Losing the argument ?

We had a meeting yesterday of Lib Dem members, councillors and activists, about the coalition the party has gone in to with the Conservative Party. It was interesting, but brought up some issues that really do make me wonder why some people ever joined the Liberal Democrats.

There were obviously a number of people, including me, whose views were very polarised on this issue. I was far from being the only one feeling a sense of disgust at the way our parliamentary party has acted. But I was appalled at the way some in our party will resort to personal attacks, blatant lies and selective use of quotes in order to justify their side of the argument, and all those people were on the "We love the coalition" side of the debate.

The first example was when I raised the point that we launched a "Tory VAT bombshell" poster in the General Election campaign, but now we might be the ones to be supporting the VAT rise. When I said VAT was the most regressive form of Taxation, hitting the poor most, a former Lib Dem council leader, and an accountant to boot, stood up and told me I was wrong. That VAT was not at all regressive and was very fair because it exempted children's clothes and food.

Now I might expect a political novice not to know much about VAT, but a former council leader, an accountant ?

When I retorted back that "it was Vince Cable who said it was the most regressive", he had no response other than to repeat it ?

For the sake of Clarity, just Google "Vince Cable Regressive VAT" and you get dozens of quotes.

Another point made by those who supported the deal was that a Green Councillor in Norwich had written to the Eastern Daily Press saying the coalition was a good idea and so had Iain Dale !

When I responded pointing out that the Green's in Norwich were putting out on twitter that this was a great opportunity to recruit Lib Dems, so no wonder they were keen on it, and Iain Dale might be a supporter of the deal, but he was also predicting this would have have a detrimental affect on Lib Dem election results, the pro camp's response was "We don't care what they've got to say anyway !"

So when it supported the pro Tory coalitionists to use their quotes, it was great. When those same people being quoted said things that did not support their arguments, suddenly their views were to be ignored. Confused ?

Finally, and most insulting, was a comment from one North Norfolk member. Now I have known this person since 1997. I drove her home from the General Election Count in 1997 at 5am in the morning. She has known that I have been an active campaigner, given up a lot of things in life and spent an awful amount of money on supporting the Lib Dems in North Norfolk and beyond.

So for this lady to turn around after I had spoken and say "We're tired of these people on the internet and twitter who do nothing for this party and never get out from behind their computers to do real work", was a real insult.

I can accept reasoned argument and genuine criticism. But personal attacks from someone like that in a public forum were far from liberal or fair.

The view I got from the meeting yesterday was that those people who for years I have had to argue with in order to stand paper candidates, in order to do target letters, in order to deliver Focus leaflets outside of election time, were the very same people who were arguing for the coalition.

I have almost made a decision on my future politically. But comments and the attitude of some people yesterday would not encourage me to join the Lib Dems if I was not already a member.


JohnM said...

But equally those accepting or supportive of the coalition are aware of the risks and the hardships ahead, have been caught up in a swirl of left/right attacks which go from the merely annoyingly wrong to pure poison and organised disinformation.

You're gonna get people fighting back, and hard!

Hadleigh Roberts said...

This is the first time I've found my way over to this blog, so let me just say I enjoyed this post and hope to hear more about the Lib Dem side of the coalition.

James Mackenzie said...

Although we've disagreed plenty of times in the past, I do see your grief. Talking to friends who used to sit as Lib Dem councillors in Aberdeenshire I get the same impression. It's the lazy and arriviste who sell out hardest.

Prediction: Independent Councillor Starling. If you leave to join another party it'd be Labour (even though I suspect you have more in common with the Greens in policy terms).

Anonymous said...

Hi Nich,

I have sympathy with both sides but I'd urge you to sit it out on the sidelines for a bit and watch how things pan out. I don't trust Cameron one bit, and Clegg is too naive but they might just need each other enough to get a result that we'll be happy with.

The Lib Dems are so broad comparatively that these conflicts are inevitable. We all have exacting ideas about what the party should be like - I find the idea of repealing the hunting ban repellent, and unlike some LD's I agreed with most of the DEB.

