Lib Dem position on Brexit is the sensible choice

PUBLISHED: 10:49 20 September 2017

Liberal Democrats leader Sir Vince Cable makes his keynote speech at his party's annual conference at the Bournemouth International Centre.

Liberal Democrats leader Sir Vince Cable makes his keynote speech at his party's annual conference at the Bournemouth International Centre.

PA Wire/PA Images

The Lib Dems have stepped back from the Brexit cliff-edge.

The party, voting with its head rather than its heart, decided to retain the policy it’s had since June 24 last year – calling for the people to have a say (via a referendum, including an option to remain in the European Union) on any deal Theresa May comes up with at the end of the current negotiations.

The alternative – you’ll be relieved to hear – wasn’t some conversion to support Brexit but, rather, a motion calling on the party to harden its position, to oppose Brexit at any cost.

Though that may have pleased readers of The New European and would warm the hearts of the overwhelming numbers of my party’s rank-and-file, it would be political suicide in vast swathes of the country which overwhelmingly voted Brexit and who would then believe that – to Lib Dems at least – their vote last year counted for nothing and was being discounted by a political elite “that knows better”. The political version of a high-minded headteacher looking down at little Johnny and telling him not to worry his head about all this politics business and to leave it to the adults instead.

To have any chance of returning to the land of the political living – from its current quasi-Zombie like state, where the heart is still beating thanks to the sterling efforts of the last leader Tim Farron – is to have a strong message which can appeal to the left behind and disenfranchised parts of our society who voted overwhelmingly to leave the EU.

Those people may never agree with our current position on the EU, either, but hopefully by saying we respect the current process and are merely asking that the electorate get another say at the end of it, they will at least be prepared to hear us out on other issues such as the need to ensure we have a mixed economy where the private and public sectors both matter, investing in our schools and hospitals, defending our civil liberties and fighting climate change.

To have had a position which patronised Leave voters would have been to all but ensure they never trusted us again – and we’d have deserved it too.

With Vince Cable now at the helm of the Lib Dems – a wise, statesmanlike and widely trusted political figure – we have a real opportunity to build a narrative which is all about rebuilding and reinvesting in many of the Leave communities who have felt like no one in politics understands their needs, their frustrations and their anger.

We Lib Dems are as far from populist as it’s possible to be, but – from the pragmatic centre/centre-Left we can show that, with local activists across the country including the former industrial heartlands of the North and the Midlands, we are rooted in the concerns and aspirations of these communities. We get them.

Brexit is, indeed, a perilous high-wire tightrope for all political parties to navigate.

Indeed, as we see played out before us in the media day after day, Labour and the Conservatives are split asunder on the issue.

The Lib Dems, at least, agree on our overall position, we’d prefer the UK to stay in the EU but recognise that we’re in a process which acknowledges the will of the people while also calling for the people to get a chance to be heard at the end of the process.

The debate we had at conference in Bournemouth is about the means not the end. I was proud to vote for the principled but also pragmatic choice of reaching that end. Proud that the Lib Dems trust its membership to make its policy.

Proud that, despite the setbacks of recent years, we never give up. When we fall, we pick ourselves up, we dust ourselves down, and we fight again for our values. That is the Liberal way.

• Mathew Hulbert is a former Lib Dem Councillor in Leicestershire. He tweets at @HulbertMathew

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