Clegg skating on thin ice: serious threat to party leadership over secret courts

by Stephen Tall on December 23, 2012

Over at LibDemVoice today, we’ve published an article by Jo Shaw who’s led a quite brilliant grassroots campaign against the Government’s plans to extend secret courts.

In September, the party conference passed overwhelmingly a motion rejecting the controversial Part II of the Justice and Security Bill in its entirety — despite a bevvy of high-profile parliamentarians appealing to Lib Dem members to let them try and reform it instead. Since then there has been, with a few honourable exceptions, little sign the party leadership wants to implement the party’s policy in full and ditch secret courts.

Jo is now looking for signatories to up the ante. And, believe me, the ante is being upped. Here’s the incendiary line in the motion that Jo and Martin Tod are proposing to the party’s spring conference in Brighton:

Conference calls for:
– In the event that Part II of the Justice and Security Bill is not withdrawn in accordance with the above, the agenda of the next Federal Conference shall include a debate to consider sanctions or other measures in accordance with the Constitution

The constitution of the Lib Dems is not my specialist subject. The most relevant paragraph I could find by skimming it today reads:

6.11 The Conference may resolve to conduct a ballot of all members of the Party on any fundamental question where, in its judgement, the values and objectives of the Party are in issue or it is otherwise in the essential interests of the Party, and shall at the same time as considering the related resolution consider also a statement from the Federal Executive as to the financial and administrative implications of such a ballot.

But whatever the wording, the meaning is clear: if the Lib Dem leadership continues to ignore the stated will of the party conference, then consequences will follow. What is particularly toxic for the party leadership is that opposition to secret courts unites activists across the party’s ideological spectrum, whether Social Liberal Forum or Liberal Reform (unlike, say, the NHS Bill, where there was significant minority support for the reforms).

To many outside the party, the issue of secret courts may seem a little obscure, certainly not something which could threaten Nick Clegg’s leadership. That is to under-estimate the potency of civil liberties for Lib Dem members: for most, natural justice and due process are the very cornerstones of the liberal credo. Secret courts strike at the heart of both, as I argued here. A Lib Dem leader who ignores that fact is skating on thin ice.