Don’t dismiss the victory in Richmond Park; this could just be the beginning

For Liberal Democrats and remain supporters, this week brought an early Christmas present; victory in the Richmond Park parliamentary by-election. Toppling the incumbent, Zac Goldsmith, who was standing as an independent candidate after resigning from the Conservative Party over the government’s plans to expand Heathrow airport, the Liberal Democrats’ Sarah Olney won with 48% of the vote share and crippled Goldsmith’s former 25000 majority. Adding one more MP to the Lib Dem’s ranks will always be a welcome thing; winning an election off the back off our party’s absolute dedication and commitment to the EU is something that should not go unnoticed.

Yes, one parliamentary by-election isn’t going to change the course of British politics overnight. Jacob Rees-Mogg was quite right to say that in his interview the day after the election result. This result is about the wider implications. Let’s put things into perspective: Zac Goldsmith won the Richmond Park constituency in 2015 with a majority of over 20000. The by-election was fought, on his part, on the issue of Heathrow and on the Lib Dem’s part, on Brexit. Goldsmith had the backing of both the Conservatives and UKIP; the Liberal Democrats had the support of the Green Party and a couple of the initial independent candidates. The Liberal Democrats’ current party policy is to block the triggering of Article 50 unless a commitment is made by the government to hold a referendum on the terms of the UK’s exit from the EU. That was the policy that was put to the people of Richmond Park. That was the policy that people voted for and that was the policy that returned our ninth MP, crippling Goldsmith’s majority and his political career along with it.

Now many commentators and political analysts are saying that a pro-EU candidate winning in a pro-EU constituency is no big surprise. Well, no. It isn’t. But according to Lib Dem statistics, which, happened to be the most accurate on polling day, revealed that 33% of Conservative voting leave supporters, voted for Sarah Olney last Thursday. What this shows is that even those in favour of leaving the European Union are not in favour of the government’s current “direction” or “plan”. (I write in inverted commas because let’s face it, there is no direction or plan). Our party’s promise to hold a referendum on the terms of the deal of our exit from the EU is appealing not only to remain supports, but those on the side of leave. It’s only right that a process that started with democracy, end with democracy.

Nobody who voted to leave the European Union knew exactly what our exit would look like…not one of them could tell anyone definitively. And that isn’t their fault! It is the fault of Cameron’s government to simply assume that his side were going to win and not putting something in place should they lose. The truth is, the current government led by Theresa May cannot justifiably seek a course of action that has not been mandated by her party, Parliament or the British people. The only action she can seek now is to leave the European Union. The process of how our country leaves the EU should be consultative; involving both Parliament and the people.

What Sarah Olney’s victory shows is a growing support for the Liberal Democrats’ vision for how Brexit should be conducted. This along with the countless gains we’ve made in council by-elections since the referendum in June shows, especially in areas that voted to leave, that people are turning to our party to provide the sensible, calculated and level-headed approach to leaving the European Union. Not to mention how we slashed the Conservative’s majority in David Cameron’s former seat by 20000 votes. We’re the party of the 100% – not just the 48% or the 52%.

So no matter how small or insignificant you may think this by-election victory is; no matter how small or haul of MPs may still be, do not write it off. In the absence of a credible voice from the Labour Party and in the face of a confused and uncertain one from the Conservatives, the Liberal Democrats are providing direction during these difficult times. Richmond Park may have just been the start of something, and those authoritarians seeking to impose a hard Brexit should jolly well take heed.

We’re coming for you.

Theresa May: Stop this Madness

Dear Ms. May,

I am writing to you as very concerned citizen of Yorkshire; a citizen of England; a citizen of the United Kingdom; a citizen of Europe; a citizen of the World. I, like 16 million others voted to remain a member of the European Union back in June 2016 and undoubtedly shared their despair and devastation at the result that came on the 24th. It is a result I regret and a result that I do not agree with, but it is a result I accept.

