Tuesday 12 September 2017

Lib Dem leadership stifles debate on Europe - and U-turns on a promise?

After 400+ party members signed a petition to trigger a special conference to debate a Stop Brexit policy, the powers that be in the Liberal Democrats agreed to a compromise where they would enable the policy to be debated at autumn conference in Bournemouth in exchange for the petition being withdrawn.

But now, at the last minute, it seems that the party’s Federal Conference Committee (FCC) has broken a promise to remain neutral in a crucial conference vote this Saturday and will now oppose the attempt to suspend standing orders to allow a Stop Brexit policy motion to be debated in place of a scheduled “consultation” session on Brexit.

In a blogpost, Andrew Hickey, one of the organisers of the special conference petition, has detailed how the organisers reluctantly agreed to cancel the demand for a special conference (in order to save the party the estimated £15,000 cost of holding it) after the FCC proposed the standing orders vote as a potential solution.

In an email to the organisers, Andrew Wiseman, Chair of the FCC, promised that:
“FCC has said it will not oppose the suspension of standing orders. Some members are in favour and other are against, but as a committee it has said it will not oppose and will be neutral. When I speak to the FCC report I will make it clear that FCC do not oppose this.”

After the organisers reluctantly agreed to this compromise, nothing further was heard until last week when someone in the higher levels of the party briefed against the Stop Brexit policy motion to that well-known organ of Liberal opinion the Daily Mirror.

Then, on Saturday, FCC voted to oppose the suspension of standing orders in a 5-4 vote – with at least one FCC member claiming they had not been told that Andrew Wiseman had promised the petition organisers that FCC would remain neutral on the issue.

FCC also voted for a wrecking amendment to be debated alongside the Stop Brexit policy motion (should said debate take place) which would replace the heart of the motion with a policy of wanting a second referendum to accept or reject the government’s Brexit deal – the same policy that saw the Liberal Democrats score their lowest post-World War II vote share in this year’s general election.  Wrecking amendments cannot be taken for debate according to Conference Standing Orders.

Liberator Collective member George Potter, a supporter of the motion, tells us that:
"Once again it seems that, rather than risk members democratically deciding whether the party’s policy should be principled opposition to Brexit completely or just calling for a second referendum, the Liberal Democrat leadership would rather use underhand and deceitful tactics to stop the debate from even taking place.

If they are successful, not only will the party’s members have been robbed of their say on one of the most important issues of the time, but the party won’t have another chance to decide a Brexit policy until the end of 2018, less than six months before the UK is due to leave the EU."

All of which will be a new test for Cable's new chief of staff Sarah Olney, who as a post-2015 member is unlikely to have seen any proper Conference rows (until now).  Did she encourage FCC leadership drones into this U-turn - or was she given lessons by those who led the party into its Coalition-era car-crash on the NHS Bill?