Opinion: Après les conférences

I doubt if the conference season has changed the political landscape. The Liberal Democrats were ill-disciplined; Labour was defiant in face of expectations of defeat; and the Conservatives were trying not to be overconfident — with only partial success.

Peter Riddell, The Times, 9 October 2009

It is easier to write from a position of ignorance rather than knowledge. Unlike Riddell this was the first time I have been to a party conference but that may leave the view clearer. The general opinion is that Lib Dems and Tories missed a chance and Labour avoided disaster by ignoring reality.

The Liberal Democrat and Conservative leadership made the same strategic judgment to tackle head-on the problems raised by the blooming budget deficit and both offered at least some practical indications of where the pain might be felt.

Why was the Liberal Democrat conference perceived to be worse? Partly, because the Lib Dems do not have the same practical need to face up to the budget crisis, but was it “ill-discipline”?

If there was ill-discipline it was not found in division. There was none, at least not amongst the delegates.

Ill-discipline as lack of focus or dissipated effort? That was more in evidence. There was remarkably little sense of the threat from the Conservatives across the south – from Taunton to Eastleigh to North Norfolk. Most people seemed quietly confident, despite long experience of our electoral system turning small swings into great landslides.

There was much discussion about policy but campaigning mission was less in evidence – although there were lots of good training sessions. There were receptions for the Devon and Cornwall delegates and – oddly – for Yorkshire. London did not qualify and nor did the rest of southern England. No one would expect the party to focus entirely on target seats at a conference but, given the threat across England, it was surprising that there was no attempt to bring regional delegates together, to introduce those defending or seeking key seats and to encourage people towards working in those seats for the next 8 months. I did not get a sense of a campaigning body building up to an election. There will be time enough for policy next year.

The sense of energy and activity around the leading MPs was remarkable. They seemed to move from one engagement to the next, barely stopping actually to attend the event they were at. Did this activity serve any purpose? This audience needs no preaching to; by definition they are converted already. The time might have been better spent chatting to – and listening to members. People would remember that much more than another speech about the economy or civil liberties.

The real mess-up was in policy. A key identifier, abolition of tuition fees, was seemingly down-graded. Key groups of supporters, in particular public sector workers, were singled out to suffer particularly from the effects of the recession. The key new policy, the “mansion tax”, reverses years of attempts (rightly or wrongly) to reduce the burden of property taxes, reportedly seen as unfair by many on fixed incomes, especially in the south. The other parties were careful, even if warning of trouble ahead, not to drop pet policies or antagonise key supporters.

Labour ignored the situation and made lots of spending commitments. The Tories said they offered cuts but listed nothing to hurt their core supporters. The Lib Dems are right to try to be more than this, but our electoral system insists that parties represent either regions or interests. This is a bad thing and should be changed. The dilemma is that no system can be changed by those who don’t work with it and the Lib Dem conference appeared to have specified only policies which will hurt our core support.

The next once-in-a-generation chance, ‘the next 1983’, will probably be in 2015. Contrary to what Mandelson said, it is third parties that must be insurgencies. In a word that is what seemed to be missing from Bournemouth.

And back to Riddell – well, in my ignorance, I think his experience got it about right.

* David Lawson is a Lib Dem member in Lewisham and first time conference-goer.

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  • ‘The key new policy, the “mansion tax”’

    This is not a policy, it was an idea launched by Vince. For it to be policy it needs to go through conference not just be announced by a spokesperson.

  • Andrew Suffield 16th Oct '09 - 11:45am

    People who are familiar with the two parties that run on military-style command-and-control hierarchies seem to have difficulty grasping the notion that the Lib Dems do not operate in that style, do not want to operate in that style, and find it incompatible with their basic ideals. Hence, they deride the party as ‘ill-disciplined’, failing to realise that Lib Dems don’t think that kind of ‘discipline’ is a good idea. Then when the normal debate of differing opinions occurs, they decry it as a failure of discipline, as if that ever existed in the first place!

    It’s a straightforward disagreement on a fundamental point, but the opposition seems unwilling to admit that disagreement is even possible.

  • There was an East of England reception, a North-West & Scotland reception, a North-East & Yorkshire reception and a Devon, Cornwall & South-West reception. I know this because I went to all of them at some point :p I believe the Midlands, London and South-East preferred to sponsor or hold other events instead.

    That said, a conference should do more to reassure both voters and campaigners. there was too much unease in Bournemouth to do much of either this year.

  • Well, I certainly went to a South East/South Central reception at which key seat candidates were introduced and we were encouraged to campaign for them. Perhaps it was a mirage but I rather thought not at the time, having had to help to clear up first after the previous reception from a northern region!

  • Bill le Breton 16th Oct '09 - 4:38pm

    David, thank you for this excellent post. It is useful to us all to have the benefit of your fresh eyes on this subject.
    I do not go along with the Riddell et al myth that Liberal and, after them, Liberal Democrat conferences are ill-disciplined.
    The great forging houses of our political activity are council campaigns and you don’t win as many as we do by being ill-disciplined.
    When we have been accused of ill-discipline it has usually been because a leader has ignored political realities and not only branched out on his own, but carefully told the press in advance that that was what they would be doing; uping the ante. In their time Steel, Owen, Ashdown, Campbell and Clegg have all done it.
    Interestingly many of the same ‘advisers’ were to be found in the bunkers of all those leaders.
    As you identify, this year the Leader came to try yet again to reverse our greatest policy differentiator. Not satisfied with this he also endeavoured to alienate virtually every sector of our core vote. On top of all this, he also decided to position himself to the right of the Conservatives by articulating the economically illiterate and politically suicidal need for ‘savage cuts’.
    Conferences of all parties test the management skills of their Leaderships. This September our conference was mis-managed, not by the representatives, not by Conference Committee but by the political managers, the Leadership.
    But the greatest value of your post is to remind us that a third party must be an insurgency. It must be anti-establishment, especially at a time when the public has lost confidence in established politics.
    Our leader has the disadvantage over many at Conference of having won his first seat on a party list system and his second by inheriting the product of someone else’s insurgency. He is not an instinctive insurgent as was illustrated by his lacklustre leadership campaign. He has also chosen to surround himself with those who yearn to form the next establishment.
    When he sacks them and turns to the real campaigners in the Parliamentary Party, the Prospective Parliamentary Party and in Local Government he will be at one with a conference made up of hard bitten insurgents and, together with these, he’ll lead our Party through the subterranean world of an uprising and into second place next year. But time and opportunities are running out.

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