COUNCILLORS who left the Liberal Democrats to form a new group should seek a fresh public mandate by standing in by-elections, say critics.

That's the view of a Lib Dem councillor and the Tory leader of Ribble Valley Council after three ex-Lib Dems launched a new Progressive Liberal Group. They are seeking a ‘progressive alliance’ with Labour, Greens and other councillors to oppose the Conservatives.

The trio includes Stewart Fletcher, Mark French and Ryan Corney, amid Lib Dem differences locally and regionally, such as a ‘progressive alliance’ with Labour and the Greens and whether Lib Dems should stand in every ward election, which risks splitting an anti-Conservative vote.

Regionally the Lib Dem hierarchy is pushing for their candidates to stand in every single ward in future, it is understood

Their departures last week came just before the annual general meeting of Ribble Valley Lib Dems in Clitheroe, leaving the party with just five borough councillors.

Lib Dem Cllr Simon O’Rourke said: “I’m disappointed for the people who voted for these councillors. Will they feel let down because these councillors have walked away from the Lib Dems? The three should stand down and call by-elections. If there is public support for them, they will be re-elected."

He also criticised the timing and nature of the announcement, confirmed just 45 minutes before their AGM via e-mail

Regarding reported differences about a new Lib Dem constitution over fighting elections, Cllr O'Rourke added: “The three are unhappy with it but every other Lib Dem area has taken it on.

"We haven’t stood candidates in every Ribble Valley ward in the past because we didn’t have enough membership. We’ve traditionally been strong in Clitheroe. But we would never prevent anyone standing in other wards, if they want to.

“In the past, we had Bob Buller in Waddington and we stood in places like Mellor. If we get candidates then it’s party policy to fight elections. We might not be strong in Longridge, where Labour is strong, but we would not say ‘no’ if someone wanted to stand for the Lib Dems there.”

Conservative Cllr Stephen Atkinson, council leader, said in the wards where the three councillors were elected in May, the public cast hundreds more votes for Lib Dem candidates than for Labour so he believed the right thing to do was for the three to call by-elections and stand again as Progressive Liberals.

Cllr Atkinson also said the ruling Conservatives had offered Stewart Fletcher a coalition role - then refused - after the May elections.

He added: “The Liberal Democrats have a proud history on the council and in Clitheroe, working for the best interests of people. I hope we can get back to that.

“Nationally, the Lib Dems’ party name stands for democracy. Their policy, I understand, is to fight elections in every ward. So I cannot understand how they would not support standing a candidate in every ward for democracy?

“I’m also disappointed the three councillors appear to be putting an anti-Conservative lens on their decisions, when they should be focusing on delivering the best results for people of the Ribble Valley, rather than party politics.”