Syrian air strikes decision – stirrings of unhappiness in the party

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The Independent on Sunday has pulled together a good number of quotes from party members who are not happy about the decision this week to support air strikes in Syria.

The report quotes Federal Policy Committee member Gareth Epps, who has written a critical piece on the Liberator blog entitled: “Is there any longer a point to the Liberal Democrats?”. The blog post includes this:

It seems Liberal Democrat MPs have learned nothing of the mistakes of action in Iraq and more recently Libya; nothing of their mistakes from the Coalition Parliament; and have understood nothing of the gaping chasm in opinion between them and the party members that have worked hard to get them elected. The reaction of those members – many of whom didn’t receive a single email from the party on how it would approach the issue – is of utter dismay.

It is no surprise so many party members are asking: what’s the point?

In the Independent report, Gareth is quoted as follows:

Gareth Epps, a member of the FPC who stood against David Cameron in Witney at the 2001 general election, said he is minded to let his membership lapse at the end of this year. He said: “For a party that has prided itself on enlightened scepticism of Western-led military adventurism, they [the Lib Dem leadership] seem to have suspended all critical faculties.”

The report starts with this summary:

Tim Farron is facing the first crisis of his leadership of the Liberal Democrats, as senior activists consider quitting the party over his decision to vote for air strikes in Syria.

Former MPs have also made it clear that they would have voted against the action, while members of the party’s powerful Federal Policy Committee (FPC) are angry that Mr Farron did not consult it about voting with the Government.

Many activists joined the Lib Dems because of the late Charles Kennedy’s opposition to the Iraq war in 2003 and were stunned when Mr Farron did not oppose air strikes against Isis in Syria. Mr Farron was one of the six Lib Dems who backed the attacks; only his former leadership rival, Norman Lamb, and Ceredigion MP Mark Williams voted against.

The report goes on to say:

The FPC meets this week, and several members want to discuss why it was not consulted thoroughly. Many also think that the party’s other most senior committee, the Federal Executive (FE), should have been better advised of Mr Farron’s thinking.

A FPC member said: “On an issue of this sensitivity and significance, Mr Farron should have consulted the party. The leadership should have spoken to the FE and FPC – after all, the FE got Charles Kennedy to go out on his finest hour, the march against the Iraq war.”

Mr Epps has also asked the FPC to discuss “the details within its remit arising from the Syria situation” at the meeting.

You can read the report in full here – it also has quotes from David Grace, Norman Baker, Andrew George, Julian Huppert, Stephen Lloyd.

My fourpenneth worth? I think we need to split this into two: (a) the decision and (b) how it was made and communicated.

(a) The decision.

I don’t agree with it, but I can see that there is a sheet of Izal toilet paper’s width between a “go” and a “no go” decision on this one. Tim explained the decision very well – very well indeed – in his email to members on the night of the decision. I respect his decision and that of five other MPs and some peers. I also respect the decision of Norman and Mark and the peers who were against. I don’t see this as a reason to despair or to be talking about tearing up membership cards.

(b) How it was made and communicated.

A total shambles. A complete unmitigated, chaotic, idiotic mess. The communication and non-consultation process could have been organised more effectively by Mister Blobby. The Five Tests were presented in such a way that it seemed we would not vote for air strikes. There was absolutely no forward indication of a “yes” vote, so that when it was eventually announced, by the former leader Nick Clegg on Sky News, for goodness sake, it looked like an inexplicable, mad U-turn. I lost count of the number of confusing briefings to the press about whether we would vote yes or no. At one point the BBC said no and Sky said yes. There were all sorts of messages about parliamentary meetings and when we would see a puff of white smoke indicating a decision.

Why the hell was there no decent communication of what was going on – to the membership?

At several points in the days running up to the decision, I imagined, because we had not heard from him on this subject, that Tim farron was crouched under his desk, with his arms wrapped around his knees, slowly rocking back and forwards and quietly sobbing. That’s what it seemed like.

I’d balance that by saying that MPs should make up their own minds on these decisions, so there is no actual need for consultation – but why advertise the five tests if you do not then keep the membership informed about the decision process to decide whether or not they have been passed?