In theory, the launch of Liberal Left is something I should welcome as I’ve always thought that more and stronger party bodies make for a healthy party. They help give more meaning to internal party democracy by making it easier for people to co-operate with others of a like mind.
So why am I underwhelmed by Liberal Left’s launch?
It’s not that it covers some of the same ground as the Social Liberal Forum (disclosure: I’m on the SLF’s Advisory Council). Liberal Left looks to have a distinctive message and approach which diverges from, rather than duplicates, that of the SLF.
Nor is it the lacklustre verging on ugly launch website. Weak, but take a look round the sites of other party bodies and sadly it doesn’t stand out as worse than many others.
Nor is it their approach of favouring a deal with Labour in a hung Parliament. In my book that makes for a pretty poor negotiating strategy, but doesn’t underwhelm me much as in reality it’s the weight of seats and votes that will almost certainly matter the most.
No, what really underwhelms me is the choice of people to front their launch meeting at conference. Or rather two of them.
First, there is the choice of Jenny Tonge as one of the panellists. She is probably best known in recent years for her views on the Middle East which often generate controversy, including when she said in 2006, “The pro-Israeli lobby has got its grips on the western world, its financial grips. I think they’ve probably got a grip on our party” (comments which then leader Ming Campbell called “unacceptable” for their “anti-Semitic connotations”).
In the context of Liberal Left launch, her most recent comments about the party are also germane. They have included calling for Vince Cable to quit the Cabinet, for Nick Clegg to resign as Deputy Prime Minister, saying she was considering quitting the party and in December even calling for a new general election to be called promptly.
If Liberal Left is to position itself as a serious body that wants to build bridges rather than a fringe body pushing peculiar ideas, having a guest speaker who thinks Vince Cable should be out of the Cabinet and we all should be in the midst of a general election campaign is not an obvious move.
Now, of course, she is but one of the panellists and many a party body has organised events with panellists who they do not fully agree with. Been there, done that myself – both as speaker and as an organiser.
But then there is also the choice of chair for the Liberal Left’s launch meeting: Ron Beadle. Over the years Ron has put in a lot of good work for the party, and I’m happy to see him stay as a member even though there are some issues on which we greatly disagree.
His attitude towards people he disagrees with, however, is rather different. He took to the BBC TV news last year calling for all the Liberal Democrat MPs who broke the tuition fee pledge to be de-selected.
Not simply criticising them for voting the way they did (hey, even I did that on the telly) but calling for their de-selection. All of them.
He wants to see not only Nick Clegg and David Laws kicked out of Parliament, but so too Vince Cable, Steve Webb, Lynne Featherstone, Norman Baker, Jo Swinson. The list goes on…
Yet despite this narrow-minded Puritanism which calls for such people to be ousted from the Parliamentary Party, Ron Beadle is now calling for us to spend more time talking to the Greens and Labour.
And so as with Jenny Tonge, but all the more so as he’s Liberal Left’s chosen chair for their launch meeting, the choice of someone with such views is at best naive and at worst deliberately provocative.
* Note – the post originally said Jenny Tonge’s comment was in 2005 by mistake.