As British politics sinks further into a hellhole of competing nationalisms and utter bullshit masquerading as ‘being informed’, it’s time for another election! “Yay!” said absolutely no-one. If you’re reading this I think I can safely assume that you know what my views on the Tories and SNP are, though with the relentless Tory march to the right much of what I’ve written on them feels somewhat out of date. It’s been pointed out that the policies and rhetoric of the Tories currently bear comparison with the BNP; I could also observe that upon reading about Marie Le Pen’s platform, I couldn’t see many substantive differences with that of Theresa May. The Tories are a far-right party and it’s only a capitulant media which bafflingly continues to frame them as ‘centrist’ and May as ‘safe’ and ‘competent’ which is stopping more of us from appreciating this terrifying fact.
Let nothing I write here distract from the fact that the prospect of five more years of the Tories is a truly terrifying prospect. Yet the current government did not emerge from a vacuum, and neither did Brexit. With this in mind, I wanted to write a little about a party I tend to ignore: the Liberal Democrats. Following their 2015 election disaster, which saw them almost wiped out, the Liberal Democrats have been bobbing along, barely budging in the polls. They’ve been so irrelevant that the media hasn’t even saw fit to cover their woes, in the same way it’s focused on Labour and Corbyn. Now, however, the Lib Dems have spotted their chance. That rope has been thrown which they hope will guide them back to the hallowed land of people caring again. Yes, the Lib Dems OPPOSE BREXIT!
Anyone who has paid the slightest bit of attention to politics post-Brexit will be aware that the Lib Dems have branded themselves as ‘the Remain party’. Their victory in Richmond Park was seen as a proxy re-run of the referendum, so it’s unsurprising that they propose a second referendum. This referendum is ostensibly on a Brexit deal but everyone understands it to actually be a chance to re-run the first one and reject Brexit. They’ve gone big on being the ‘real opposition’ to the Tories, based almost entirely on Brexit, and hammer Labour’s difficult position on the issue.
When Theresa May called this unnecessary election, she framed it as being entirely about Brexit. May did this because she knows she will win in an election based on the nationalism, xenophobia and racism she has inflamed and exploited since Brexit, and because she has little record to defend. Unfortunately, it’s clear that many adamant ‘Remainers’ are walking straight into this and framing the election as a proxy Brexit referendum. As most of these people seem to be supporting the Lib Dems, I wanted to make a few observations about the lines which I keep seeing wheeled out.
First of all, I think few ‘Remain’ voters would deny that immigration, and more specifically anti-immigration myths and sentiment, played a massive role in Brexit. Many profess to wish to oppose Brexit because they are ‘pro-immigration’. Yet if this is your motivation, it’s rather curious to support a party which was part of a government with an absolutely dire record on this matter. The coalition, which Tim Farron voted with in almost every single vote, set an arbitrary target to reduce immigration to the ‘tens of thousands’. made immigration rules stricter and crueler, illegally deported thousands of students and sent the infamous ‘Go Home’ vans around the country. Some Lib Dems justify this on the basis that it would have been even worse if they’d not been present, which is curious to say the least. Nothing and no-one forced the Lib Dems to enter a formal coalition with the Tories and we cannot know what would have happened had they not – we can only judge what actually did happen in its government, as we do (and should) with any other government. We can also note that the Coalition Agreement included a commitment to “introduce a cap on immigration and reduce the number of non-EU immigrants.” So the idea that Farron’s Lib Dems are an attractive defender of migrant rights is…curious, to say the least.
Now, onto Brexit itself. It’s clear that all of the main parties have played their role in fostering the climate that led us here, but given Farron and the Lib Dems now repeatedly accuse Labour of being ‘pro-Brexit’, let’s have a look at some history.
In 2008, Tim Farron resigned from the Lib Dem Shadow Cabinet because he supported a referendum on the Lisbon Treaty but the Lib Dem position was to abstain:
Given his current position, you have to wonder what Farron would have done had he won a referendum and voters rejected the Treaty but let’s be generous and come a bit more up to date. The 2010 Lib Dem manifesto committed itself to referendums if there was ‘fundamental change’ in the UK/EU relationship, not an ‘In/Out’ referendum.
