Wednesday, April 23, 2008


Free the Stoke One!

Some people might think that the week before election day is a bit of a daft time for a bunch of bureaucrats to go witch-hunting within their own party, and many might think that it doesn’t sound like the sort of thing Liberal Democrats do. But Stoke Lib Dems appear to have confused themselves with the Labour Party and suspended Liberal Democrat (Libertarian) Councillor Gavin Webb for being – gasp! – a Libertarian Liberal Democrat. Tristan, Alex (happy birthday!) and Julian have beaten me to blogging about it, but today it sounds like Gavin needs character references. Even from me.

I have a heavy cold at the mo and am feeling very grotty, self-medicating heavily with Lemsip and chocolate cake, so I may be woozy and have grasped the wrong end of the stick. But it appears that Gavin has been suspended from the party not for any misconduct, but for shooting his mouth off with views that everyone’s known he’s been espousing for years anyway. Libertarian propositions that seem to have been especial causes of frumpy opprobrium include his support for legalising prostitution, all drugs, firearms, and drink-driving so long as no-one is injured. I’m probably going to be accused of wanting to keep Gavin in the party only to make myself look moderate, as I agree with him on only about, ooh, one and a half of those, but though I disagree with plenty of his views I really can’t see that any of them are offensively illiberal (though possibly impractical). Quite the reverse.

About fifteen years ago, the first time I was ever in a minority of one on the Federal Policy Committee was when I wanted to pass unamended the party’s very libertarian policy paper on prostitution, which so appalled the rest of the FPC that it was called back to three successive meetings for watering-down before it was allowed near conference. Despite that, you might like to consider that while Gavin may be in a minority of active politicians on that issue, he’s in line with what the expert opinion said would be most effective – and that, the only time the party voted on the issue, even the watered-down paper could still be roughly described as legalising prostitution. So it may be an old policy, but it’s still the people who disagree with Gavin who are out of step with the Liberal Democrats. As far as drugs go, half a dozen years ago we voted to legalise cannabis – eventually – and I spoke in favour of that (after a hum-dinger of a row on FPC, though not quite as much as we used to have under Paddy), though like Lib Dem policy I’m more on the fence over hard drugs, for all sorts of reasons. And there’s certainly room for a wide range of views in the Liberal Democrats there. On firearms and drink-driving, I can see Gavin’s point but I think it’s daft in practice – my rule of thumb is that if a crime’s victimless, it shouldn’t be a crime… But I think Gavin and I have different ideas of ‘victimless’. I’d say that a ‘crime’ that wouldn’t normally injure someone else and that’s with informed consent shouldn’t be a crime at all, just because other people disapprove of it; but if someone’s reckless and very likely to do someone actual harm and they don’t have any option to consent to it, I’d still be dubious about it if by chance injury was avoided. I suppose my dividing line for saying something shouldn’t be a crime would be something like ‘victimless by definition’, then, rather than ‘victimless by luck’.

The good side of this is that it’s stirring up debate about what we stand for, and about the limits of law; the bad side is that I’d have assumed we all stand for free speech, and that people can say what they like quite comfortably in the party as long as they don’t oppose the party’s fundamental principles. Well, Gavin’s fundamental principle appears to be ‘not banning things’ – something with which I have a great deal of sympathy – and taking responsibility for yourself. I’ve scoured through the Preamble to the Liberal Democrat Constitution, and he doesn’t appear to be contradicting it at all. Is it perhaps that he’s a bit embarrassing to his fellow councillors who want to just sound safely like everyone else in the run-up to election times? Because I can understand that feeling, it’s only human, but if so then they’re the ones that the party’s principles would frown at. Is it because he’s called a BNP councillor a fascist? I’ve looked at that pesky Preamble again, and I’ve missed the bit that says being truthful but uncouth is A Bad Thing.

Gavin’s ‘crime’ appears to be ‘Being A Bit Gobby’ (perhaps, your honour, he might protest at that and enter a plea of ‘A Lot Gobby’). It may not win him friends, but it sounds like a Liberal. What’s his accusers’ excuse?

Now let’s get past all this silliness and remember that, with the odd hiccup, Liberal Democrats tend to encourage people to make up their own minds, Labour order people what to do, and Tories… Well, under the current regime, Tories dither for a few days and then do whatever the newspapers tell them will be most popular. We’re better than that, so why not stop holding up shocked mittens at a Liberal being Liberal and go out and beat the other two?

Update: if I wasn’t feeling so knurdly, I’d have realised that the perfect punning title for this post would be “Webb of Sin”. So count yourself lucky that I missed that!

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Having thought about it I may have got the wrong end of the stick on this - it sounds improbable that a figure like that would be given except as an illustrative example.

Does pose an interesting question about just what agreement with the parties values actually constitues. You could either be in disagreement with a number of policies
Oh, Hywel's previous comment appears to have gone - but I was going to echo how on earth you quantify what proportion of policy one actually agrees with, and indeed what constitutes agreement, especially if, like many of us, you agree "up to a point" but want to take said policy a lot further.

Who makes up these rules?
I think "values" would be a ddifferent thing. And it seems to me that the core value is the one that should give Gavin the right to speak his mind on issues about personal freedom and would be less comfortable with those who would silence those opinions out of political or electoral expediency.
My first reaction on learning what had happened was also to look at the Preamble, and I think it's arguable that a totally libertarian policy on handguns and drink driving fails to seek the balance between civil liberties and community that the Preamble calls for. But anything involving the word "balance" is far too grey an area to hang a ban on.
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