That is however, until the economic warnings espoused by the “fear-mongers” started to come to pass. A plummeting pound, evidence of an increase in fuel prices, big businesses threatening to cease investment and move their operations elsewhere and now the UK’s largest supermarket chain refusing to sell products because they are now deemed too expensive. As a politician, I’m sure you’re aware of all of this so you don’t need some 24-year-old Liberal Democrat from Yorkshire reminding you. But perhaps what you do need reminding of, is the duty of elected representatives in the House of Commons, to serve the British people and the country in the best way possible, by making decisions that work to the country’s advantage.

Your clear pursuit of the so-called “Hard Brexit” clearly stands in contention with this. Rather than focussing your efforts on securing UK membership or indeed access to the single market, thereby securing British jobs, businesses and the success of our economy, you are chasing a dystopic future in which immigration is tightly restricted. A future which answers the prayers of those on the hard-right; a future which sees an end to our country’s open, tolerant and united vision of the world; a future which you appear to think 17 million people voted for when they crossed the “LEAVE” box on 23rd June. The fact is, Ms. May, nobody had the opportunity to say why they were voting leave. Nobody made it clear to you or any of the other Brexiteers why they were voting leave. And now, as you seek to command the respect of 17 million people by following through on their wish, you are imposing your will onto them. So much for taking back control; so much for being the leader of a party who “works for everyone”.

Your refusal to let our sovereign parliament vote on the terms of the negotiation is in breach of democracy and is an absolute disgrace. You have hijacked parliament, with no mandate to govern from the British people, to commit to the biggest act of political masochism in a generation. Your refusal to even consider the notion that the people who you trusted to choose to depart the EU, should have a say on the nature of a future relationship with it, shows how elitist and out of touch you are.

But you are the Prime Minister. You can see what damage even the thought of Brexit alone, is doing to our country. Whilst the pound’s value plummets, hate crime rises. You and the Tory elite are talking behind closed doors about the future of the entire country, whilst your shut out elected Members of Parliament from across all parties. It is not only disgraceful but shameful. You talk about unity yet you fail to see that what you are doing is further dividing our country and our parliament.

You can put an end to all of this. Let us not forget that the referendum result is advisory only. Let us not forget that you were elected to the House of Commons to act in our country’s best interests. You were elected to the House of Commons to make decisions that would strengthen our country. I’m no economist, but it doesn’t take one to know how damaging Brexit is and is going to be for our country. The mere fact that you continue to pursue it is not only irresponsible, it is an abuse of power.

Let our MPs vote on your negotiating terms; let the country decide on your deal. It is our future in your hands.

Yours sincerely,

Clarke Roberts

The Christian Case for Electoral Reform

It’s a topic many within the political sphere talk about, but far fewer want to see anything done about it. The issue of electoral reform has been on the Liberal agenda for decades and more recently has gathered support from UKIP, the SNP, the Green Party, Plaid Cymru and even from some within the Labour Party! But even when the public were asked in a 2011 referendum on introducing the Alternative Vote system, there appeared no appetite for change. The 2015 General Election yielded the most disproportionate results in modern history and reignited the demand for the introduction of Proportional Representation, making the number of seats a party wins match the number of votes they receive. There have been so many political, sociological and in some case, moral arguments put forward for the introduction of PR, but why should Christians fight and campaign for PR? What’s the theological case to be made for electoral reform?

During the process of researching for my Master’s dissertation, I interviewed a number of people from within the Liberal Democrat Christian Forum. I asked them questions about their faith and their politics, in an attempt to understand how they interact with each other. When I asked them about the key political issues that they cared about most, it became blindingly obvious that there was one issue upon which all Liberal Democrats were concerned: electoral reform. Whether introducing the Proportional Representation, reforming the House of Lords or giving 16 and 17 year-olds the vote, there was a clear desire to see British democracy reformed and modernised, to further reflect the diverse and equal society so many of us claim to be part of.

One of the easiest arguments to articulate in favour of electoral reform from a Christian perspective, is the idea of fairness and equality. It’s often accepted by Christians that Jesus taught us to love one another and treat each other with dignity and respect, regardless of where someone is from, but what our current electoral system demonstrates is a clear bias to those who support one of the two largest parties; either the Conservatives or the Labour Party. In a system where a party can receive fewer votes than their rival yet still win control, people’s voice are silenced because they support one of the smaller parties in the UK. Parliament is not representative of how people vote; where is the UKIP representation? Where is the Lib Dem representation? Where is the Green representation? First-Past-the-Post is unfair and treats too many people with ignorance as it makes their vote worthless.

