Today I did something I never thought I’d have to do. I contacted Membership Services at Liberal Democrat HQ to resign my membership, after 8 (mostly happy) years in the party. I leave behind many fantastic colleagues who I hope will be able to pick up the pieces once the dust has settled after the inevitable; and I want to stress from the outset that I bear them no malice and that I will miss the many good times I’ve had campaigning, debating and of course drinking with them!
This is something I’ve wrestled with and reflected on over the past two years. In particular, over the past week I was reminded of the way we used to laugh at Labour, the way we used to throw vitriol at them for being too “cowardly” to do the right thing and get rid of Blair/Brown. The scorn we poured on them and how unprincipled we told them they were for supporting policies that they would never in a million years back in opposition. Iraq. 42 Days detention. ID Cards. Of course, some will argue that I yearn for the comfort zone of opposition – well actually I don’t. I’m not one of the “usual suspects” – I voted for the formation of the coalition.
I have used many reasons to excuse the unpopular things we did in government. I have not been uncompromising and I have supported many of the things the coalition has done. I’ve often stuck up for MPs by reminding people that unlike in a majority government, we have 300 Tories in the way. To this day, I maintain that a coalition with the Tories was the only option. A minority Tory government would not have got its budget through (or maybe even the Queen’s speech) and a subsequent general election would have elected a majority Tory government. The numbers weren’t there for a Lib-Lab coalition and Labour simply weren’t willing to negotiate either. My issue remains with the policies that were negotiated and the policies that weren’t.
For those of us who have had a glimpse into the workings of the party, it is perhaps the worst kept secret that Clegg and Cable wanted to get rid of our tuition fees policy a long time ago and indeed attempted to do so before the idea was killed off at Federal Policy Committee about a year before the general election. I assumed that once it was in the manifesto, at the very least we would ensure fees did not rise, in accordance with the piety with which we attacked the others for introducing or supporting tuition/top up fees. Even if you think the new system is fairer, it still neglects the fact that if your unique selling point as a party is based around the brand of “trust”, “a new politics” and “an end to broken promises” ( – Nick Clegg, May 2010), you do not take a policy that has defined your party, with which you have been so pious about as to proudly stand with eager enthusiastic students and hold up an obnoxiously-sized signed pledge to maintain that policy, before then only months after the election doing the polar opposite and attempting to rebrand that treachery as a virtue by calling it a “difficult decision”.
After the response to the Browne Review, somebody who helped us campaign in 2010 but was too young to vote said to me, “I’ll probably never vote”. Clegg single-handedly inspired the hopes before then disengaging an entire generation from democracy and, for that, I’m not sure I can ever forgive him. This didn’t, as many people are aware, stop me from remaining a member of the party. I made it quite clear to those who didn’t understand why I retained my loyalty to the Lib Dems that, as an opposition party member, I had spent my entire time in politics attacking and asking questions and that it was a good and healthy thing for anyone in politics to at least spend a bit of time being unpopular. I did so by restanding for my seat as a Liberal Democrat, which of course I lost. I went down with my ship and still have no regrets for doing so.
Over the past few days I’ve seen some horrible nasty things thrown about between grassroots activists from both sides of the NHS Bill argument who normally work alongside each other and support each other. This isn’t a simple disagreement, these are vicious comments reminiscent of Labour under the dying days of Blair. Such internal quarrels I do not have the heart, the motivation, nor the inclination to engage in or even simply observe. The tone at Conference has now changed – many colleagues who previously stood for the things I stood for have left and I have increasingly felt more and more an isolated minority.
One other niggling point was made by one of our former candidates when he left politics a while ago. Two of his reasons for doing so really stuck with me. The first is that politics is all about getting one over your opposition, scoring points and working out the next line with which to dig at your opponents. Although I’ve engaged with that in the past, I’ve found that the more ugly side of party politics is issues that really matter often get forgotten amongst the animosity of partisan tribalism. The second point that really struck with me was his assertion that throughout his time in politics, he’s never met somebody who could actually say they were truly happy. The thrill of fixing something for someone, something I did routinely as a councillor, is often laced with the anger, distrust, resentment and frustration of the cut-throat nature of politics. In many ways it’s like a drug – it brings you both euphoria and destruction. It’s something I’m not sure I have the desire to endure anymore.
I genuinely wish the best of luck to the Liberal Democrats. As a party it needs to remind itself that being radical need not mean being unrealistic. Although I cannot and will not support the leadership, I wish my colleagues and friends the very best.