Gareth Epps reviews manifesto conference

Some 500 Liberal Democrats descended on London on Saturday to help set the agenda for the next General Election manifesto. This was a members’ event, so we won’t give away all the secrets here. The day was varied and well thought through.

Others have covered Nick’s speech, which can be read in full on the party’s website; while it contained little that could be described as genuinely controversial, it did beg a question of how the ‘big idea’ – of the decentralisation of public services – will work in practice. Not surprisingly, this theme was picked up in many of the sessions through the day.


The next session looked at the challenges faced by the Liberal Democrats and the opportunities, with Matthew d’Ancona and John Curtice giving external perspectives, and Ed Davey and senior councillor Cathy Bakewell responding. While Curtice’s pollster’s perspective mixed the relatively obvious analysis of the current political landscape, some comfort (the party’s position being much more balanced between ‘Tory territory’ and ‘Labour territory’ – an insulation against the sudden popularity of another party) and some future opportunities for policy initiatives in hitherto less well trod territory, more surprising was D’Ancona, not someone I would ever have described as a friend of the Liberal Democrats. He looked at localism, its self-mutilation by the media (attacks on the ‘postcode lottery’) and the need for authenticity in British politics.

(In passing it should be reported that the question and answer session revealed the defection of – apparently – one entire political party to the Liberal Democrats; how else could the interjections of one Norman Scarth of the ‘Anti Crime Party’ be heard in an all-members’ meeting?)

The instinctive reaction of many Liberal Democrats is to talk about how success can be won by simply out-campaigning our opponents. But this was a conference about a manifesto to be written, and a series of parallel workshops either side of lunch picked up this theme. These events were all popular and those in the smaller rooms were oversubscribed, so I ended up looking at the localism agenda, courtesy of the LGA Lib Dem group. While a session on the removal of accountability in local government by Labour drew a relatively predictable unanimity – after all, if there is anyone who knows about how to give power to communities it is a room full of Liberal Democrats – but the session on regional government drew instead expositions of how Liverpool and Newcastle Councils were marvellous, but without much on the reality of how decisions are taken that are too big for the local council to take alone.

It is clear that developing and expanding localism is worth spending some time on. With unitary rows a potentially divisive and time-consuming sideshow in many areas, the political reality is that elected regional government will not come for a long time following the North East referendum. Nonetheless there are many places (not least the Thames Valley) where larger geographical areas need to work together and solve some very real strategic and infrastructure problems. Without getting ‘hung up on structures’. It is important that something is found that can replace the Regional Assembly talking shop and get to work in an accountable and effective way.

The other parallel debate that ran as a refreshing theme during the day was the Liberal concern with power and Liberals’ instinctive dislike of concentrations of power. This (and the sidelining of residents and communities by arrogant Labour councils) is clearly a major factor in some of the big urban Liberal triumphs of recent years. It is also one reason why localism is very much a Liberal Democrat concept, and (to use Matthew D’Ancona’s example) we sound authentic, not all ‘man bites dog’ when discussing it. This concern will inevitably focus on the least accountable sector – health – in the coming months, but will further need to tap into fiscal areas when we look at the devolution of funding that must form part and parcel of our message. Meanwhile those at Liverpool Conference will be able to buy a good-sounding new book on the LGA Group’s stand which will take Liberal Democrat best practice down to grassroots level.

The looming debate all day, to many, was the question of who provides public services, and the organisers had set up a showdown between State reinventor David Howarth, Orange Booker Jeremy Browne and [Baroness] Liz Barker, herself until very recently a voluntary sector professional. The chair was ex-Bath candidate and former Guardian man, Malcolm Dean.

As ever with these showdowns, the speakers found some ground on which to coalesce. David Howarth pointed out that local government was not a delivery agent at all, as it had the right to choose, and was all the more accountable for it. He vented his spleen on Whitehall and the lobbyists whose lives are made easier by rigid centralisation, and said of markets that if people thought they ‘lead to diversity, think about Tesco!’.

Jeremy Browne focused on his childhood memories of power cuts and food shortages in ‘70s Britain and spoke of choice as the idea which could make Liberalism ‘sing’. Not wanting to replace Whitehall with town hall as the body that knows best, bashing the Audit Commission and its ilk on the way, he referred to the Netherlands on education as a way of giving citizens choice. Liz Barker, however, started by pointing out that the voluntary sector was not generally an efficient provider of public services and should not be seen as such. Its weakness was economies of scale, but it had huge strengths too, in outreach, prevention and innovation, and its ability to concentrate on needs.

With this thoughtful debate and a question, among others, on the relevance of Doctor Who to all this (don’t ask me!), the day concluded with Alex Wilcock’s summary as ‘we say yes to localism and to reducing the power of politicians to bugger it up!’. There remained Susan Kramer to explain that there was a mountain of writing up to be done both within the Policy Unit and online via some new mechanisms for online debate, and much food for thought for members at all levels on how we frame our agenda for the 2009/10 election.

Gareth Epps is a Reading borough councillor and PPC for Reading East. He was on the Federal Policy Committee at the time of drafting the last two manifestos, but does not believe that three in this case is the magic number!

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16 Comments

  • Gareth Epps 14th Jan '08 - 6:12pm

    I can remember power cuts but thought the food shortages bit was a bit odd.

  • Ruth Bright 14th Jan '08 - 7:22pm

    James has posted brilliantly on this already but I thought it was a little tedious that the public services’ debate was sometimes couched in “bash an activist” rhetoric. Jeremy Browne said something to the effect that it would be a shame if the conservatism of our activists held us back on public service reform. Why the determination to have a Clause IV moment? We don’t need one.

    It was odd that Nick Clegg spoke disparagingly of three state monopolies – health, education and welfare but only fleshed out ideas about how to tackle the first two.

    Overall though,a useful conference, good summary Gareth. Shame about the lack of a creche.

  • There were no food shortages as such, but there were periodic shortages of certain commodities like sugar and bread. There were reasonably well-founded rumours that the government had prepared ration books.

  • David Morton 14th Jan '08 - 8:10pm

    I remember power cuts despite being 35. its was because my dad was really pleased and celebrating – being a Miner.

  • Hywel Morgan 14th Jan '08 - 9:00pm

    I (born 1970) remember power cuts but not the 74 ones. I do have fairly good memories of the winter of discontent and the back end of the Callaghan government – particularly the firemens strike as I was very into firemen at the time 🙂

  • James Graham 14th Jan '08 - 10:12pm

    Just to avoid any semblance of doubt, I should point out that I wasn’t saying there were no power cuts or even food shortages during the 70s. I’m not even suggesting that Jeremy Browne has no memory of them. I am suggesting that he wasn’t one of those to suffer particularly from the experience, and perhaps I’m suggesting that the memory of them has become crafted over time to suit a specific policy agenda, Monty Python Yorkshiremen sketch-like.

  • Well I’m 32 and I remember power cuts. But then I grew up in Yorkshire 🙂

  • Richard Church 14th Jan '08 - 11:38pm

    The power cuts were in 1972-73. I remember helping my father run his shop by candlelight (health and safety now and we would have just shut), it was Christmas and you just had to trade.

    I don’t know where Jeremy got the bread shortage from, and I wasn’t sure what its relevance to the agenda was.

    He said nothing that I disagreed with, but perhaps what he didn’t say I might have disagreed with, but we will never know.

    It’s no wonder that we Liberals are interested in Dr Who. Here we have a role model who travels through time and space campaigning against oppression, exploitation and freedom from conformity. An individualist who repeatedly celebrates the ingenuity and creativity of humanity.

    Contrast Socialism and conservatism, cybermen and daleks.

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