I can't stand the Charlotte Gore school of libertarianism, yet here we all are. The anti-DEB lobby had persuaded me not to campaign too hard during the election, I persuaded some of my local party not to campaign, we lost our LD MP (by a few votes). The "local party" was knackered anyway - less than 10 active members, the campaign team were yute shipped in from Cowley Street, didn't understand the area.

...and now we're in government. I'm not holding out much hope, but I'm glad to see decent legislation coming though. For the party the future's never been less certain, I barely recognise it any more. The simple pragmatism that initially enticed me has gone, replaced by competing ideologues, with trad left/right/libertarian positions. As Charlie said "It is hardly surprising that, for some of us at least, our political compass currently feels confused". Too right!

I'm watching and waiting, hang-on in there and don't do anything rash!!

KRA said...

Stick with the party, Nich.

Anonymous said...

I don't think political parties are like a football team. You don't have to stick with them through thick and thin when they have abandoned their principles or, as you said on Today on Radio 4, "They have made us look like idiots and fools".

If the Lib Dems are turning in to Tories, step away. The fact that so many Lib Dems seem so happy to jump ship and join the Tory love in is a sign that many deeply held principles they claimed to have were not so deeply held.

Cicero said...

Hi Nich, although I think that a lot of people- including me- do have misgivings, and I accept some of the points you make, I would be very disappointed if you felt that you could not continue your good work inside our party. I am prepared to suspend my judgement until the coalition has had a chance to demonstrate what it is truly made of, and for me that means that the political reform programme goes through within the next 18 months. If it doesn't I will certainly feel as political uneasy as you do now. If it does, then I think something good and worthwhile will have happened.

Michael Kilpatrick said...

If find this recent article confusing. You started off by saying "It [the local meeting] was interesting, but brought up some issues that really do make me wonder why some people ever joined the Liberal Democrats." But then you went on to describe only the personal attacks and arguments that took place. So you didn't really follow up on the point you appeared to be starting with, unless you believe that "they all joined the Lib Dems in order to have abusive arguments with other members", which is plain silly.

I hope you don't base any decision to leave or stay on whether or not people have started to get het up and personal during an argument over the coalition. You need to answer the question you tried to pose: why did all these people join in the party?

The answer has to be because they believe in Lib Dem policies and principles. If they support the coalition or oppose it, it must mean that they are to the right or left of the party. Or it means that they either believe in the principle of compromise in coalition, or believe only in single-party government.

It would be near impossible to have a party which was 100% happy with a coalition whether it be with Labour or Conservatives. With hung parliaments one simple *can't* stick to all one's priniciples. So, just accept that you are going to differ with some of your local members - but do let them know that personal attacks are not acceptable! Don't bottle it up. Talk to them about it, not us!

On the question of VAT, you didn't present any evidence to say that the former council leader in question had previously said VAT was not regressive and was therefore being hypocritical in order to justify the coalition, so again you're not really addressing the issue. It wasn't him personally who wrote the "VAT bombshell" campaign, was it? And nor is he obliged to agree with everything Vince Cable says!

Anonymous said...

You'll leave the Lib Dems soon, but it'll be your fault.

If say 10% or 15% of the membership can't accept that not everyone agrees with the POV that Tories are scum and the only possible way forward was this "progressive" shtick, hooking up with a party that went to an illegal war and set up an ID database, demanding the Lib Dems drop their opposition to those things and essentially just be Balls and Mandelson's puppets - that's their problem.

They may not like the coalition but they should at least be prepared to see and respect the opposite side's POV. If they aren't and want to go on about betrayal, so be it.

Man in the street said...

You are absolutely correct Nich. People like the chap who is now defending a "Tory VAT bombshell" are just too odious for words and a manifestation of the base hypocrisy, cant, and dishonour in the dark vacuous soul of the current political class of our nation. The fact that they also have no embarrassment or shame is their true mark.

Justin Hinchcliffe said...