The second Christian argument for implementing electoral reform comes from the work of Robert Song. He argues:

…people receive from God, the right to self-government…while God is the ultimate source of political authority, the people are granted the right to be the proximate source of authority. As such, they are entitled to confer authority on the ruler or ruling regime… (1997:197)

Based on this, it can be taken to meant that the governing force in any situation must enjoy the support of a majority of people. It also infers that each individual vote cast carries the same weight. As we know from the 2015 election, the Conservatives only received 36.9% of the national vote which, although it was the largest share of the vote, cannot be considered a majority; 54.1% of the country voted against Conservative rule. What Song’s argument demonstrates is the need for a dramatic shift in the way governments are elected; as no party can ever claim to have won more than 50% of a national vote, it must be conceded that cooperation between parties is necessary.

Leading on from this point, if we take the Trinity as being a model for how our politics should work, then it can be argued that cooperation between the main political parties is essential, in order for cohesive and representative government to exist. It is accurate to say that without out of the persons of the Trinity, God would not exist in the traditional Christian understanding. Instead, the Father, the Son and the Holy Spirit must work in communion with each other. If we can apply to this to our political system, it can be argued, as Nick Clegg does, that coalition governments are the key to the future success of our democracy. We should no longer sign up to party tribalism and isolation and instead, seek to cooperate with our political partners cross-party, in the best interests of the country. We saw how this was successful between 2010 and 2015 and has proven to be successful all across Europe. Perhaps it’s time for a new style of politics in the UK.

Christian Liberal Democrats will, by virtue of their party membership, sign up to the commitment to electoral reform. What is needed however, is for Christians across the political spectrum to understand how their theological beliefs point to the implementation of a fairer and more representative voting system. We need to ensure the equality of votes, no matter what party they’re for; we need to ensure cooperation between political parties, to work together for the interests of the country; we need to see the governing forces mandated by a true majority where possible.

We need electoral reform.

Uniting the 52 with the 48

So I’m back from Lib Dem conference and what an amazing time I had. I met so many lovely people am grateful to them all for being so warm and hospitable towards me. I also attended some very interesting debates on future Lib Dem policy, the most attended of which was probably the debate on our EU position, which I voted in favour of. The debate attracted Lib Dem big wigs such as former leaders Ming Campbell and Nick Clegg, as they urged the delegates to support a referendum on the terms of the Brexit negotiation; something which, has attracted heavy criticism from political commentators and indeed some within the party itself. But I fully support the notion of a “terms of Brexit” referendum: here’s why.

We have to remember the question that was put to the British people on the 23rd June: “Should the UK remain a member of the EU, or leave the EU?” As we know, 52% of all those who voted chose to leave. They did not, however, choose whether they wanted to leave the single market or put a halt to the freedom of movement. Yes, these two issues were used by the leave campaign to bolster support for their case, but there was nothing about that referendum question that remotely indicated what our relationship with the European Union post-Brexit, would look like. So, addition to the left-right divide on the political spectrum, we now find ourselves faced with having to determine whether one is soft-Brexit or hard-Brexit. The soft-Brexiteers would ideally keep access to the single-market, therefore accepting the freedom of movement, as well as other perceived benefits of a non-membership of the EU. The hard-Brexiteers want a complete separation from the EU: no single market; no freedom of movement.

So we Lib Dems, as a pro-European party lost the referendum. We accept that. But what we think is in the interests of democracy and “having control”, is to let the British people decide what the destination of our departure should be. Is it right to allow the British government to impose a deal upon the country that perhaps many of those of voted leave did not want? Is it right for the government to select a deal for the country, knowing that it would have disastrous effects for our economy and businesses? We say, no it is not. And so we passed a policy on Monday to call for a referendum that allows the British people the chance to have their say on whether or not they accept the terms of the Brexit negotiation. If the public accepts them, then we leave. If they do not accept them, then that says that the public believes it is better off remaining a member of the EU than accepting a deal which they see as putting us in a worse off position.

