‘roots against the machine

Last weekend’s Liberal Democrat conference was hailed by most of the mainstream media as a victory for Nick Clegg over the party’s grassroots activists. Commentators across the right wing press congratulated him on a job well done. Clegg engineered a situation in which the party voted to adopt a range of positions deemed to represent serious and grown up policy, suitable for a ‘party of government’. That is, the sort of policies that tend to find favour with right wing publications. The implicit association of ‘grown-up policy’ with policy that is hardly distinguishable from that of the other main parties is one of the most insidious, but clever, tactics the leadership has employed in volume, over time.

Anyone who believes in offering a radical social liberal alternative must be childish, because they are clearly not interested in ‘grown-up policy’.

More rarely to we stop and reflect upon the peculiarity of a situation, in a federal party, where the main faultline is constructed as between the activist base and the leadership. In principle the leadership is there to be guided in policy terms by the membership, rather than seek to impose its own ideological preferences on the party. But I appreciate that it is naïve to assume that this is how the world works. And commentators in the right wing press agree that Nick Clegg and colleagues are doing a grand job of moulding the party into the classical liberal party that David Laws and his hedge fund friends would like it to be. To help the process along commentators are subtly lending weight to those factions within the party that are seeking to promote the cause of relatively undiluted economic liberalism.

On Wednesday Kiran Stacey of the FT provided an interesting analysis of how the Clegg contingent is using textbook machine politics to achieve its objective. It was quite clear at Conference that the payroll vote, loosely conceived, was being used to deliver the policy favoured at the centre. Yet even with a whipped vote in some instances – notable on tax – the leadership only just prevailed over the will of party activists.

My primary response to watching this play out is, I have to say, sadness. I’ve no problem if the party adopts policies on the basis of representatives concluding, on liberal democratic principle, that they are the most appropriate position. That’s internal democracy. But if the party takes up policy positions on the back of votes won through pressure applied, patronage or in hope of future preferment then that puts power over principle. Again, you’d be hopelessly naïve to believe that this type of influence can ever be fully absent from political processes. But when it becomes fundamental to shaping outcomes then the idea of internal democracy becomes questionable.

I suppose the issue was most pointlessly transparent on the economy motion, which still troubles me. It troubles me for several reasons.

There are reports that in a pre-Conference showdown within the Parliamentary party Vince Cable found himself in a minority of two out of 57 sympathetic to the amendments proposed by the Social Liberal Forum. The details of this encounter are, inevitably, disputed.

This troubles me because the SLF amendments were pretty modest. The main body of the second amendment largely asked Conference to explicitly endorse what is already party housing policy and link it clearly to action for economic recovery.

I’m not sure what the marginalisation of support for this position says about the independence of mind within the Parliamentary Party.

Because if you look beyond Coalition politics and the Treasury view then the preponderance of economic opinion is closer to Cable’s position than it is to the Osborne-Alexander axis. In this sense Jeremiah is right. The bond markets would be willing to accept an intelligent and credible programme of publicly-funded infrastructure investment by the Government in order to enhance the productive capacity of the economy. Such a move wouldn’t inevitably be taken as embracing profligacy, thereby throwing the markets into turmoil.

So if the Parliamentary party were thinking about the economics of the issue then you would have expected more people to support amendments to the motion. It may well not have carried the majority. But Cable would not have found himself so isolated. How might we interpret the situation? It could suggest that MPs don’t really know much about the economics of the situation and are relying on a Treasury interpretation of the world, which is never wise. Or they are prioritizing internal politics – they don’t want to find themselves disagreeing with the leadership. Which hardly seems like a very liberal situation.

If we wind forward to the debate on the motion itself, the choreography was clear. Getting Steve Webb to move the motion sent one signal that ‘the left’ of the (Parliamentary) party was on side. Getting Tim Farron to speak in favour of the motion reinforced this. My impression of Farron’s speech was that it was impassioned, as ever, but that it was scripted by someone else and contained a number of rather dubious assertions regarding the need to adopt the strictures of Osborne’s fiscal envelope. I wasn’t entirely convinced that Farron fully embraced what he was saying. But the very fact that he was saying it tipped the scales very clearly in the favour of the leadership’s favoured position.

Most of the speeches in favour of the motion and against the amendments seemed to take one of two tactics. On the one hand, they invoking one or other bogeyman, political or economic, who would come after the party if it didn’t cleave to further austerity. On the other, there was reference to squandering all the “hard work” that has been done on fiscal consolidation so far.

I’m never quite sure what this “hard work” entails. It mostly isn’t politicians – or conference delegates – who have lost their jobs, seen their incomes stagnate or cut, visited foodbanks in order to feel their children, sat in cold houses because they’ve chosen to eat rather than heat, or died because they’ve been declared fit to work and had their benefits stopped. For sure, many fantastic local politicians have lost their positions as a result of national political decisions. But the hardest work for some has been having to close their ears to accusations of betrayal or lack of compassion.

The other component of the economy debate I found troubling was the use of misinformation to win the day. That was most obvious in relation to Clegg’s summation against amendment two. A key part of amendment two argued for changing the definition of public spending to allow local authorities to borrow more. This is something that has been argued for in housing circles since at least the early 1990s. Clegg’s argument against this was that if the definition was changed then it would mean that the public sector finances would be negatively affected because the Government’s contingent liabilities associated with the bank bailouts would also have to be included – and those liabilities are huge. But, as was pointed out at Red Brick blog the other day, that argument is rather implausible because the Government is already obliged to account for those liabilities.