I suspect you'll stay with the LibDems, Nich. Departing from the LDs would mean losing your seat.. and the money and status that goes with it. Now, I am not saying that you're only a councillor for those two reasons but...

As for, "But I was appalled at the way some in our party will resort to personal attacks, blatant lies and selective use of quotes in order to justify their side of the argument" - now you know what it's like to be at the other end of a LD campaign and you don't like it. Tough! It's what many of us in both the Conservative and Labour parties have had to put up with from the LDs for decades!

Jae Kay said...

Sorry to hear that. Hate the sort of people who seem more determined to win their point than concede. I know it won't please you or cheer you but I've found the same from a lot of anti-Coalition people.

I think everyone needs to keep their mind open, not descend to personal attacks and keep up constructive criticism.

Unknown said...

And there lies the difference between my views and those of a Tory. What status would I fear losing ? Being s councillor ? Ive stood down from being a councillor before and felt an enormous sense of release from doing so.

Money ? Give me a beak. The allowances for a broadland district councillor are hot like london boroughs. As for losinh my seat. The reason I won was because of me, not my party logo.

What a typically spineless attack from someone whose own campaigning skills again delivered nothing this year.

Parthiban said...

Thank you for posting this article. I salute your courage in standing up for your principles and pointing out the way in which the Liberal Democrats attempt to impose a form of groupthink on members of their own party.

Unknown said...

Of course VAT is regressive - anyone who claims otherwise is just flat out wrong - but we have to accept that we're not going to be able to pull all the strings in this coalition. A Tory government would have passed a VAT rise (if they do) anyway whether they were a minority or not; we're best to focus on the fights we can win. The amendments for conference were all good, all showed the right priorities and saw no one demanding 'we must withdraw from the coalition before we countenance a VAT hike'. At least in government we might be able to talk the Tories into making it a time-limited emergency measure if they go for it at all.

Unknown said...

Out of interest; why would you step down as a councilor rather than simply switch to being an independent? (a fortiori if you feel your vote was mainly for yourself rather than the party).

Anonymous said...

I was at the meeting yesterday to which you refer - and I know how hard personally you have campaigned for the Lib Dems in Norfolk - and continue to with your recent by-election triumph!. My feeling about this type of meeting is that they are usually attended by those most against whatever is being proposed. I did feel that caution was being expressed and some obvious concerns (no doubt similar concerns to those within the parliamentary party). However, I felt those concerns were very ably dealt with by Simon Wright MP
at what was actually a long but good humoured meeting. I felt they would be taken back to those representing us at Westminster. However, despite those concerns I felt it was an overwhelmingly optimistic meeting with people feeling very positive about the prospect of actually putting some key lib dem policies into practice in government which will contribute to producing a fairer more equal Britain which is surely what we all want. As a Lib Dem I want everyone to have a fairer more equal start in life - wether through education, tax, health etc. Walking away would not have produced that. I have spent many weeks just now talking to people on doorsteps . What the ordinary person on the doorstep wants is for politicians and parties to talk to each other and work together.

Unknown said...

Nich: hello from a frequent lurker who (AFAICR) hasn't posted before. I hear what you're saying but I think right now some leeway should be given to both advocates and detractors of the coalition. This is an emotive time when a lot of passions are being raised, and in those circumstances people tend to get personal. It's not nice, but it's human nature and just because we're Lib Dems doesn't mean we're immune!

I have to say that there has been a certain amount of misleading spin and even outright bile coming from those who oppose the coalition too - just look at how many bloggers and commenters are accusing us of selling out for power / being unprincipled shysters / betraying our voters... So I sympathise if you feel your local members haven't treated you well, but it's hardly unique to the pro-coalition side of the debate!

On the subject of VAT - yes, I expect it is a regressive tax (not an expert myself), but was our manifesto proposing to cut / abolish it? I doubt it - and in the rest of Europe (where the political centre-of-gravity lies more to the left than here) VAT tends to be around 20% doesn't it? I won't be dancing on the table if VAT goes up, but it won't be the end of the world either.

