of the Government, however, came from Labour MP Jess Phillips who called Conservative MPs ‘cowards’ for watching the withdrawals without protest:

The ‘Whip’ is the term given for the right to sit in a political party in Parliament. Sitting with a political party means that you can use their often significant resources. However, it also means that MPs are expected to ‘toe the party line’ and vote with the party, particularly on their key policy issues.

Having the whip withdrawn is one of last resorts that parties have to maintain discipline within the party. Having the whip withdrawn is relatively rare. Some of the famous examples of this are:

George Galloway (2003): Galloway was expelled from the Labour Party in 2003 after being found guilty of five counts of bringing the party into disrepute. This expulsion came after 36 years of membership. Galloway was an outspoken critic of Tony Blair’s decision (ratified by Parliament) to send troops to Iraq and had backed anti-war campaigners to stand against Labour in the next election.

The Maastricht Rebels (1992): Eight members of John Major’s Conservative Party consistently failed to back his call for the ratification of the Maastricht Treaty. The Maastricht Treaty created the European Union (formerly EEC). There were 22 rebels, and given the fact that Major only had a majority of 18, they were a significant thorn in the Prime Minister’s side. A total of 10 MPs had the whip withdrawn for failing to support the PM over the treaty.

Ken Livingstone (2000): Ken Livingstone wanted to run as Labour candidate for Mayor of London in 2000. He had previously been Leader of the Greater London Council between 1981 and 1986 and had significant experience of politics in London. However, Labour decided to select Frank Dobson as their candidate. Livingstone declared that he would run independently and as a consequence had the Labour whip withdrawn. Livingstone went on to win the 2000 and 2004 mayoral elections, being made Labour’s official candidate in 2004.

Alongside having the whip withdrawn these MPs are now likely to be deselected – meaning they cannot stand as Conservative MPs in the next election. This is a significant punishment. It is extremely rare for MPs to be elected to the House of Commons without the support of a major party. In fact, the only MP currently elected as an Independent in Sylvia Hermon, MP for North Down.

Sylvia Hermon is the only current MP who was elected as an Independent.

The current situation has led to cries of Government hypocrisy. For example, the Prime Minister voted against Theresa May’s deal on two occasions whilst Leader of the House, Jacob Rees-Mogg, voted against Theresa May’s deal on all three occasions.

Nicholas Soames, one of the MPs to have the whip withdrawn, pointed out the hypocrisy in the Prime Minister’s move.

The impact of deselection is hard to tell. Many local Conservative Associations seem content with the decision. For example, Philip Hammond’s Runnymead and Weybridge association have said deselection is the right decision. However, parties have to carefully balance the views of their grassroots members with those of the electorate who will decide their fate at the next election. Whilst the move to the right may please many traditional Tory voters and therefore fend of the challenge from the Brexit Party, it may lead to disillusionment with those who believe a carefully managed Brexit is essential and are willing to accept further extensions to that end. A General Election will arrive soon, that much is for certain. With it will come a chance to test the direction the decisions the Prime Minister has made. It is important to note that current polls see the Conservatives clearly in the lead. The current estimate from Electoral Calculus is that an election would result in a Conservative Majority of 50.