The feature article in yesterday’s G2 magazine was a piece from the Liberal Democrat conference by the music journalist Alexis Petridis. It was fascinating to read the impressions of a party conference novice. All the more so because I wasn’t at Conference this time around (for reasons discussed here).
A leitmotif of Petridis’ piece is that Liberal Democrats at Conference are just enjoying being in government, after years in opposition. It may only be for short period of time before electoral annihilation awaits, but members are determined to enjoy the ride. He likens the atmosphere to that of a holiday camp. This may be the case for some. But I’m not sure enjoyment is the right approach to government. It seems to me that it underplays the awesome responsibilities one is entrusted with.
By that I don’t mean the party has to “grow up” and be more realistic in its approach to policy. That is a familiar argument in Liberal Democrat circles. The advocates of this position generally mean that established policy positions need to be watered down or rejected in favour of something more right wing or neo-liberal. Something more business-friendly. Rather I mean that national political parties are entrusted with the power to shape, for good or ill, the lives of millions of people. The responsibility is awesome. The human costs of getting things wrong are immense. If that does not weight even a little bit heavy on you then it seems to me you’re not thinking about it enough. It’s not a game.
Some of the story Petridis tells was painfully familiar. There is the preponderance of bad jokes. There is the scarcity of strong public speakers among the high profile members of the party. The content may be great, but the delivery often leaves something to be desired. Petridis nails this point when he identifies the problem with the party’s “stars”:
… the real problem is that what stars they have are hopeless at public speaking. It’s hard not to feel that party president Tim Farron’s rise is predicated on possessing an identifiable personality … You can mock Nick Clegg’s closing speech all you like, but it’s like Alexander the Great’s address at the battle of Issus next to the orations of Chris Huhne, a man who sounds like he’s reading out the building’s fire regulations.
That doesn’t feel unfair to me.
But the main theme of Petridis’ article is what he sees as the inexplicable “blind optimism” of conference attendees. I wrote something similar after attending Spring Conference, where I felt that there was an air of unreality about some of the proceedings. And I got some criticism for it. Yet, some of the debates in Sheffield were impassioned and speakers from the floor were ready and willing to ring alarm bells. The vote on the NHS reform bill was a moment of genuine tension. The Sunday morning vote reasserting the principles of the Liberal Democrat party – which (not so) implicitly criticised the stance being taken by the leadership – created a sense of release and relief among those present. There was a feeling that matters of importance were being addressed, and the outcome mattered.
It sounds like the air of unreality may have increased. I say that not just based upon the Petridis article but also from watching quite a lot of this week’s proceedings on BBC Parliament.
Yet, Petridis seems to me to miss something significant. At one point he notes that:
Fifty-eight per cent of people who voted Liberal Democrat at the last election wouldn’t again. A quarter of former supporters have swung to Labour. The Lib Dem voters that are left admire Margaret Thatcher.
That may be the case among those who, at this point in the electoral cycle, are willing to admit that they would vote Liberal Democrats. Although I’m sceptical that the core Liberal Democrat support is quite so centre-right as this suggests.
What gets no mention in Petridis’ article is the rise of the centre-left Social Liberal Forum. This has been one of the most notable features of the last year. But it doesn’t fit so well with the prevailing media narratives about the party. From the small number of well-attended fringe meetings in Sheffield, through the first annual conference, to the more comprehensive programme of fringe meetings in Birmingham, the rise of the SLF is a clear indication that there remains a strong desire among parts of the party membership to hold on to the full scope of the party’s founding principles, reaffirmed in Sheffield, and not allow coalition with the Tories to result in a drift to the right. One might argue these are encouraging signs – offering the potential to rearticulate a distinctive narrative for the party in preparation for the point, a short time away, when it is recognised that revival – indeed survival – rests on offering the electorate a leadership that has not been irrevocably tainted by association with the Conservatives. And that is not just about Nick Clegg.
I wouldn’t for one minute deny that the party has had a positive impact upon the Coalition and is finally achieving some things that have been Liberal Democrat aspirations for many years. But electoral politics has little or nothing to do with “the truth of the matter”. It has everything to do with perceptions. And the two are only distant acquaintances much of the time. Shifting those perceptions will require more than the same people pursuing a strategy of differentiation. It requires a more profound process of renewal.
These are major developments and big questions. Perhaps too big for a light hearted look at activists in their natural habitat. But an acknowledgement that they are part of the current landscape would have resulted in a more balanced portrait.