Quite a few bloggers have now offered a perspective on the Liberal Democrat Spring Conference. Some significant positive developments occurred. The amendments to the conference motion on NHS reform have attracted most attention. The support for the emergency motion on banking reform was equally emphatic. They both represent important interventions by the Social Liberal Form. Indeed, the growing influence of the SLF in the party was noted by Mark Pack over at Liberal Democrat Voice. Both motions were passed almost unanimously; Conference was equally united on the questions of political independence and electoral strategy; on reasserting the importance of the mobility components of the DLA and of legal aid for access to justice. These were clear statements of intent. Conference saw itself as sending a signal that Coalition hadn’t turned it into “forelock touching automatons” – to borrow Andrew George’s memorable phrase. The atmosphere in the hall was generally and genuinely positive. Of course, the question of what happens next – how to turn policy positions into reality in the context of Coalition, and whether the leadership is particularly inclined to so do – was not really addressed.
Conference was repeatedly regaled with more or less extensive lists of Liberal Democrat policies that have already been implemented by the Coalition government. Many went away from Sheffield relatively happy.
It feels a little churlish to register concerns. But I’m going to anyway. More than ever I feel I’m out of step. I felt that the big picture was being missed. And that is of fundamental significance. Self-congratulation where it is due, for sure. But let’s keeps things in perspective.
Five issues stand out.
1. Liberal Democrat policy successes in context
Several of the policy successes to which the party can rightly lay claim are associated with political and civil rights and with constitutional reform. And since the Conference the newspapers have reported that Nick Clegg has managed to repel Tory attempts to disengage the UK from European structures for enforcing human rights.
As a Liberal Democrat I am, of course, convinced that such successes are important. But I am less convinced that they play particularly well with most people, when set alongside declining incomes, rising prices, increasing risks of unemployment, the dismantling of the NHS, cuts in public services and the like.
A cynic might suggest that while movement on the reform of the House of Lords is of considerable constitutional significance, there is a reason why it hasn’t happened for decades – it just doesn’t have particular salience for most voters.
Liberal Democrat policies are being implemented – many are those that are congenial to the Tories, of course – but at a significant electoral price. Of course those policies are not all in the somewhat abstract realm of rights: there is a story to tell on pensions and income tax, for example. Nonetheless, how these various policies are weighed against each other by the voters is crucial, and I’m not sure it will be to the Liberal Democrats’ advantage. To think otherwise is to be deluded. Many people’s anger at the party may – from our perspective – be unjustified, but it is deep and visceral.
2. The rhetoric and reality of Coalition
I heard it stated that Liberal Democrats in Government were exercised in the process of policy development by the need to ensure that the vulnerable were protected: that, for example, disabled people were not unduly disadvantaged by welfare reform. I don’t doubt it. It’s vitally important. Liberal Democrats were therefore, apparently, pleasantly surprised to discover that IDS willingly stated a similar commitment.
At this point I felt like shouting. It’s all very splendid that we all agree that vulnerable people should not to be unduly disadvantaged. But that doesn’t appear to stop it from happening. Anyone who has been following the operation of the regime is applying tests to determine fitness to work, and hence withdraw disability benefit, will be aware of repeated reports of injustice.
3. Protest votes and nationalist parties
There was, inevitably, reflection on the significance and implications of the Barnsley by-election results. There was what felt like a rather too eager readiness to put the result down to protest voters defecting from the LibDems to UKIP and the BNP. That strikes me as a rather peculiar switch of allegiance. But, leaving that aside, the protest vote argument also obviates the need to reflect upon whether the numbers polled by UKIP and the BNP are telling us anything important about the policy platforms of the mainstream parties; whether the parties are effectively addressing the concerns of some sectors of the population.
One of the recent points of differentiation between the Tories and the Liberal Democrats was Nick Clegg’s speech on multiculturalism, in which he staked out a very different position to that adopted by David Cameron a few days earlier. This was welcomed by Liberal Democrats. But one has to wonder whether Cameron’s illiberal speech had more populist resonance.
