It’s that time of year again. Autumn Conference can be reinvigorating. So I guess, from the party’s perspective, this isn’t a bad time to have to be reaching into my back pocket. But I have to confess that there has been plenty of reflection about whether to sign on the dotted line again.
Much of what happened at Conference this year was as liberal as you could possibly want it to be. I was only able to be there for a couple of days. I caught up with some of the rest of the proceedings on BBC Parliament. I went to some interesting fringe meetings raising important issues and – sometimes! – trying to move beyond tribalism. There were votes on several issues – including on secret courts, aviation, welfare reform, housing – that seemed to me to be fine examples of Liberal Democrat values. There were, of course, other elements that weren’t perhaps so congenial, particularly the debate on economic policy.
And then we finished with the Leader’s speech.
After the Spring 2011 Conference I blogged that I felt Nick Clegg appeared to have wandered in from a different conference. His speech seemed totally out of step with what had preceded it. The policy thrust of that conference was solidly centre-left. Yet his speech denied that the Liberal Democrats were a party of the centre-left and tried to locate the party in the centre ground. I got a little bit of stick for that post.
This year’s leader’s speech made some good points, including about the compatibility of environmentalism with economic revival, which is turning into a key point of differentiation between the Coalition parties.
The speech had the familiar characteristic of focusing on the Liberal Democrat successes while not really placing them in the context of the overall government agenda. It’s all very well going for applause for achieving policy A, B and C, but if that has come at the price of supporting X, Y and Z absolutely awful Tory-driven policy – or indeed of failing to realise highly prized policies D, E and F because the Tories torpedoed them – then the applause should be tempered. I know the aim is to galvanise the troops, but if you are not careful you end up with a rather one-eyed, if not slightly deluded, picture of achievements in government.
And the speech went further than positioning the party on the centre ground.
The key passage is:
I know that there are some in the party – some in this hall even – who, faced with several more years of spending restraint, would rather turn back than press on. Break our deal with the Conservatives, give up on the Coalition, and present ourselves to the electorate in 2015 as a party unchanged. It’s an alluring prospect in some ways. Gone would be the difficult choices, the hard decisions, the necessary compromises. And gone too would be the vitriol and abuse, from Right and Left, as we work every day to keep this Government anchored in the centre ground.
But conference, I tell you this. The choice between the party we were, and the party we are becoming, is a false one. The past is gone and it isn’t coming back. If voters want a party of opposition – a “stop the world I want to get off” party – they’ve got plenty of options, but we are not one of them. There’s a better, more meaningful future waiting for us. Not as the third party, but as one of three parties of government.
Clegg could have said that the Liberal Democrats are a party that is true to its values, which entered into Coalition with a dominant Conservative partner as a result of the electoral arithmetic and which will, when it is time to leave, restate our values and the policies they inspire. While it is a little difficult to give a precise meaning to this passage of Clegg’s speech, it would appear to say that, on the contrary, we must change our values and policies – we cannot be “a party unchanged”.
Clegg may mean that he thinks many of the Liberal Democrats’ pre-existing policy positions are not a basis for electoral success so we need to adopt new ones that are more like those of the other main parties. That would be odd seeing as those policies were the ones that got the party into Coalition in the first place.
Or he may simply be saying that he’s trashed the reputation of the party so badly no one would believe the party if it tried to go back to the sorts of policy positions that it took before the election. So we might as well embrace some new ones. Of course, an alternative answer to that problem would be for the party to change something, but not its policies.
In lashing itself to the Coalition austerity agenda and adopting a slightly hysterical TINA stance – as had been used by the leadership in the debate on austerity – this speech signalled not simply grudging but full acceptance of the Conservative austerity agenda. We can call it the centre ground if it makes us feel better but the overall shape of Coalition agenda is centre-right.
Not only that, Clegg seeks to construct anyone within the party who objects to the way this Government goes about its business as being somehow more comfortable with opposition than participating in government. As if the way in which this Government is going about its business – and the way the Liberal Democrats spent two years hugging the Conservatives as close as possible – is self-evidently correct. The only possible way to “do” government. Oh, hang on, in the minds of the Quad at least, there is no alternative. If you are not for us, you must be against us.
This continues the process of trying to get the party to cut its ties with its past.
