Opinion: Looking through the tea leaves of Liverpool

What a strange few months it’s been for the Liberal Democrats. In Bournemouth a year ago, few LibDems would have truly believed that this was to be their last annual conference in opposition.

My sense of the mood in Liverpool this year was that it matched the political and economic times we live in. Serious, but somewhat apprehensive. There seemed a lot of quiet satisfaction – although never smugness – that there were Liberal Democrats in government, but a nervousness about what the “end game” might be.

A few things truly surprised me. Support for the principle of entering Coalition with the Conservatives was close to unanimous. A straw poll at the IEA’s fringe meeting showed about 95% felt that Nick Clegg had made the right decision in those tense few days after the General Election. The national media were, of course, on the look out for any sign of coalition-fatigue, but seemed initially disappointed – and then rather impressed – about the absence of much strategic dissent.

But looking through the tea leaves of Liverpool, there are some longer term issues which the party will have to address. The first is the status – or lack of it – of the policy-making machinery. The passage of a motion critical of free schools may have caused just a few jitters in the leader’s entourage, but pretty much everybody else shrugged their shoulders. Not only was the government going to completely ignore the decision of conference, but LibDem MPs would do so too. And rightly so. What then is the real point of Liberal Democrat party policy? Sure, conference reps can point at a piece of paper and insist “that is our official policy”, but so what?

Secondly, Nick Clegg has a fight on his hands to try and reframe a Liberal Democrat approach to “fairness”. I wish him well in doing so, but he will need to try harder than he did in Liverpool. Many Liberal Democrats – or at least the most vocal ones – still take a “bar chart” approach to fairness. A policy which has the effect of improving the immediate financial position of the relatively poor at the expense of the relatively affluent is deemed “fair”. Little or no attention is given to dynamic effects. Nick Clegg – and the Coalition as a whole – are surely right to argue that the challenge for government is not simply to shift someone’s income from £9,000 to £10,000 per annum through redistributive mechanisms, but to provide such people with the opportunities and incentives to rapidly ascend the income ladder. Liberal Democrat activists, however, have yet to fully buy in to this approach.

Finally, no one seems to have fully addressed the question of how the Liberal Democrats can maintain a separate and distinct political identity as junior Coalition partners. Or whether it’s even possible to do so. Vince Cable may have stretched Cabinet collective responsibility to the limits with his rather off-piste and ill-judged broadside against capitalist “spivs”, but that hardly amounts to a distinct identity – let alone a liberal one. This is going to be the real challenge – and the largest area of disagreement – at Liberal Democrat conferences in years to come.

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10 Comments

  • Tony Greaves 24th Sep '10 - 5:21pm

    I am sure my life and that of many Liberal Democrats would improve if Mark LIttlewood stopped meddling in the party he is no longer a member of. But since his piece is here…

    (1) Do not be misled that the “government” will “completely ignore” decisions of our conference. Actually they matter in ways in which they never mattered in the past. Government involves a huge amount of negotiation, discussion, decisions – over priorities more than policies or even laws, and administration as much as policy. The Academies Bill is (unfortunately) now law. But the effort put into the academies programme and how it will be done, are all to play for. The political dynamics of the coalition and within the political world as a whole matter a lot and have changed as a result of the conference motion.

    (2) Littlewood is right about the importance of sorting out what we mean by fairness. A main issue is that of how far fairness implies – or is compatible with – meritocracy. Littlewood is clearly an out and out meritocrat. I don’t think we are.

    (3) Of course the issue of political identity is crucial. Has Vince Cable stretched collective responsibility to the limits in his (excellent and very well-judged) speech and remarks? It may be that he has just opened up a few cracks which will be nothing compared with what is yet to come – and has to do so.

    Tony Greaves

  • It’s not often that something posted on LibDem Voice makes me really angry, but this did: “Sure, conference reps can point at a piece of paper and insist “that is our official policy”, but so what?” Well, the “So What?” is that Liberal Democrat activists do not, I hope, have the same supine attitude to the Party’s leadership and members of parliament as those of the Labour and Conservative Parties, and if the leadership tries to brush off the activists with an arrogant sneer like that then it will pay the price. The Party’s activists have been magnificent in their support for the leadership and the coalition and in adapting from an oppositional mode, in which we have all spent our whole lives, to one of constructiveness and compromise: we will not put up with being belittled by Clegg and his advisors though.

  • Independent thought alert! Independent thought alert! Mark Littlewood makes people angry!

    Tonyhill – you claim that activists “will not put up with being belittled by Clegg”?

    You are, and you will. Why? Because you have no power to change otherwise. For the next 5 years Clegg will continue to drive the party endlessly rightwards. He has shown consistently since taking the party firmly to the Right (did he ask your permission? Did he ask mine? Did he give any idea, clue or hint that we would be a party to the Right of the Tories?) that he cares not a jot what the party thinks.

    The issue of identity is key. Dave Cameron is exactly where he wants to be – and has our party exactly where he wants it to be. That is in his pocket and indistinguishable from the Tories. I genuinely and honestly believe that the Tory party intends to destroy the Liberal Democrat party by 2015 by tearing it apart. Scoff if you like – but by taking back the South West and Scottish non-Labour/SNP seats from our party they will be clear to revert to 2 party politics.

    I’ve made my choice. Once the Labour leader is announced tomorrow – I will go either Labour or Green. Clegg has made his. Liberals are now an addendum to the Tory party.

    When will you make yours?

  • Liberals are now an addendum to the Tory party

    @Cuse: Yawn.

  • If you can make that choice Cuse you are not a Liberal. I am.

  • It is always clear through his media interviews that Littlewood believes profoundly in his own merit. His intensely unrealistic idea that “people must accelerate rapidly up the income scale” shows that he doesn’t understand the lives of the majority of his fellow citizens, or the fact that while we have such a “steep” income ladder, there will always be deprived people below the middle. Until we move back to some kind of effective income redistribution, we will not have an overall effect. All the warm words about improving education etc are just that.

  • Anthony Aloysius St 25th Sep '10 - 12:38pm

    “Highly doubtful that a poll of attendees at an IEA fringe would be valid to extrapolate to more general conference attendees, members or voters; anyone attending such an event must surely fall in the small self selecting group of members yet to realise that they’re the ones of whom Labour could fairly say they’re Tories.”

    Of course, YouGov did ask Lib Dem members whether they approved of the decision to go into coalition with the Tories. The result was that 30% strongly approved, 48% tended to approve, 14% tended to disapprove and 7% strongly disapproved.

    Together with the fact that only 29% thought the coalition’s deficit reduction plans were right in terms of both timing and emphasis, that suggests to me that support for the coalition among members is much less robust than Littlewood’s “close to unanimous” would suggest.

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