The leadership also argued for allowing local authorities to use the headroom associated with the localisation of the Housing Revenue Account in new ways as a significant change that would get more housing built. It is undoubtedly a very welcome move. But it is almost, but not quite, tokenistic: it is a one-off change that is orders of magnitude too small to make a serious dent in the housing problem. The impression was created that this was a major intervention.

On the other hand, I don’t think all those speaking on behalf of the amendments played their hand as well as they might have done. In particular, speakers who argued that the amendments should be adopted because they were not some form of dangerous socialism fell into the “don’t think of an elephant” trap.

So overall I felt that the debate on the economy was rather unsatisfactory. The only amendment that was passed was the one that the leadership was willing to sanction, which committed the party to nothing very specific. The amendments that would allow the Liberal Democrats to differentiate themselves from the Conservatives more clearly on the economy were rejected. And FCC accepted the drafting amendment around international trade negotiations gave the whole motion an even stronger classical liberal flavour.

Personally, I’ve no objection to losing in a fair fight. But that isn’t a very close approximation to what happened.

The odd aspect of this whole episode is that it was unnecessary. It was clearly orchestrated as showdown. The idea, as suggested by the leadership, that Liberal Democrat conference voting to adopt a different fiscal mandate from 2015, or for changing the policy objectives for the Bank of England, was going to cause interest rates to rocket or the public finances to crash around our ears is, frankly, laughable.

There is any number of steps between conference voting something into party policy and it having any meaningful impact on government policy. We have seen any number of unanimous conference votes – on secret courts, legal aid, welfare reform – that the leadership has ignored entirely when it suited them. We had an almost unanimous vote to review or suspend the so-called bedroom tax on Monday afternoon: I fully expect the leadership to ignore it. The leadership could quite easily have allowed the economy amendments through in order to allow Liberal Democrats to feel that they have established a distinctive position on the economy and then, if the mood took them, quietly ignore the vote.

The fallout from the conference has been rather ugly. There has been the spat in the New Statesman between the left and the right of the party. There have been insults hurled around on Twitter between different factions of the party. There are, I know, members reflecting on their continued membership of a party that is no longer so distinctive in either its political philosophy or the way it conducts itself.

It’s not as if the party has so many members that it can casually afford to lose more.

Nick Clegg may have won this battle. But the victory may well prove pyrrhic. He risks losing the war. Or, rather, he will very likely succeed in shaping the party in his own image, but he will then find that – rather like Spinal Tap – its appeal is becoming rather more selective.

Update (22/09/13)

An intriguing post by Caron Lindsay has just appeared at Liberal Democrat Voice, drawing on a piece in today’s Observer. Caron reports that Nick Clegg is going to investigate the nature of internal briefing against Vince Cable in the run up to the economy motion at Conference. The following passage from the Observer piece is particularly relevant to the discussion above:

[Nick] Robinson reported that Cable had lost the away day debate to his main opponent, Danny Alexander … by 55 votes to two. However, at least one MP who attended has complained that this was not an accurate account of the debate. A source said: “Nick set up the debate with Danny Alexander arguing against Vince. Nick Clegg said he was in the middle on the issue and the parliamentary party should also have its say. Everyone had the chance to speak and while Cable lost, it wasn’t the trouncing that has been reported. There weren’t even 50 MPs there, probably more like 40. And while Cable did lose, it was probably more like 60:40 in Danny’s favour. But there wasn’t a formal count at all. It seems that lies have been briefed.” It is understood that the reports angered a number of Lib Dem MPs who fear Cable, often tipped as a leadership rival to Clegg, has been unfairly damaged by the briefing.

For all sorts of reasons it would be good if Nick Clegg were to look into the issue of negative internal briefing. Caron is right to highlight the damage that practice has done to the Labour party.

More particularly, this account of events at the now infamous meeting accords more with what I would have expected, given what we know about the distribution of views within the Parliamentary party.

Update 2 (22/09/13)

The story of this meeting and the investigation of briefing against Vince Cable continues in a post this evening at Liberator’s blog: Not a case for Sherlock Holmes.

Image: Liberal Democrats via flickr.com under Creative Commons

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3 replies »

  1. I agree, to a point about the machinations (although these were less clunky and cack-handed from those on exhibit at Spring Conference)

    …but, for me amendment two fell down on the issue of *mandating* the Bank of England to target Employment of 6%, whatever the merits of that (and I think there is a strong case for them to adopt a more ambitious target, given the unevenness of (un)employment rates across the country.)

    The Housing Policy section remains (I believe) policy, despite suggestions by some that defeat of the amendment would overturn that policy. *Am will to be corrected on this assertion if need be*

  2. Hi Andrew
    I was never convinced that combining the housing component and the BoE component in the same amendment was wise. Having a separate vote on the two parts seemed very sensible.

    I don’t think the vote on Monday overturned the party’s housing policy. My point was more that it is rather odd for conference to vote overwhelmingly in favour of a policy (on housing) at one meeting and then completely fail to endorse the same policy at the subsequent meeting – at a time when any number of speakers at any number of fringe/debates identified housing as a key problem that needed addressing.

    • I didn’t understand why there wasn’t a separate vote on the sections of amendment two either – given there was on amendment one. I would have been happy to vote for the middle part of amendment two, shorn of its bookends. Couldn’t do as a whole, though!