4. Where exactly are the Liberal Democrats, politically?
It is a cliché to say that all political parties are coalitions. But it is no less true for that. So spotting cracks, inconsistencies and apparent divergence of opinion is a bit of a past-time. That is particularly the case among the media commentariat which finds it diverting to go hunting for apparent splits between ‘orange bookers’ and ‘social liberals’. At Conference I witnessed senior party members deny that such a split existed or was even meaningful. Yet, that did not come across as entirely convincing.
Perhaps the aspect of Conference that I found most striking was the divergence between Nick Clegg’s speech on the Sunday and just about all the other speeches I heard over the weekend. Of course I didn’t hear everything, but the speeches at which I was present placed the LibDems firmly as a centre-left progressive party. The motion on future party strategy reasserted the need to remember that the party has social democratic as well as liberal roots. The motion on the NHS reforms, on banking reform, on legal aid – speaker after speaker made cases that were broadly centre-left and progressive. Then the motions were passed close to unanimously.
And then up trundled Nick Clegg with his speech:
“But we are not on the left and we are not on the right. We have our own label: Liberal. We are liberals and we own the freehold to the centre ground of British politics. Our politics is the politics of the radical centre. We are governing from the middle, for the middle.”
I didn’t really feel it resonated with most of what had preceded it. It felt like he’d wandered in from some other conference that was happening next door and ploughed on regardless to deliver his speech, with all its classical liberal overtones.
This was Nick Clegg’s perspective on liberalism. But I’m not sure how many of the delegates were fully signed up to it. It could have been most, for all I know. But that would be peculiar, given everything that had been supported so emphatically earlier in the conference.
To say that the party is sending out mixed messages has to be fair comment. One might wish to argue that things are finely balanced: but only in the sense that most of the grass roots activists are centre-left, and the leadership – with access to the media – are centre-(right). In this respect the article in yesterday’s Guardian captures very effectively the way in which I experienced the different perspectives evident at the conference.
5. Leader’s speech
I don’t have the time to anatomize the Leader’s speech here. Some people thought it was great. Some thought it was better than previous speeches. Personally, I didn’t really enjoy much of it. There was too much sophistry and casuistry. The statistics were presented with such an obvious slant and spin that they undermined perfectly good points and made one suspicious. Some of it didn’t make much sense to me (On the AV vote: “If you want more duck houses: vote no. If you want more democracy: vote yes”. Apart from the alliteration between duck and democracy, what does that actually mean? Is there, for example, evidence that expenses offences were strongly correlated with the size of MPs’ majorities?)
A large chunk of the speech was selling Coalition policy to the party and the watching media, rather than saying anything very distinctive. There was little in it that I couldn’t imagine David Cameron standing there and plausibly saying. That terrible neologism ‘Alarm Clock Britain’ was resurrected. It is truly awful. It smacks of wonkery. It is difficult to imagine that anyone buys Clegg’s argument that he likes to think of people as part of Alarm Clock Britain. Rather than – let’s say – that he is using the term because some policy wonk spent insufficient time with the focus group and came to the conclusion it would play well with the tabloids.
For these, and other reasons, I didn’t come away from the conference quite so enthused and inspired as some other delegates appear to have been. That doesn’t for one minute mean there weren’t positive achievements to recognise. Just that we’ve got to keep things in perspective.
What happens next to all the strong motions that were passed will be a real test. They may be party policy, but how much leverage will they have over future Coalition actions? The Lib Dems in coalition have more power than they believe they have. The Conservatives aren’t all that likely to choose to go to the country seeking a mandate to govern alone when they are 10% behind in the polls and the picture is worsening for them by the day. So there is leverage there to be exploited.
You may disagree with my take on the situation. I’m sure you’ll let me know if you do.