There is nothing undemocratic or illiberal about that. We do not want to rerun the referendum simply because we did not get the outcome we so desperately wanted. As Tim Farron said throughout the party conference, what we believe on the 23rd June is the same as what we believe today – we will always think that the UK is better off inside the EU and we will always advocate that position. And by offering this referendum, not only are reaching out the 48% who voted remain, giving them another chance to have their voices heard, but we are also reaching out to the 52% who voted to leave. This referendum will give them the opportunity to express what sort of deal they want from their government; if anything, this referendum is more for the leavers than the remainers.

I’ve thought of a helpful analogy for this question. Let’s imagine you offer someone boiled eggs. You don’t offer them hard boiled or soft boiled eggs – just boiled eggs. The person accepts boiled eggs and you present them with hard boiled eggs, with no toast soldiers. The person who you asked actually wanted soft boiled eggs with soldiers, but they weren’t given the opportunity to speak out about that, instead they’re having what the chef thinks they want based on no evidence at all. The Liberal Democrats’ Brexit-deal referendum is giving the British people the chance to decided whether or not they want hard boiled eggs, or soft boiled eggs. And if it comes back that soft boiled eggs with toast isn’t even on offer, well then the British people can decide they don’t want boiled eggs at all.

Ladies and gentlemen – the Breggsit referendum…

We are the only party offering this referendum: unless of course Labour is lead by Owen Smith after Saturday. We are the only party prepared to entrust the British people with departure and destination. We are the only party committed to speaking to and learning from the 52% who voted to leave. We are the only party, speaking to and for the 100%.

Why There Must Be An Early General Election

So history has been made this week: David Cameron has become the youngest Prime Minister to leave office at the tender age of 49. In his place, former Home Secretary Theresa May, who was elected by…oh. That’s right. She hasn’t been elected at all. The new Prime Minister has assumed office with the backing of 199 Conservative MPs, a mere 0.0004% of the British electorate. Not even the Tory members were given a say (which would have improved the percentage to 0.03% of the electorate), after her rival Andrea Leadsom withdrew her challenge for the UK’s top job.

Whether or not you vote Conservative or whether or not you happen to be quite pleased with the “coronation” of Theresa May as Prime Minister, there can be no question that to assume office with the support of 199 people is in no way democratic and contradicts the claims from the Leave campaign in the recent EU referendum, of “taking back control” from “unelected leaders” in Europe. #awkward.

It is accurate to say that we do not have a presidential system here in the UK, thus meaning that when people vote in an election, they vote either for the party they wish to assume office or for their local representatives, and not for the candidate they wish to become Prime Minister. For me, this argument really hold firm against calls from the Liberal Democrats and others, for an early General Election.

The Conservative Party were elected into power last year on a mandate built around and taking into account the UK’s position inside of the European Union. That manifesto is now outdated, untenable and defunct. Whilst it is entirely the fault of the Conservative Party to have not put a plan in place for the eventuality of a leave result in the referendum, it must be acknowledged that the new government formed by Theresa May is acting in immensely different circumstances to those under which her party was elected last year.

There is an entirely new Cabinet. There is an entirely new agenda. There is an entirely different manifesto. The British people must be given a say on this new government and on this new post-Brexit era; without an election, Theresa May has no elected mandate and is leading an illegitimate government. The British people voted to leave the European Union, but in no way does that result indicate the sort of relationship people want the UK to have with our European neighbours. Each party should have the opportunity to put their case to the country, for the sort of future they see for the UK and the EU. People should be able to vote for which they prefer: whether it’s access to the single market and free movement from the Tories or remaining altogether from the Liberal Democrats, there needs to be a democratic decision taken to ensure people’s trust in the government does not falter.

Already there is talk of remaining within the single market and maintaining free movement of people, meaning continued payment into the EU budget along with a loss of influence at the debating table when trade laws are being made. Is this what people who voted leave really thought they were getting when they put that little cross in the LEAVE box on their ballot paper? I think for the majority, the answer is no. If we’re so obsessed with upholding the democratic right of the British people, then how does it make sense to take that right away by simply handing the premiership down to an unelected successor?

