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Statement on the Liberal Democrat Leadership


Liberal Democrats are faced with electing a new leader following Tim Farron's resignation last week.  I have come to the conclusion that I will not be putting myself forward as a candidate for that vacancy. That might seem strange given the support and encouragement I have received from party members – and indeed, from many people outside the Lib Dems.

So let me explain. I have just fought a gruelling campaign to win my North Norfolk seat. Attempting to win a seat for the Liberal Democrats in an area which voted quite heavily to leave was bound to be a challenge. Not only was the party's position on Brexit toxic to many erstwhile Liberal Democrat voters in North Norfolk, but I found myself sympathising with those who felt that the party was not listening to them and was treating them with some disdain.

I abstained on Article 50 because I felt it was wrong in principle to vote against, given that we had all voted to hold the referendum in the first place. For many in the party that abstention was an act of betrayal. I have been accused of supporting a Hard Brexit - the very last thing I want - while a Lib Dem source told the Evening Standard this week that the abstention 'looks like he can't make a tough call'. It is actually quite tough to go against your party, and I did it on a matter of principle.

We need to understand why so many people get frustrated with remote power - something that Liberals should get. The EU is too often dysfunctional and sclerotic. Yet progressive internationalists have been reluctant to admit this. While we have always recognised the need for reform of the EU, the Liberal Democrats have been perceived as being too tolerant of its failings.

My great frustration is that instead of the name-calling, what we need is for progressives to engage in fresh thinking on how we achieve a new settlement with the EU - one which secures free trade, jobs, security partnerships, and our place in the Customs Union.

I want the Liberal Democrats to use our potentially pivotal position in Parliament to force cross party working on the profound challenges that we face - not just the Brexit negotiations but on how we secure the future of the NHS and our care system.

I would have used my position as leader to champion a different style of politics - rejecting the abuse and aggression which turns so many people off and instead seeking to build consensus where possible in the national interest. I favour telling it straight, not dissembling, bringing people together rather than dividing them. The public will not forgive the political class if we fail to understand the changed circumstances of a Parliament with no majority. We don't need an early election. We need a new style of politics.

None of this should be taken as meaning that I favour a mushy value-free equidistance from the other two parties. You can be a pluralist and hold passionate views. I am a Liberal to my core. I know that we are supposed to mellow with age but I have done the opposite. I have become more angry and impatient with injustice and gross inequality.

In my work as a health minister, I became more and more outraged by the way people with mental ill health and those with learning disability and autism are treated by the state. So often I heard stories of people being ignored, not listened to. The dad of a patient at Winterbourne View who told me he felt guilty because there was nothing he could do for his son. No one would listen to his complaints. The teenage girl with autism held in an institution for over two years, treated like an animal. No one would listen to her family's pleas. I helped get her out so that she now leads a good life but one minister can't intervene in every case.

And now we have the horror of Grenfell Tower. Again a story of people being ignored. Treated as second class citizens. These aren't isolated exceptions to the rule. Powerlessness is rife in Britain today, along with obscene inequalities of wealth.

Well we cannot tolerate this any longer.

Whether it is tenants in tower blocks or people with learning disabilities; workers with no stake in their enterprise watching as the owners of capital take an ever growing percentage of our national income as their real wages fall; the citizen who feels powerless against remote power, whether at the Town Hall, Westminster or Brussels; the whistleblower, a constituent of mine, who tries to highlight wrongdoing in our banks but sees his career and his health destroyed as a result - his concerns ignored for years. These are the things that drive me on, keep me fighting for justice. Liberals need to make the case for a radical shift of power to the people in all these spheres.

Finally, perhaps the most depressing aspect of this election campaign was the extent to which so many of the massive challenges we will face in the decades ahead got ignored. How do we respond, in a civilised way, to mass movements of people fleeing conflict or water shortages or simply in search of a better life? How do we address gross intergenerational inequality or the impact of automation on jobs which we assumed would always be there? How do we fund and improve our public services as the ratio of taxpaying workers to pensioners changes so radically? How do we respond effectively to a new wave of violent extremism on our streets, in a way that doesn't itself harm our way of life? And the potentially apocalyptic challenge of climate change and how we protect those most severely impacted by it.

If the progressive side of politics is to prevail, we can't just hanker after a better yesterday. We have to win the battle of ideas about how we confront these profound challenges.


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