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.
“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.”
So you spend months saying the Coalition has forced LDs into right-wing positions and now you’re saying we aren’t doing enough to appease right-wing UKIP and BNP voters? Now you’re saying we should ditch multiculturalism for the sake of populism?
You really are a nasty piece of work. It is a disgrace you have a platform to spew your confused populist/leftist (i.e. Labour) bile on LDV, where you do not belong, because you don’t belong in the party. No wonder you feel out of step. You want another party in power instead of us. Go to hell.
@Roger Marsh – Thank you for your challenging comment. It allows me to amplify what I said in the post. I believe you misread my intention.
I am not for one minute suggesting that Nick Clegg’s stance on multiculturalism was wrong. I believe it was absolutely the right thing to do. I was not suggesting that the right response to the rise of nationalism is to pander to it. That is certainly not my position. In fact, it is the opposite. History suggests that nationalism increases in times of economic hardship, as those who are adversely affected by an economic downturn turn against those who are ‘different’. I would advocate that there is a need to put the case for tolerance and peaceful co-existence, respecting the human rights of all, more forthrightly than ever.
All I was saying in the post was that to dismiss votes for UKIP and the BNP simply as protest votes because protest voters are no longer able to vote for the Liberal Democrats – because they are now a party of government – would be unwise if, on the contrary, they are signalling something about views genuinely held by voters, however objectionable those views are.
My point is that the task of challenging illiberal views is much greater, if we consider that these votes are any indication of the views and values of parts of the electorate, than if we assume that people are just voting for a party in protest at the government and have no particular allegiance to that party’s values.
As for your suggestion that I want another party in power. That emphatically isn’t the case. Much of what I have written here, and on LDV, about policy engages with the Coalition agenda because, frankly, that is the agenda that matters at the moment. I would absolutely prefer a Liberal Democrat government putting in to effect the full range of policies that we offered as our electoral platform. But that isn’t what we have. I could see the logic of the Coalition when it was formed and the agenda that it set out. At that time people were beguiled by David Cameron’s moderate and caring conservatism. But I am less happy with the way that the Coalition government is carrying out its agenda (including vigorous pursuit of policies that were not agreed upon). I don’t believe I am alone in that.
Roger, who exactly made you the arbiter of Liberal Democracy? I have been a member of the SDP and the Liberal Democrats since 1982 and I agree with every word of the post above. Perhaps it is actually you who is in the wrong party. I suggest you take your McCarthyite agenda elsewhere.
@Kelvin Kid – Thanks for your comment.
You ask whether there is any correlation between expense fraud and the size of MPs majorities. I believe there is a small one, but more interestingly there is a strong correlation between supporters of a no vote and those who have been exposed for dodgy expense claims:
@ Dan Falchikov – Thanks for drawing attention to your post. Very helpful.
Wow….if Roger M was upset at your comments, he`ll be positively apoplectic at what I’m about to say.
Alex – you say that we have to get Libdem achievements in government in perspective. Well, the true perspective is a ghastly one. In the upcoming May elections (and in the next round next May, and whenever a GElection arrives) people are not going to be talking about our achievements. In fact, the very notion that we can and should be proud of what we are doing in this Coalition will doom us, especially if we big it up publically at every available opportunity.
Why? For the simple reason that our litany of good things are being obliterated by the havoc and misery of job losses by the 100s of thousands. 160 thousand local government jobs gone so far, with another 2-300 thousand over the next 2 years. Including additional job losses caused by fall in demand, that means that well over half a million jobs will have been thrown overboard by the Coalition government. Do we understand what that means, in terms of lost homes, cars and marriages, as well as an inevitable fallout via domestic violence, drug and alcohol abuse, and low level crime. Ordinary people I promise you do know, especially those in their 40s and 50s who saw the same social downgrading under Thatcher. This is nothing to be proud of.
Yet these harsh facts do not seem to penetrate the complacent self-satisfaction of many of my party colleagues. Crashing polls and disastrous by-elections are glibly explained away with such pat phrases as ‘grown up politics’, as if delivering disaster wholesale into people’s lives is a badge of political maturity.
The usual argument trotted out is that it would all be the same, no matter who was in power. Which is only true if you agree that the rich are untouchable, that the corporations are to be toadied to, and that the banks are too valuable to upset. The truth is that the City is floating on a sea of money, er, that is, our money, and the Tories (enabled by us) will do ANYTHING rather than cause the slightest smidgeon of discomfort to the wealthiest 5%.
The longer we stay in this coalition, the surer our demise. Clegg has been an unmitigated disaster as party leader, and his lack of political nous becomes more starkly obvious by the day. And I can state, as a former social democrat, that the across-the-board usage of ‘Liberal’ to describe everything (including the future) is really starting to grate. The good name of liberalism has been tarnished by the last 10 months – come May and the Bonfire of the Councillors, how much more corroded will it appear?
@Mike Cobley – Thanks for your comments. I have been thinking about the way in which the party has been understanding itself – in terms of the emphasis upon ‘liberal’ and ‘democrat’. It is noticeable that the ‘democrat’ part does tend to receive much less emphasis. But it is heartening, to me at least, that speakers in the strategy debate at Conference drew attention to the importance of these dual origins, and not to lose sight of the social democratic component.