Jo Swinson’s Liberal Democrats are trying to rebuild amid the Brexit chaos. Buoyed by a strong result in the European Parliament elections, the Lib Dems have been polling well this summer — and receiving plenty of praise from the centrist commentariat. More recently, the party ranks have swelled with defectors from the Tories and Labour. But just how much do these new Lib Dems reflect liberal views?
This issue boiled over when the Lib Dems welcomed former Tory MP Philip Lee, who broke with his party over Brexit. Lee’s record in parliament is anything but liberal. He voted against the 2013 act legalizing same-sex marriages. More shockingly, he personally wrote and proposed an amendment to force asylum seekers and applicants for UK visas to disclose their HIV status, and “demonstrate they are not carriers” of “proscribed pathogens,” including Hepatitis B.
Jennie Rigg, Chair of the Lib Dems’ LGBT+ group, was so angry about her party rolling out the red carpet for Lee that she resigned, denouncing Lee as “a homophobe, a xenophobe, and someone who thinks people should be barred from the country if they are ill.” “Apparently as long as you are on the right side on Brexit we’ll take you,” she said, lamenting the party’s abandonment of “soul and principles.”
Remarkably, Lee didn’t back down from his proposal to block HIV-positive migrants from entering Britain. Instead, he doubled down. The plan, he said, would “actually protect the gay community” because blocking people with HIV status would “reduce something called viral load, to reduce the HIV carriage in Great Britain.”
This fits Lee’s broader enthusiasm for cutting NHS costs by excluding people from treatment. In 2012 Lee told the hard-right Institute for Economic Affairs that sufferers of diabetes and other “lifestyle” illnesses should pay for their NHS treatment.
Lee also claimed the NHS could not survive as a free service, saying “when baby boomers hit their seventies in the 2020s you can kiss goodbye to the health care model we have currently got.” Lee repeated this claim in 2017, telling a Tory conference fringe meeting the NHS was a “Ponzi scheme” which was “about to collapse.”
But Philip Lee wasn’t the only illiberal defector to the Lib Dems this month, with former Labour MP Rob Flello also joining the party. Flello was a member of the anti-abortion All-Party Parliamentary Pro-Life Group and, like Philip Lee, he opposed same-sex marriage. He took on numerous “culture war” battles in parliament before losing his seat in 2017, including arguing that London’s congestion was caused by the construction of cycle lanes.
In 2007 Flello notoriously filibustered a fellow Labour MP’s bill to grant employment rights to temporary workers. At the time, the Daily Mirror reacted furiously, branding him “the mouth of the Trent” and saying “his verbal diarrhea helped deny time to discuss a bill protecting vulnerable agency workers.”
The admission of these illiberal defectors stands in stark contrast with the Lib Dems’ attempts to rebrand themselves as a progressive party in the wake of their austerity government with the Tories from 2010 to 2015. But their record in that government suggests we shouldn’t be surprised.
Swinson herself was an employment minister in the Tory-Lib Dem coalition and strongly supported limitations on workers’ rights. Her sky-high charges for employment tribunals were so egregious that they had to be struck down by the High Court. The new Lib Dem leader also introduced rules excluding workers with under two years’ service from tribunals.
That was, of course, only one of the many right-wing policies the Lib Dems supported in coalition. But, since their 2015 election defeat, the party has rebranded as a party of grassroots opposition, positioning themselves as the voice of the anti-Brexit movement.
This has reinvigorated the party membership. Lib Dem activists have been deeply involved in the People’s Vote second referendum campaign, and produced strong turnouts for People’s Vote demonstrations in Lib Dem strongholds like the South West. How this grassroots resurgence — which is largely motivated by pro-migrant, socially progressive, and left-leaning activists — can fit with the party’s newest politicians remains to be seen.
The arrival of illiberal centrist politicians into the Lib Dems has been a theme of 2019. Maybe the most prominent is Chuka Umunna, who recently announced that he would abandon his Streatham seat to try to become MP for the Westminster constituency that includes many of his backers in the City of London.
Despite his current liberal positioning, Umunna was happy to play with more right-wing social views throughout his time as a Labour MP. This included a flirtation with Blue Labour and its anti-immigrant politics. That trajectory led Umunna to come out against the free movement of people in the aftermath of the Brexit vote and even demand migrants take compulsory English classes.
Umunna receives £65,000 a year on top of his MP salary to run the think tank Progressive Centre UK, which has also produced its fair share of illiberal ideas. Recently, it produced a “mini-manifesto” for Umunna which included the idea of compulsory national service for the young, an idea Umunna thoughtlessly cribbed from Emmanuel Macron.
In April, Progressive Centre UK paid for polling to test the popularity of Chuka’s plans. Sadly, the expensive polling actually found they were widely disliked. They showed a majority opposition to compulsory national service. Ironically, the same polling showed Labour’s ideas were popular. His mini-manifesto criticized Labour’s planned “old-school renationalization of the water industry” and electricity, arguing new, ill-defined private “public interest companies” would be better.
Umunna’s pollsters, however, were forced to admit “nationalization remains popular” — notably more so than Umunna’s solution: 41 percent favored water nationalization vs. 29 percent for his public interest companies. Nationalization was also more popular than his plans for rubbish collection, train services, and gas and electricity.
Umunna is a symptom of the Lib Dems’ new direction. Under Jo Swinson, the party has opened its doors to careerist politicians who represent few of the Lib Dems’ proclaimed values. The gambit is clear: hope the electorate is prepared to forget the right-wing views of the Lib Dems’ new recruits amid the Brexit chaos. But how well will that sit with the party’s claim to represent a socially progressive Britain?