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Bermondsey Lib Dems hold crisis meeting after tuition fees vote

Leading Liberal Democrats in Southwark say they are "disappointed" that Simon Hughes abstained from Thursday's controversial tuition fees vote but they have decided not to resign as party officers at present.

The officers of Bermondsey and Old Southwark Liberal Democrats held a meeting with Simon Hughes MP and Cllr Anood Al-Samerai, leader of Southwark's Lib Dem group, on Sunday evening.

There had been speculation that some of the party's officers might resign in the wake of Thursday's tuition fees vote in the House of Commons.

Local party members had urged the MP to vote against the coalition Government's proposals and were disappointed that he chose to abstain.

"I would have liked to vote against," Simon Hughes told Radio 4's The World This Weekend programme, explaining that he felt that as the party's deputy leader he had to honour the coalition agreement.

The Bermondsey & Old Southwark party officers, who include former councillors Lorraine Zuleta and Jane Salmon and current South Bermondsey councillor Graham Neale, issued a joint statement on Sunday night to say that they had decided not to resign after the "thorough and constructive" meeting.

The statement continued: "Simon Hughes has assured us that the leadership of the party has heard our message that we cannot move in the opposite direction from party policy like this again.

"Lessons must be learned about the decision making process and communication with the party, our supporters and the rest of the public.

"Prior to the vote, local party officers and councillors were very clear in their preference that Simon should vote against the proposals.

"There is disappointment about Thursday's votes, but we understand that Simon was in a very difficult position.

"We appreciate his reasons for abstaining in line with the coalition agreement and are pleased that he did not vote for the government's policy on this issue.

"We will continue to work with Simon in the best possible interests of Southwark residents."

Cllr Anood Al-Samerai added: "The work which our local party does is hugely valuable and appreciated and their views must be listened to by all elected representatives."

Speaking after the meeting Simon Hughes said: "My local party and local Liberal Democrat councillors are fully entitled to express their views as strongly as they feel them. I am very grateful for their continuing personal and political support.

"Although this government's policy will be fairer than the one left by Labour, there is still a big risk that 6,000 a year for tuition fees, or more, could put off people from communities like ours from university education.

"I will work with local Liberal Democrats and my colleagues nationally to make sure that coalition policy always delivers better opportunities, greater freedoms and a more equal country. Progressives are needed in the Liberal Democrats more now than ever in the history of the party."

Southwark's Labour politicians have been quick to draw attention to the discomfort of local Liberal Democrats.

"I find Simon Hughes' position on these measures appalling," Southwark Council leader Peter John wrote on his blog.

"He pledged to protect his constituents by voting against any rise in tuition fees, but his abstention meant that the vote was won by the Government.

"There are circumstances in which an abstention can be a matter of principle. There can be circumstances in which an abstention can be politically expedient.

"But in the case of Simon Hughes, an abstention was a betrayal of his constituents and a simple broken promise. Can we ever believe anything he ever says in the future?"

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