Do Lib Dem members want a new party?

By Brian Wheeler
Political reporter, Lib Dem conference

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Image source, PA

It must be a confusing time to be a Liberal Democrat. As the leading UK-wide party campaigning to stop Brexit they should be the voice of the 48% who voted Remain in 2016.

But they are struggling to get out of single figures in the opinion polls. Their leader, Sir Vince Cable, has proposed some drastic remedies - transforming the party into a "movement for moderates" with new supporters, and opening up the next leadership contest to "talent" from outside the party.

Sir Vince is also talking to disgruntled Labour and Conservative MPs, who he says are ready to break away from their parties in significant numbers as key Brexit votes loom in the Commons.

Image caption,
Liz Lynne: Are the Liberal Democrats heading for extinction?

At a Q&A session in the main hall in Brighton on Sunday, former MP Liz Lynne asked Sir Vince if all this was going to end with a new centre-ground movement led by someone like self-styled moderate Labour MP Chuka Ummuna, under a new name, and then, she added, "the Liberal Democrats are dead".

An exasperated Sir Vince told Ms Lynne she was getting way ahead of herself.

"People are thinking of the person they hate the most and saying if they were the leader I could not possibly put up with it," he said.

But there was no leadership contest planned in the near future, he told the audience, and if the party accepted his changes there would be robust systems to weed out unsuitable leadership candidates from outside the party.

He was quite happy with the Liberal Democrat name, but if members wanted to change it that was fine too.

Image caption,
Sir Vince Cable: Stop getting ahead of yourselves

But why not dissolve the party and form a new one, if it would help stop Brexit, which they all appear to agree is the top priority?

Tom Cole, policy director of the cross-party People's Vote campaign for a second referendum and a Lib Dem member, did not rule out the idea, but could see some practical problems.

"If there was a new party to be created, you would have to do it pretty quickly. Who knows how things will develop and evolve in the coming weeks and months?

"I don't necessarily think you have to have one political party just focusing on that and nothing else. Questions arise about what should the party's position be on other policies. What happens if you are successful? Do you dissolve the party and go back to what it was before?"

He insists People's Vote is not the forerunner of a new party as some have claimed.

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Bob Sullivan and Ed Bird: Open to cross-party working

Ed Bird, of Waltham Forest Lib Dems said: "The Lib Dems are not a one-issue party. It can't be just a Brexit party but there is no reason different political parties couldn't come together."

The reason anti-Brexit Labour MPs were not flocking to the Lib Dems, he argued, was because "we are damned by the coalition with the Tories".

"No Labour people want to get involved with us directly," although that is changing, he claims.

"I think people are beginning to realise that we are not part of the Tory party and we are not going to jump into bed with the Tory party. We will perhaps move forward with pacts with the Labour Party, or something different, if necessary."

His friend, Bob Sullivan, is no fan of a new party but could see the Lib Dems working with other parties in Parliament to fight Brexit.

"When you see (anti-Brexit Tory MP) Anna Soubry, she's brilliant. And so is Chuka. They are brilliant people within their own parties but they totally disagree with their party's stance on Brexit.

"So what would you do as a leader of the Liberal Democrats? You would be talking to them. How would you get us to come together on this issue and work together. The Liberal Democrats always like to work together with others."

Image caption,
Amna Ahmad: It's not as simple as that

Amna Ahmad, who was the Lib Dem candidate in Sutton and Cheam at last year's general election, said: "We need to work with the current structures we have."

There were a lot of organisations, like People's Vote, trying to influence MPs over Brexit but none of them has so far stood candidates in elections, she says.

"We live in a social media age, citizen power, but we still have a Parliamentary democracy and the people making the decisions are the ones there. I don't think it's about a new party that would stop Brexit. it's not as simple as that."

Image caption,
Caron Lindsay and Richard Kemp: We don't need a new party

Caron Lindsay, of West Lothian Lib Dems, said: "You don't actually need people to join a new party to stop Brexit.

"All you need is a majority of the MPs in the House of Commons to vote down Theresa May's deal and vote for a People's Vote. And we have been leading the arguments on that all along."

Richard Kemp, of Liverpool Walton Lib Dems, said he was happy to work with some Labour councillors but did not want to waste time "pratting around" with the formation of a new party.

"There are 10 Labour MPs I wouldn't mind joining us. I wouldn't want more than that. We wouldn't be the Liberal Democrat party with Liberal Democrat traditions," he says.

As for dissolving the party and starting again as a new centre-ground force, he said: "The time for any of us to leave was during the coalition.

"I said then, and I'll say it now, you'll drag my Liberal Democrat membership card out of my cold dead hand. For Liberals who are democrats there is nowhere else for us to go."