To ensure the continuation of democracy, to legitimise May’s premiership and to give the British people the opportunity to have their say on what they want the future of the UK’s relationship with the EU to look like, there must be a General Election. Without one, I can see many leave and remain voters alike, feeling extremely cheated by the actions of the forthcoming government, actions which will not have been mandated by the people they claim to represent.

Corbyn’s a Principled Man: But He Cares Nothing About the Future of the Labour Party

I’m not normally one to comment on the affairs or issues of political parties other than my own (the Liberal Democrats in case you didn’t know), but the fallout from Thursday’s referendum and its impact on the Labour Party has got me and indeed the whole nation wondering just what the hell is going on. Whilst it may be fair to comment that media outlets, in particular the BBC is lending far too much airtime to the leadership crisis as opposed to the clear incompetence and ineptitude of leave campaigners, it is simply impossible to turn a blind eye to what I think is the unravelling and potential death of the Labour Party as we know it.

Last year saw a particularly terrible defeat for Labour. Admittedly it wasn’t as disastrous as it was for the Liberal Democrats but Labour lost 29 seats and with it its strongholds in Scotland. The fault of this loss was placed on Ed Miliband who, gracefully, resigned his post which led to the hugely observed leadership contest. Jeremy Corbyn, a back-bencher for over 30 years emerged from the far-left of the Labour Party to sweep to an overwhelming victory, securing more than 60% of the vote in the first round of ballots of the leadership election. It was hailed as Labour returning from the era of Blairite ideology that galvanised support from thousands of young people who had become disenfranchised with the elitism of Westminster politics. Not but only nine months later, Corbyn’s leadership is in dire jeopardy and this impact of his victory back in September feels a little hollow.

Corbyn never had the full support of his MPs. Instead he owes his success in the leadership contest to the party membership and the trade unions who secured him more than 200,000 votes. His ability to lead a successful opposition to the slim majority government run by the Conservatives was always doubted, but the two months of campaigning for the European Union membership referendum preceded by seven months of serving as Leader of the Opposition have, in my view and the view of countless others, cemented those doubts as 170 MPs supported a vote of no confidence in Corbyn’s leadership.

In the days after the EU referendum result, there have been calls from all throughout the Labour Party, most importantly from Corbyn’s Shadow Cabinet, for him to do the decent thing as resign as leader, after what many MPs have called a half-hearted and unclear message in the referendum campaign, which has been constituted as one of the main reasons why the Remain side lost to the Leave campaign. Despite those calls from his shadow cabinet and his Deputy Leader, Tom Watson, Corbyn has refused to budge. More than 20 of Corbyn’s Shadow Cabinet resigned their posts, further calling him to “do the decent thing” and make way for a new leader. Today a vote of confidence was held regarding Corbyn’s leadership, which he lost 170 votes to 40 (with four abstentions).

Despite having the support of merely 20% of his MPs, Corbyn has again refused to go anywhere saying he will not betray those who voted for him in the leadership election and gave him up an overwhelming mandate to lead the Labour Party. Whilst I respect the scale of Corbyn’s victory in his leadership contest, I cannot accept that it is what he has described as an overwhelming mandate to lead the Labour Party. 9.3 million people voted Labour at the last election, which is a figure significantly different to the 251,000 who voted for Corbyn as leader. Only 2.7% of those who voted Labour at the last election voted for Corbyn as leader – that’s hardly an overwhelming mandate to lead especially in the face of utter rejection from Labour MPs.

The fact is Corbyn’s leadership of the Labour Party has come to a premature end. He can no longer command the respect of his MPs and has been shown throughout the EU campaign that he cannot successfully engage with Labour voters to secure an electoral victory. If the Labour Party is to continue to be at the forefront of British politics, it needs new leadership from someone who has the backing of the MPs who also command a mandate from the constituents they represent. If Corbyn does not resign then Labour cannot be united and cannot form an effective opposition, let alone a government.

In the face of defeat we have seen politicians accept their responsibility and step aside to allow for fresh leadership: Nick Clegg, Ed Miliband, (Nigel Farage) and most recently, David Cameron. If Corbyn cares about the future of the Labour Party he too will step aside to allow new leadership in order to ensure that his party can survive into this new era of British politics. I fear Corbyn cares too much about Corbyn-issues to do this, which was demonstrated by his attendance at a pro-Corbyn rally rather than following Tim Farron and Nicola Sturgeon’s example by leading their party and giving voters a clear message in the face of the Brexit vote.

