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Wednesday, 15 October 2014

Jeremy Browne MP resigns

Featured on Liberal Democrat Voice
Jeremy Browne - looking decidedly
uncomfortable at Glee Club
Lib Dem MP Jeremy Browne has announced that he will not be contesting next year's General Election.

Browne currently represents Taunton Deane, and would have been defending a majority of 3,993. He has served as Minister of State in the Foreign and Commonwealth Office and , later, Minister of Crime Prevention in the Home Office.

Browne posted a statement on twitter this morning,which read: "After much deliberation I have decided not to contest Taunton Deane as the Liberal Democrat candidate at the 2015 General Election and to stand down as Member of Parliament at the end of this Parliament. By 2015 I will have been the Member of Parliament for Taunton Deane for ten years. That is generally long enough to do the same job. It is not my ambition to remain in Parliament until I retire. I have been very committed to the role and I have done it to the best of my ability. It is time to do something different. There is a world beyond politics full of opportunities and it will be exciting to explore it." He also added that he "will not be joining another political party and I have no intention to serve in any other capacity in politics."

Browne has been a controversial Liberal Democrat - principally on account of his reputation as the archetypal "Orange Booker". In April 2014, after being removed from his position as minister, he published "Race Plan", which he claimed was a call for “authentic, unadulterated liberalism” - "the coalition is on the right lines" he argued, "but it’s not going fast enough." He advocated rethinking how the NHS is funded, suggesting “there are issues about the ongoing affordability of the NHS...you could have core services or emergency services funded directly by the state and otherwise an insurance scheme.”
 
This was always likely to create tension and fuel anger, but there should always be a place in a liberal party for those who think outside the box, who are not afraid to be controversial and who are brave enough to speak their mind. Unfortunately, Browne went much further than merely suggesting a rethink of the party's policy direction, turning on many members who he dismissed as reactionary socialists. His approach became unhelpfully combative. Speaking to The Times, he explained “it’s become part of the make-up of quite a lot of Lib Dems to support a cautious, conservative statism which is the opposite of what I think a bold authentic liberalism should be....some argue that the Lib Dems should promote socialism plus civil liberties, but that isn’t liberalism." Browne spoke of the need for "a bold, ambitious liberal party", but his understandings of liberalism were either misunderstood or rejected by many of his colleagues.
     
For Browne, the Lib Dems have become "ill-defined moderating centrist party", critical of the party's tactic of "being a brake [on Conservative policy] rather than an accelerator".
      
For some Lib Dems, Browne was a misunderstood reformer, seeking to re-establish radical liberalism at the heart of the party. For others, he was a false prophet whose misguided attempts to redefine the Lib Dems as "a responsible party of government" demonstrated a misunderstanding of the nature of modern liberalism, the party's identity and - moreover - its recent history. Both of these views contain some truth, but his apparent belief that the cause of centre-right liberalism was thwarted by merger with the Social Democrats highlighted the degree to which his appreciations of history were governed by his personal philosophy. He was also seen as being weak on immigration and civil liberties and a champion of unbridled market economics - criticisms with genuine merit.
     
Nick Clegg said of Browne's resignation: "Jeremy Browne has decided that now is the right time to announce he will not stand at the next election and the Liberal Democrats wish him all the best for the future.The Deputy Prime Minister regrets that he has taken the decision to leave politics as Jeremy has always had strongly held views which he expressed with great skill and conviction. Jeremy has been a tireless constituency MP to the people of Taunton and served in two important ministerial roles in the early part of this government."
    
Whether intentionally or otherwise, the "regret" expressed is on the part of the leader only, not "the Liberal Democrats". No doubt there will be many Lib Dems who are more than relieved at news of Browne's departure, believing that having a new candidate in place for Taunton Deane will actually increase the party's chances of retaining the seat and communicate more "on message" values. The timing of the announcement is unhelpful and, only seven months before the General Election, will no doubt be subject to the same questioning as his motivations for making it.

Personally, I'd have preferred Browne to have contested the seat in 2015 as incumbency may well have made the difference against a strong Conservative opponent, but is appears he has decided he no longer has a home here. I have never been persuaded by his arguments (although he often makes valid points along the way) but I think it is regrettable when those who think differently come to feel unwelcome in our party.

I last saw Jeremy Browne at Lib Dem conference last week, at the Glee Club - hanging around at the back, obviously detached from proceedings chatting with a couple of friends. This neatly encapsulated Browne's relationship with the party: present but disengaged; surrounded by passionate liberals whose hymnbooks he refused to share; looking decidedly uncomfortable and ill-at-ease among the party faithful. He looked as lonely a figure as he has often appeared of late - it was hard not to feel for him.

What Jeremy Browne's resignation does suggest is that he has given up on his self-appointed mission to "reset the political compass" of the Lib Dems. Perhaps we should be grateful that he at least tried, and that his brand of liberalism and distorted view of the party's identity has been unquestionably defeated - but I can't quite get myself to take any joy from this. Instead I think how much his talents could have been used to increase our party's appeal if they'd have been more effectively harnessed, or if he'd chosen to work to unite the party rather than write centre-right polemic and bowl bouncers at the Social Liberal Forum.

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