There are members who have worked tirelessly for twenty, thirty, forty years to articulate a modern social liberal position. It has built electoral success at local level, in the devolved administrations, and slowly in the Westminster Parliament. Eventually it brought the party back into government.
For a long time the party’s policy platform was to the left of the Labour party. This was not primarily a tactical move to poach left-leaning voters. It was the result of the party holding fast to liberal concerns for civil liberties, respect for international law, environmentalism and the Labour party swinging to the right in order to pick up voters.
Yet, the current leadership now tells the story differently. In 2010 we were only “borrowing” left leaning voters from Labour. The Liberal Democrats were – inadvertently? – hiding their true nature in order to strengthen the party’s electoral position. Now that the true nature as a party of the centre (right) can be revealed left-leaning voters have abandoned the party in their millions. Reeves suggests we should give up on them because they aren’t coming back.
Instead the party should be aiming to capture new supporters from the centre/centre-right who won’t want to vote Conservative because the Conservatives drift ever further rightward. Others have suggested that these potential supporters are in fact a figment of someone’s imagination, and the outcome of this strategy will be a collapse in Liberal Democrat support. Even if it works then it might turn out to be a pyrrhic victory for Cleggism because all it will succeed in doing is reunifying the left and splitting the right, thereby shutting the Liberal Democrats out of power again.
Many in the party are talking the language of equidistance and being open to Coalition with whichever party is the largest, assuming that the Liberal Democrats still have sufficient MPs for this to be a meaningful discussion. Yet, it would appear from a report in Sunday’s Independent that some of the architects of Cleggism are rather less keen on equidistance and rather keener to ensure that the outcome is another coalition with the Tories. A member of an informal grouping apparently calling itself “Coalition 2.0” commented:
Today’s Lib Dems have much more in common with progressive Conservatives than the leading figures in the Labour Party – on the economy, education and welfare.
Quite apart from the suspicion that “progressive Conservative” is an oxymoron, this is the most stomach-churning statement I read yesterday. The word “Today’s” is particularly telling. We’re not talking about the Liberal Democrats of a couple of years ago. Oh no. Those at the party grassroots who built the party in the social liberal and social democratic tradition are slowly giving up on it and resigning. Those who remain are increasingly positively disposed to the classical liberal leanings of the Tories.
It would appear clear from the Independent article that in terms of personal connections and social background the members of this group are in fact very closely related, even though on the surface they are currently separated by a formal party divide. That may be at some level unavoidable, but it isn’t in my view necessarily a positive. The idea that there is significant intellectual and ideological overlap between the Liberal Democrats and someone who can comfortably consider themselves a Conservative should fill us with profound concern.
After all this, you might think that I’m going to say that I have not renewed my membership. In fact, that’s not the case. Why?
In part, because of where I started this post. Even now, much of what the party is about fully accords with what I believe. And leaving the party would mean dropping out of party politics entirely, because I wouldn’t be joining any other.
At the moment, as far as I am concerned, it is the leadership that is out of step not the members. I live in hope that that will change.
I am also heartened by the fact that there are members of the party who are willing to fight for the principles that have guided it for many years, but which are now being questioned by the leadership. The comment thread under the post about Clegg’s speech at Liberal Democrat Voice gives some sense of that. The response to Reeves’ piece in the New Statesman by Prateek Buch, the new Director of the Social Liberal Forum, is an eloquent restatement of some key principles that the leadership seem reluctant to endorse explicitly.
Many people are saying that Nick Clegg has another year. If the economy is in still in a terrible state this time next year then he could well be defenestrated.
I’ve decided to stick around for another year and see if we can’t push back a bit harder against the worst tendencies of the Coalitionistas. We absolutely must appreciate policy achievements that reflect our beliefs. But we should recognise those that don’t reflect our beliefs and say so. The Conservatives may prevail and policies may be implemented, but we shouldn’t pretend that they are liberal if they aren’t – as the leadership tried to do at Conference on the Justice and Security Bill.
And we must reassert our beliefs in a way that clearly distinguishes the Liberal Democrats from the Conservatives, who should be the most uncomfortable of bedfellows.
Who knows what might happen then. A year is a very long time in politics.
Image: © Ayzek – Fotolia.com