Opinion: The disaster of Bournemouth was avoidable

This was always going to be a disastrous conference. We have spent our annual opportunity to reach out to people by communicating a confused image. When the country needed hope, vision and leadership we offered it the ‘straight talk of progressive austerity’.

This disaster was foreseeable.

It was made from a dangerous mixture of a wrong political strategy (based on a wrong economic strategy) added to a leadership and a communications team which had very, very little political experience.

Ming Campbell and Vince Cable when they came to conference as leaders had to be stabilisers with a reassuring role. Before them, Charles Kennedy was a leader who was in philosophical accord with the party conference, and who was fortunate in the people who ran our campaigns and communications during that period.

So, the last time that a Lib Dem leader came to a conference with a similarly volatile cocktail was Paddy Ashdown in the mid-1990s, when he was endeavouring to persuade conference to drop equidistance from Labour.

That was nearly 15 years ago. Were Nick Clegg, Danny Alexander, John Sharkey even at conference at that time? Possibly not. So they and their team had absolutely no idea what might happen, and how to avoid the consequences of a leader being at such variance with the great majority of conference.

As speaker after speaker on behalf of the Leadership has said, “We don’t know the figures so we can’t rule anything in to our manifesto.” A corresponding logic is that there is no evidence to force us to rule anything out yet.

1977 has lessons for us in 2009. The Callaghan IMF crisis should teach us one thing. There is nothing so uncertain as economic predictions. When the dust settled, the cuts of that time weren’t necessary and led to greater unemployment, and eventually 10 years of Thatcherism.

Today there is still a great danger of deflation and escalating unemployment, with the misery and community tensions that these would let loose. We need public expenditure to provide the infrastructure, education and training (including undergraduate take-up) and political reform that will ‘Rebuild Britain’ (afresh if you like) economically, socially, culturally and politically.

So, we didn’t have to have a fight about tuition fees, and we did have a wonderful story to tell, and a great campaign to ‘Build Britain Anew’ to launch.

Cable has squandered some of his inheritance. Before this week, and perhaps afterwards still, he is the only person with the weight to convince the public of the economic need for that great campaign. I don’t know him at all. But he needs to become a team player bloody quickly.

Clegg has demonstrated his inexperience, his lack of weight, and his establishment perspective. (I worry that some of the pressure on Cable today comes not just from the more social liberals but also, as Thomas a Becket and Mo Mowlam, found to their cost from a leader’s coterie). Clegg and his colleagues must not fear Cable’s popularity; he must improve his own performance and find a fit with both Cable and his Parliamentary Party.

Clegg therefore needs to use the weeks of the Labour and Tory conferences to refashion his team radically into one that can help him lead the anti-establishment movement that is waiting throughout the country for a lead.

We still face an economic, a cultural and a democratic crisis. Our approach, our policies, our appeal – our narrative, if you like – is indeed made for this moment. This moment is not defined by our position in relation to other parties. Those other parties are considered by the rest of the country as being the problem.

This moment is defined by our relation to the people of this country. Our ability to reach out to them in an hour of great need is through our members, our councillors and our members of the parliaments through an integrated campaign of renaissance, renewal and revival.

We must bring forward a great plan of Reform. Reform of the economy. Reform of the way the State too often enslaves rather than liberates. Reform of our culture that too often divides, excludes, atomises and bullies. And, above all, we need the political reform of STV (not AVS!)

In short, we must energise and direct the emerging movement for reform and renewal.

* William le Breton is a former chair and president of the Association of Liberal Democrat Councillors.

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  • I wasnt at conference but I dont recognise your description. There were some minor squabbles, some great speeches & the only thing most voters will have noticed, The Mansion Tax was widely popular. It was a good conference & the only poll so far shows us up. The media were mostly negative, they nearly always are & they have far less influence than they imagine.

  • Herbert Brown 26th Sep '09 - 11:08am

    Disaster? What disaster?

    YouGov poll:
    CON 39%(-2), LAB 26%(-1), LDEM 20%(+3)

  • Terry Gilbert 26th Sep '09 - 11:52am

    I suppose that being ‘Made for the Moment’ one might have hoped for more than +3%, though? I recall the SDP on 50%…(perhaps they were ‘Made for the Moment That There Wasn’t an Election’.)

