Last week, as ever before spring conference, every interviewer asked Lib Dem activists the same question – 'what’s this year's row going to be about?' This time, the media gave us standard responses as well: Huhne, Rennard or"Plan V" for the economy.
And all week, to a general response of rolling eyes, activists told them the same answer: secret courts.
No one was interested. No one cared. 'Aren’t you more bothered that your president called you cockroaches and nutters?' was the standard response. No, not at all – actually that’s more of a badge of pride. We care about secret courts.
The clues were there. "The day the party fell out of love with the coalition",wrote Liberator magazine after so many of our MPs defied Lib Dem policy and trooped through the lobbies to support the Justice and Security Bill. "There is no getting away from the fact that there is a huge gap between what all but 7 MPs (and a few absentees) did last night and what most activists wanted them to do", wrote Lib Dem Voice. And 100-plus activistssigned a letter to the press saying the bill was plain wrong (I was proud to be one of them). But largely, I suspect, because no one asked Nick about it on ‘Call Clegg’, both the media and the leadership thought it was a non-issue. Big mistake.
Nick appeared unprepared for questions on it in his Q&A on Saturday, his answers throwing numerous straw men up and being quickly battered down. In the least surprising turn of events of the weekend, it was announced that the #secretcourts debate had won the ballot to be the first emergency motion of the conference. Then the eminent human rights lawyer, Dinah Rose, announced she was quitting the party over secret courts. And finally, we saw one of the most respected and admired campaigners in the party, Jo Shaw,resign in the emergency debate in one of the best speeches made from the floor in a long time. It’s worth watching. Needless to say, the motion opposing secret courts was overwhelmingly carried.
According to the prominent Lib Dem blogger Charlotte Henry, a source close to the leader expressed the view that the secret courts debacle didn’t really matter "because nobody in the real world cares". How wrong headed can they be?
Every wing, arm and leg of the party is livid about this. They won’t win another Eastleigh without the activists – and there’s now a move by activists to refuse to support any parliamentary candidate who wandered through the yes lobby the other week. That’s how seriously people take it.
The leadership are no doubt sitting at home, cursing Jo Shaw’s name and wondering why the grass roots aren’t busy repeating the mantra set down from now till 2015 rather than what we are saying – "no to secret courts".
It’s because we are liberals. And we are democrats. And Nick – we’re against this sort of thing.
The article has garnered a number of comments, mostly supportive (though not all the ones at The New Statesman are - plus ca change!) - but one in particular gave me for food for thought, which was:
"don't fall into the labour trap of hating your own more than the real opposition"
And thereine lies the conundrum for all Lib Dems. I think on the whole we all agree that the government has been far better with us in it than if we were to have stayed out, at the onset. The list of positive Liberal achievments is lengthy. But does that mean when our Westminster representatives do something we disagree with, we should keep quiet? Its a tricky balance - but I think when key party activists are resigning in protest at an issue, it's not unreasonable to stick your hand up and say 'this isn't on'. Loyalty is a 2 way street after all.