Leadership v. Activists – a personal reflection on Bournemouth ’09 #ldconf

I’m not, by any means, a party conference veteran – Bournemouth ’09 was in fact only my fourth. But it has been distinctive for one thing in particular: it’s been the first year when the media coverage of conference has genuinely reflected what folk (at least those I’ve met) have been talking about at conference.

In previous years, we have been continually told that Lib Dem delegates were chattering about the fate of our leaders – when actually we were quite contentedly chewing the fat of meaty policy issues. This year, there has, as ever at a Lib Dem conference, been plenty of meaty policy debate, but there’s also been more than a little discussion, and not a little grumbling, about the style of the party leadership, both Nick and Vince. And it seems to me – as I blogged here yesterday – that these grumblings are fair.

The usual complaint made, not always so sotto voce, by the Lib Dem leadership against party activists is that they are self-indulgent, putting idealistic high principle ahead of pragmatic electoral politics. And I have, in past years, had some sympathy with that position.

But this year, at Bournemouth, the position has been reversed. It is the party leadership which has lacked discipline, while even those party activists who are least enamoured of the leadership’s positioning on tax and spend have done their best to compromise and avoid rows in the last party conference before 2010’s general election.

It would have been all too easy for those on the social liberal wing of the party – Steve Webb, Evan Harris, Duncan Brack – to have provoked an argument with the leadership by moving an amendment during Tuesday’s A Fresh Start for Britain debate making plain their belief that many of the party’s spending commitments currently listed as ‘aspirations’ should be retained as firm manifesto pledges.

They chose not do so, instead putting forward an innocuous-but-pointed amendment re-iterating the centrality of the party’s democratic policy-making processes in drawing up the Lib Dem general election manifesto. It was a carefully coded warning to the leadership to stop announcing and dropping policies – whether in media interviews or via think-tank pamphlets – without warning or debate.

The party’s leadership seems to have taken this amendment not as a sign of compromise but of weakness, and has spent the last week – with talk of “savage” cuts, downgrading the tuition fees commitment, announcing the ‘mansion tax’ – upping the ante. It’s almost as if the party leadership has been trying to provoke party activists, rather than (the usual complaint) the other way around.

Now I’m more of a believer in cock-up than conspiracy. I don’t actually think either Nick Clegg or Vince Cable set out with the deliberate intention of bouncing the conference into accepting their preferred policies. I imagine it was more a case of slightly careless complacency. Its effect, though, has been to upset not only the ‘usual suspects’, but also to rile those – and I include myself in their number – who are loyal and sympathetic to the leadership’s position, and recognise the difficult economic and political circumstances we face, but do not take kindly to the party’s settled will being ridden roughshod over.

Personally, I am in favour of university tuition fees; but the party has had that debate, and I was on the losing side. As a democrat, I accept I’m in a minority in my views, and am happy enough that that there are lots of other Lib Dem policies I do agree with, and on which I am happy to campaign. Those are the compromises you make when you join – or lead – a political party.

There is so much that unites this party, and only a relatively small fraction which divides us. It is a shame the latter has been more on display than the former this week.

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  • ‘Now I’m more of a believer in cock-up than conspiracy. I don’t actually think either Nick Clegg or Vince Cable set out with the deliberate intention of bouncing the conference into accepting their preferred policies.

    Shambles would be a better description.

  • Martin Kinsella 23rd Sep '09 - 1:43pm

    It is a real shame how this conference has panned out.

    We can only hope Labour and the Tories do worse than us.

    I like the “manion tax” but as has been pointed out it cannot play well in those southern seats we are trying to hold from and take off the Tories.

  • Iain Roberts 23rd Sep '09 - 3:40pm

    Perhaps I’ve visited the wrong places, but I don’t know where these seats filled with Lib Dem voters in million-pound properties who will now desert us are meant to be. So they supported us when we proposed Local Income Tax and when we proposed a 50p top rate of tax for high earners but now they’ll vote Tory?