Corbyn’s a principled man there can be no denying that, but his recent refusal to accept responsibility for his part in the failure of Labour’s EU campaign shows he cares more about his own political agenda than that of the wider Labour Party and its future.

Why the Liberal Democrats Could Hold Power After the Next Election

It’s been a little over three days since the result of the UK’s referendum on its membership of the European Union was announced to the world and the fallout has been somewhat of a political shit-storm. The Prime Minister has resigned triggering a leadership contest and potential civil war within the Conservative Party; the markets and currency have fallen to thirty-year lows; the leave campaigners are running around clueless as to the next step and now the Labour Party appears to be in danger of completely falling apart as 19 shadow cabinet members (an counting) have resigned their positions and are calling for Jeremy Corbyn’s immediate resignation as leader of the party. It’s all a bit sad really. At a time when the country needs strong and decisive government more than ever, both Her Majesty’s Government and the Opposition are embroiled in bitter internal arguments, showing no leadership and leaving the British people to wonder just what the hell is going to happen next.

As far as I can see there have only been two party leaders in the wake of the Brexit victory, that have risen above petty party infighting and have provided a clear vision of where they stand on the issue and their vision for future steps. Nicola Sturgeon of the Scottish National Party and Tim Farron of the Liberal Democrats, although offering visions that differ from each other, have been the two decisive voices in the immediate aftermath of the Leave Campaign’s victory in Thursday’s referendum. And that’s important. Recent polls have shown that in light of the prospect of a British exit from the European Union, the Scottish public are now in favour of a second independence referendum which further bolsters the support for the First Minister, which as heavily fortified in May’s local elections and last year’s General Election. But what of the Liberal Democrats? Why do I think they have the opportunity to regain the strength and be serious contenders at the next (and probably impending) General Election?

Tim Farron took a bold step on Friday and announced that the Lib Dems would stand at the next election, based on the pledge to either keep the UK from leaving or the seek to re-enter the European Union, depending on the state of the Brexit negotiations at the time of the election. Many people have called this move undemocratic and a cheap grab at power, but perhaps it’s actually one of the most daring, brave and admirable things a Liberal Democrat leader has done in many years. The Liberal Democrats have always been a party that is heavily pro-Europe, they have always believed that the UK should be part of the EU and so to stand in an election on the basis that Lib Dems want the UK to be part of the EU is nothing strange or alien. It does not ignore the result of the referendum; if a party is elected on the basis of an election pledge then that is democracy.

There are over 16 million people left deeply unhappy by Thursday’s result and an increasing number of leave voters who have now entered a period of what has become to be know as “Bregret”. That’s a huge number of people who do not want the UK to leave the EU. Those people will be looking to a political party that represents their pro-EU beliefs and a party that will fight for Britain’s place in Europe and in the world. That party is not the Conservative who have always been deeply divided over Europe and who have now entered a bitter civil war for the top job; that party is not the Labour Party, whose leader has been subject to one of the greatest mass exoduses since the Jews fled Egypt and who are clearly so out of touch with their voters. That party is the Liberal Democrats.

The Liberal Democrats have seen yet another surge in membership since Thursday’s referendum with 4000 new members signing up to join the #LibDemFightBack, often using the Twitter tag #wearethe48. It wouldn’t surprise me if many disaffected Labour members, potentially MPs, or even those from within the Conservative Party see the Lib Dems as the rightful place to represent their moderate, progressive,  pro-European views. If the Lib Dems play it right, Tim Farron’s promise of being back in power within five years could in fact, retrospectively, be considered to be a prophecy.

But we all know British politics has a funny way of giving you exactly the opposite of what you might expect, even when all the indications to the supposed outcome are there right in front of you, so I won’t hold my breath of place my money on Prime Minister Farron…just yet. But it is a very gripping and thrilling act on the stage of politics in the United Kingdom.

Liberal theology. Liberal politics.