After all, we're the Liberal *Democrat* party. When we're the major party in a coalition we can push our own agenda, but in this election, whether we like it or not, the Tories won - more people voted for them than for us or anyone else. We can't expect to block each and every Tory policy we don't like - it's not only unrealistic but to try and do so would be undemocratic.

I have to admit, for me this is comes down to an issue of simple credibility. We've been pushing for PR for as long as I can remember - how can we possibly walk away from coalition government the first time the opportunity present itself? How can we possibly say to the public "vote for PR, but when it comes to it we won't sully ourselves by entering coalitions"? Come to that, how can we claim to be a serious political party if we flinch at the prospect of power? What was the point of coming up with an array of terrific policies, if we're never going to even try to put them into practice?

Bill Quango MP said...

I would wait a bit. In the election all parties told enourmous whoppers and hid the bleedin' obvious under a tablecloth.
If Clegg had won a landslide and had a majority of 110 he and Vince would be discussing if its best to get the VAT rise out early or leave it until next year.

Just politics NB, as well you know. Mr Clegg probably wasn't any more convinced by the illegal amnesty than the public was. But he had put it in the manifesto, probably some time back, out of some think tank report or activists meeting or maybe off the back of a Guardian interview somewhere and probably thought no one would notice it.

Stick around for just a little while. Having some proper power should allow your party to decide what things it thinks are important and what are vital and what are just loony.

I expect both sides were happy to ditch previously cherished ideas like the marriage tax credits or mansion tax bombs that didn't really play well outside of a focus group or a core vote rally.

A little bit of government might just bring some focus that will help the party find its actual path.

Paul said...

Welcome to the real world of politics, where your party’s leadership too often ignores the wishes of its members. Political expediency too often compromises core beliefs.

Anonymous said...

So you're staying/going or just fence-sitting waiting to see in which direction the wind blows?

Alan said...


I feel for you.

Although I voted Tory (for their economic liberalism) I value the LibDems for their social liberalism. So I like the coalition.

However, I find it disturbing that people cannot put up better arguments than those that are clearly wrong. Some LD activists come from the Labour-leaning (=anti Tory) wing - typically those in the South. Equally those in the North tend to be Tory-leaning (=anti-Labour).

The party members, though, should recognise this big "tent" and be able to discuss the real issues. Sure - you might disagree, but that is no excuse for rewriting of history and blind obedience to a party line.

I guess that is why I have never joined any party - I could not identify with 100% of any parties doctrine (which is what they seem to require)

Left Lib said...

Where you say "really do make me wonder why some people ever joined the Liberal Democrats" what you are saying is that you think that everyone else is stupid. Not surprisingly they get angry and throw their vitriol back at you. Then you get a downward spiral.
I remember these spats at the time the Liberals merged with the SDP. Many stormed out of the party then.
It is wrong to base a decision on whether to leave or stay in a party because of how rude people are. You will always find rude people wherever you go. The only question that really ought to count is "am I doing more harm than good by staying in this party?".
It is a difficult call. This coalition will do some good things and some bad things, and over time you have to make a decision on what you think about it.

Anonymous said...

Go on Nich do us all a favour and jump ship! You now you want to. As you said, you have done it before. Your a serial malcontent and the party would be better of without you.

Henry said...


I am an avid reader, and was a parliamentary candidate in the last election. I count myself as left, and the VAT proposal is regressive.

But we won 23% of the vote, so we are getting as much done for those voters as possible in my view.

If we had a majority - which I will continue to campaign for - then we wouldn't have to compromise... but we do, because we don't.

The people at the conference are wrong to disagree with you on VAT, but such are the short memories and mindless defences a government attracts [though I do accept it as an inevitale compromise with reservations], and the anonymous folk who tell you to 'jump ship' because you are a 'serial malcontent' are also sirens.

We are liberals, and where would we be without malcontents (I've been one myself once) :-)

Please stay in the party, help try and win a majority in two elections, then we'll never have to compromise.