Lib Dem conference diary: The inside story of a resignation

Charlotte Henry: 'It's not a left versus right issue in the party; it's a liberal versus illiberal issue'
Charlotte Henry: 'It's not a left versus right issue in the party; it's a liberal versus illiberal issue'

 By Charlotte Henry

Yesterday I reported, half jokingly, that the Lib Dems were gathering in Brighton for a weekend of group therapy. After a stand up row at Nick Clegg’s question and answer session yesterday, today was the emotional break down.

Apologies if this column is a bit angry today, but I'm writing it having just watched a close friend, lawyer and parliamentary candidate Jo Shaw, resign from the party. Along with another former candidate, Martin Tod, I've been working with Jo on her campaign against secret courts.

She has been the lead and the inspiration, tirelessly campaigning to get Lib Dem MPs to do the right thing and kill part two of the justice and security bill – the provision for secret courts in civil cases relating to national security.


Today she took the decision that if the bill was going to be rammed through, it was not going to be in her name, and used a platform speech to end involvement in the party. Dinah Rose QC resigned yesterday over the same issue.

There are many other party members who feel the same.

Jo was a candidate at the last general election, and had helped drive the party towards greater diversity.  But it's civil liberties which really fire her up, so while others have used every opportunity to snipe at the coalition, she tried to make it work to create a more liberal Britain.

If the Lib Dems can't keep sensible, talented, principled people like Jo in the party, then we really are in trouble.

Campaigners were told in meetings that the bill could only be killed at the highest levels of government, but Nick Clegg refused for months to meet Jo, only changing his mind in recent weeks when criticism reached a crescendo.

The top echelons of the Lib Dems have spectacularly failed to grasp party mood on a core liberal values issue. Too many times I have spoken to MPs who say the party can't do anything about it because there is no parliamentary majority against the measures.

Just because Labour and the Conservatives are (broadly) wrong on this, doesn't mean we have to be too.

If the Lib Dems were in opposition, Clegg would be manning the barricades against secret courts. The point of fighting for the Lib Dems was so he could man those same barricades in government. He has failed to do that.

Another argument for not killing the provision, put to me but a key Clegg aide, is that nobody in the real world cares. Well I know of at least one MP who has received significant correspondence on it, and even if some people don't get fired up about it, the party certainly does.

It's not a left versus right issue in the party; it's a liberal versus illiberal issue, a right versus wrong issue. The mistake made by the leadership team was making it a members versus parliamentarians issue.

As a result the campaign has often felt like we're banging our head against the wall. There has been bafflement at why Lib Dem parliamentarians, members of a party with civil liberties at its core, are allowing this bill to go though, with only a few honourable exceptions voting the right way.

The main feeling across conference today was anger: anger our party was signing up to the wrong thing, anger that we weren't standing up for liberal first principles.

Most of all though, there was anger that the Lib Dems were no longer a home for one of our own.

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