For me, the most valuable parts of Conference were my discussions with a member of the Green Liberal Democrats Exec on her intense disappointment over the votes on nuclear energy, weapons and shale gas fracking.
We discussed the relative contribution of idealism and pragmatism within the party. Her disappointment stemmed from the perceived abandonment of ideals by the party, in that we should be moving firmly away from both fossil fuel extraction and the risks of nuclear energy.
I share those ideals, but I’m a little more pragmatic – some would say jaded. When going from A to Z, you can’t reach Z without passing through the other letters. To reach the ideal of a fossil fuel free future, you have to take the journey in bite-size pieces. She accepts that, but is frustrated by the way the party seems to be building pragmatism into policy.
We need to take the rest of the world along with us. It would be nice if everyone thought like us, but they don’t. Far too many have their ignorance enlarged by the Daily Mail etc. So we must be pragmatic approach and take the little bites, the salami slices, that the majority accept. With each bite we say our piece and a few more people come over to our way of thinking.
Lobbying NGOs such as FoE and Greenpeace, have the luxury of embracing idealism. They are not expected to balance a multitude of competing ideals. They do a valuable job, but they cannot make the hard decisions, or to accept decisions taken by others. At the same time their membership is booming, while ours diminishes. Idealism is very attractive, and pragmatism is ugly.
Until recently, a significant proportion of our party thought similarly. Their mindsets were more idealistic than pragmatic (and everyone is a mixture of the two). Then May 2010 happened. Suddenly the whole party was faced with the cognitive dissonance of watching their leaders make hard decisions with immediate real-world impact.
Many adapted. Every MP is dealing with the reality of government and they continue to apply Liberal and Social Democratic principles to every decision. But they are fighting both a Tory party machine used to power, and a Whitehall bureaucracy unused to implementing liberal policies. Asking a civil servant to advise on the democratisation of the electrical power supply is like asking a chicken to quack.
Regrettably, some members could not adapt. The most idealistic and least pragmatic members have left us. So our party is making fewer policies that pursue the ideal, and more that accept the hard choices. We are not evolving into the Tories, but into hard-headed liberals.
And that is both saddening and something to be grateful for.
We must never forget our ideals, and strive for them, but we must accept the necessity for pragmatism to make progress towards them.
And, above all, we must encourage and support those who feel our ideals are under attack.
* Simon Oliver is the chair of Green Liberal Democrats