In 2011, with the Lib Dems in the coalition, parliament looked at whether there should be a ‘European Referendum Committee’ which would clarify when an EU referendum should be necessary. The Lib Dems voted with the Conservatives against this (and against Labour):
In 2011 most Lib Dems, and most of all parties, voted against calling for an EU membership referendum. In 2013 and 2014 there were Private Member’s Bills to legislate for a referendum, which were largely ignored by every party except the Tories.
It’s clear that the Lib Dem capitulation to the Tories played a large role in its 2015 meltdown and the Tory majority, which led us to the referendum and Brexit. It’s also clear that Labour in government played a big role in fostering the atmosphere. We can note that, whereas Ed Miliband steadfastly refused to commit to an EU membership referendum at the 2015 election, both Labour and the Lib Dem manifestos included a commitment to an In/Out referendum should there be further substantive transfer of powers:
Then, following the Tory victory, Farron joined most of the remaining Lib Dems in voting for a referendum (only the SNP voted against it):
There then followed a series of votes on amendments to the referendum bill. We can note that Farron didn’t vote to allow 16 and 17yos to participate in the referendum (but did later.) In fact, Farron and most of the Lib Dems didn’t seem to vote on a single amendment. This is most interesting when it comes to an amendment which would have required:
…the publication, at least ten weeks before the referendum, of the terms of any renegotiation between the United Kingdom and the European Union and the consequences for the United Kingdom of leaving the European Union.
In short, an attempt to ensure that everyone voting in the referendum had the best possible idea of what they were voting for. Given his current rhetoric around this matter, it’s curious Farron didn’t vote on it. Indeed, no Lib Dem did (Labour and the SNP voted for it):
If our political journalists were any good, you’d expect them to be raising this with Farron again and again as it rather undermines his current stance. You’d perhaps also expect them to be highlighting this:
Yes, Mr ‘Second Referendum’ Farron himself openly mocked the idea when it was advanced by Nigel Farage, somewhat hilariously invoking ‘the will of the people’ as a wry aside. Indeed, he went further, labelling the notion of a second referendum ‘pathetic’ in Prospect Magazine:
If it’s not yet clear that the current Lib Dem position is little more than hypocrisy and opportunism, let’s look at one more thing: Farron’s frequent claims to be the ‘real opposition’ to the Tories. Leaving aside the hilarity of the party which brought us the coalition using this attack, Farron, in leading this ‘real opposition’, has voted in little more than a third of divisions (votes) in this parliament – far less than when the Lib Dems were in power:
The leader of this ‘real opposition’ didn’t vote on a proposal to limit public spending cuts immediately following the first Tory Queen’s Speech; he didn’t vote on an Opposition Day motion calling on the government to address the housing crisis; he didn’t vote on a proposal to produce annual reports on addressing the gender pay gap; he didn’t vote on targeting assistance at those on low- and middle-incomes; he didn’t vote on requiring schools to include Personal, Social, Health and Economic education at school, including sex education; he didn’t vote on demands for more assistance for refugees; he didn’t vote on the notorious Trade Union Bill; he didn’t vote on attempts to prevent or ameliorate the tax credit cuts, to protect Employment and Support Allowance or against the Welfare Bill which further reduced the benefit cap and cut various benefits; he didn’t vote on an Opposition Day motion on the dispute over Junior Doctors’ contracts; he didn’t vote on the call to reconsider tax credit cuts which even some Tories supported; he didn’t vote on the third reading of the Immigration Bill, effectively extending border controls further into everyday life…
…you get the idea (that’s still only up to the end of 2015). The notion of Farron and the Lib Dems being the ‘real opposition’ is risible and hanging it entirely around the votes on Article 50, where the Lib Dem position was contrary to all that had gone before and where the government was never going to be defeated, is mendacious in the extreme and makes a mockery of any possible ‘progressive alliance’. The Lib Dems know they have zero power to prevent Brexit (and you’ll note the tactics people have to prevent it are never more fully-formed than ‘elect some MPs who don’t want Brexit’), and are exploiting the fact most people don’t pay much attention to politics to offer false hope to those for whom it is now the single most important issue in politics.
Yet however we feel about Brexit, the idea that opposing it should mean voting for politicians and parties with a dire record on immigration, on poverty, on employment rights and so on is at best naive, at worst woefully out-of-touch. We certainly should not reward Tim Farron and the Liberal Democrats for their cheap opportunism, of the kind which has so destroyed faith and trust in politics and contributed to our grim political landscape.