    Plumbus is right in one way – the vast majority of voters will not even have registered ANYTHING AT ALL about Conference, whatever the media said. In terms of coverage, it is important, but not that important. The few weeks of the election campaign is far and away more important, because of the requirement for balanced TV coverage. If we don’t put on 5-10% during the campaign, it will have been an abject failure.

    This is not to say that Conference is not important in other respects. This week, at the last possible opportunity, the social liberals (or at least, those whom David Howarth would call the more ‘maximalist’ ones) scored an important points victory over tuition fees – the first in several years. Who knows, it might even re-inspire some disillusioned activists! It could well be crucial for the future dirction of the party, and was a clear shot across the bows of those who might ally us to the Tories (without getting STV in return – the only price worth exacting for even a very, very temporary alliance with the party of anti-progress – and even then, I’d still take some convincing they wouldn’t stab us in the back).

  • Herbert Brown 26th Sep '09 - 12:27pm

    Well, I suppose it only goes to show that any publicity is good publicity.

  • Before the conference most voters didn’t know what Lib Dem policies were,now LIb Dems don’t know either.

    Savage cuts yes or no?

    Mansion tax yes or no?

    Scrap tuition fees yes or no?

    Scrap Trident yes or no?

    Scrap child benefit for the middle classes yes or no?

  • Roger Roberts 26th Sep '09 - 2:04pm

    Bill – I’m back from Bournemouth – a succesful Conference – a leader to be proud of. Policies – way ahead of the other parties. Disaster ?

  • Bill is a bit OTT but he does have a point, There was not a great ‘Yes We Can’ moment to give the country hope.

    ( well there might have been but I never noticed it in the media coverage)

    I do think Vince should have briefed all possible spokespeople about the Mansion Tax – which may go down well with Labour voters.

    Overall as good as we can expect with the dire quality of political journalism that we get in UK these days.
    Especially the BBC which is obsessed with personalities and how clever clever its staffers are at ‘digging the dirt’ rather than reporting the policies ( and that goes for all parties )

  • I don’t even agree with the notion that the media were negative – the Lib Dems’ willingness to talk of specific cuts is garnering favourable comment in the mainstream media (Times, Economist).

    The conference was only a disaster for that element within the party which has trouble even contemplating spending cuts – they are out of tune with mainstream opinion.

  • Our poll figures usually rise after Conference, simply because – yes, almost any publicity is good. In two weeks, they’ll be back down again, when our opponents have had their publicity boosts.

    OK, if we’ve had a rise this time, then our performance hasn’t been a real big disaster. Unfortunately, we could have done with a triumph…

  • Herbert Brown 26th Sep '09 - 11:34pm

    “mainstream media (Times, Economist) … mainstream opinion”

    Well, if the only thing we need to do is agree with whatever right-wing newspapers tell us is the correct opinion, we can save a lot of time, money and trouble by installing Rupert Murdoch as President-for-Life.

  • If this conference doesn’t qualify as a disaster then nothing could.

    That it hasn’t damaged the Lib Dems in the polls doesn’t prove that it was a good conference, it just proves that no one was really listening and conference is electorally insignificant.

  • I thought referring to the Times and the Economist as ‘mainstream’ might elicit a hostile response. It just reflects the fact that its mostly people within the party who want the conference to be perceived as a disaster – in the hope it will stop Nick Clegg and Vince Cable moving the party to the centre (occasionally even the centre-right) as the current climate necessitates.

  • Liberal Neil 27th Sep '09 - 2:25pm

    Matt – I don’t think all those unhappy with conference fail to appreciate the need to reduce the deficit. My unhappiness was down to the leadership’s inability to stick with one coherent message.

  • Herbert Brown 27th Sep '09 - 3:20pm

    “I thought referring to the Times and the Economist as ‘mainstream’ might elicit a hostile response.”

    As you surely realise, what I was objecting to was your implicit assumption that whatever those newspapers say must be right.

    You need to argue the case on its merits, rather than just saying “My opponents are wrong because they disagree with what the newspapers say”.

  • sanbikinoraion 28th Sep '09 - 12:13pm

    ComRes latest has LibDems and Labour evens on 23%.

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