  • Grammar Police 23rd Sep '09 - 4:32pm

    I have to admit at being a little confused about the whole tuition fees stuff. I don’t believe it was raised ‘by accident’ – and think it was probably to point out to the public that we could make difficult decisions by suggesting we might slaughter a couple of the sacred cows (or at least put them in a van and drive them in the general direction of the abbatoir). It also grabbed headlines. It’s odd, because obviously a Lib Dem Government would prioritise different spending commitments because of “events”, despite what the FPC or the manifesto says. Even more so, there are plenty of policies I’m sure that the FPC won’t push in the manifesto. If we’re not going to be able to afford it in a first term, then why mention it at all now? Why not just put in the manifesto that we’ll aim to do it in a second Government?

    I think the Vince ‘Mansion Tax’ was possibly a little different. It’s obviously Vince’s job to come up with plans to make the finances work, even as it’s conference’s job to create policy, and at some point he must disucss these. I think there was also a sense of needing something eye-catching to pull out of the hat, and possibly this has backfired a little just because MPs are obviously a little annoyed. In electoral terms, I do wonder (a) how many people with million pound properties already vote for us, and (b) of those how many will be put off by this. My feeling is that the answer to (a) is fairly small, and that (b) will be miniscule. I think Iain, above, is correct on this.

    Perhaps this is intended to show to the public that our activists and MPs are not ‘clone politicians’ who do exactly what the leadership says, and to highlight that we are a democratic party . . . !!!!

  • Liberal Neil 23rd Sep '09 - 4:44pm

    A very strong analysis, Stephen, which i’m sure reflects the feelings of many.

    Hopefully Nick’s speech taoday will be the start of putting this stuff behind us so that we can get on and put together a manifesto that we can all unite behind.

  • Ruth Bright 24th Sep '09 - 4:16pm

    Speaking as a conference junkie who stayed at home I can only judge things by the coverage in the media and LDV. Three thoughts:

    1. Stephen and Neil – Although I didn’t agree with all you said I thought you both had a great conference. Well done!

    2. It is very sad to hear all the anti-activist language spouted by the powers that be. Chris Huhne was on BBC News24
    yesterday making patronising remarks about how the activists had to catch up with current economic realities. Ming Campbell was on the Andrew Neil programme praising Nick Clegg for taking on the party. Funny how party members come in handy when there are leaflets to deliver but get treated like the ‘enemy within’ when certain MPs want to look macho in the media.

    3. Glad I spent my registration money on taking the children to Bournemouith last month instead!

  • These battles should have been faught long before now – yes there are changing economic circumstances but this conference should have been about inspiring activists to be fighting on the doorstep not a dispiriting fight against them. Lib Dem seats are not won by this kind of media game playing – which didn’t get much coverage anyway (barring the mansion tax). They are won by the hardwork of activists who should be respected. In my view Nick’s made some quite fundemental strategic errors this week, let’s just hope he’s learnt enough and quickly enough to turn this around.

    I for one left conference a very dispirited member with little left to make me want to fight the party’s corner. Prime Minister Nick? Even I don’t believe that.

  • Why on earth anyone should be particularly surprised about all this defeats me. After all, David Steel used to complain about being wrapped up in cotton wool by the Liberal Assemblies of the 1970s and 1980s, before anyone had even thought about 24 hour news channels!

    I can see both sides of this. On the one hand, the leadership needs the flexibility to make some decisions quickly – those 24 hour news outlets don’t generally wait for a considered, consulted response and if you ain’t there at the time then tough. On the other, one of the founding principles of our party is that it is democratic and allows members the chance to vote on policy (indirectly at least, via conference representatives – I still prefer allowing any memebr to turn up and vote) and “bouncing” members into a decision is disliked (as Paddy Ashdown found out on more than one occasion.)

    The problem really comes with the launch of these policy documents during July and August, for approval at conference. They are presented in the media – though not necessarily to the media – as being new party policy, and the speeches and soundbites eminating from them effectively declare them as such. But they’re not, as they’ve not been approved by Conference.

    What I think was lost in the argument around tuition fees was that we have to accept that, if we were to win outright next year, we wouldn’t be able to do everything we wanted to in 2005 simply because of the financial position. This isn’t a situation which would only affect the Liberal Democrats – it would affect the Tories and Labour just as much. Given that, we have to accept that decisions will have to be made as to what we could and couldn’t do. The only reason the Tories won’t have this argument is because they’ve not proposed any firm policies yet.

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