The Independent View: the ippr on ‘The future of politics itself’ #ldconf

I’m Carey Oppenheim and I’m Co-Director of the Institute for Public Policy Research (ippr), the UK’s leading progressive think tank. If you have been to the Liberal Democrat conference before you may have been to one of our events.

The debate dominating the conferences this year is the future of politics itself – ippr is hosting a key event at each of the three main conferences where leading figures will discuss how to renew trust in politics and the crucial issues facing us in the coming general election.

To open up the debate, ippr and Lib Dem Voice are asking party members for their ideas and opinions on how politics needs to change and the challenges facing the party and country. We will put your views directly to the politicians at our events. We feel this is particularly important in the climate where faith in politics, political institutions and our politicians has been battered. So we need to bring people in to the heart of the debate. In this instance that means party members, not just the people who usually attend conference or the people on our panel. We want to include your views directly in the discussion.

IPPR believes that there are three key issues facing the Lib Dems at conference this year:

1. Nick Clegg has recently indicated his commitment to scaling down some of the different spending commitments that your party has traditionally espoused, and to focusing on several specific priorities which are funded from reductions in the public finances. Conference will tell us a great deal about whether the party agrees with these priorities, and if the membership is behind the approach to the recession which Nick Clegg and Vince Cable have proposed.

2. Another key theme will be what the changing political scene means for the political direction of the Lib Dems. Is Nick Clegg’s idea of ‘equi-distance’ between Tories and Labour still viable given the ascendancy of the Tories and the apparent collapse of Labour’s support? Should your party be staking its claim to the major voice of opposition to the likely future policies of the Conservatives? Is it time for a bolder social liberalism and more policies to protect the most vulnerable?

3. A third issue is how the Lib Dems can have a stronger presence in some of the key policy debates of the day. Nick Clegg has been able to get much more of a hearing over last few months, and Vince Cable remains a respected sage on the economy. But why do the Lib Dems’ struggle to be heard on crime, education, health and housing? What needs to change for your party to become a major influence on debate in these areas?

These will be among the key issues in what promises to be a key event for the Lib Dems as you gear up for the general election of 2010. I hope you will contribute to the debate – see below to find out how.

LDV’s editor Stephen Tall writes … In the lead-up to this week’s Lib Dem autumn conference in Bournemouth, Lib Dem Voice is conducting a survey of our 1,000+ Forum members – designed jointly with the Institute for Public Policy Research (ippr) – on the recent political and economic crises. The poll’s findings will tie-in with a conference fringe event on the theme, ‘The end of politics as we know it?’, (1pm, Tue 22 Sept). Many thanks to the 200+ of you who have already taken part.

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This entry was posted in LDV Members poll, Op-eds and The Independent View.


  • How do i take part ?

  • Liberal Eye 14th Sep '09 - 5:33pm

    Good questions but perhaps easiest to answer in reverse order.

    The Lib Dem’s modern history (the last 30 years or so) has been dominated by a fight back from the edge of extinction led by local activists via community politics. This has been a huge success but it has reached a plateau – witness the stalling of support in Westminster opinion polling at circa 20% and the lack of impact in the policy areas you cite.

    Therefore over this 30 years or so the national stage was never where it was at in Lib Dem land. Obviously one had to go through the motions but the consequence was policies largely contained to well-worn ruts (which is not to say that many weren’t basically right). The result is a party machine good at trundling on in a set direction but one that has little feel for policy, where some policies are a decade or two past their sell-by date, where ‘intellectual entryism’ by socialist or other thinking is all too common and where there is an ongoing inability to develop and articulate a credible narrative. The result is a policy ‘lucky dip’ which has little coherence – a point siezed on by Labour and Conservatives.

    If this is to change, the leadership (and I mean the institutional parts such as the Federal Exec and FPC as well as Nick Clegg) has to identify the policy weakness as a key strategic weakness. They need to ask themselves if the Party’s underperformance in these areas is because they have systematically employed the wrong people in policy roles or if it’s because (far, far more likely in my view) they have presided over an organisational culture in which challenging thinking – thinking outside the box – is subtly unwelcome. Occasional comments from those close to the leadership (eg one fomer member commenting that, “I was on the FE for two years and still have no idea what it’s for”) suggest a crucial lack of direction at the top.

    This leads naturally to the second question. To define your politics in relation to others (whether equidistant or some other formulation) is a receipe for failure; in particular it invites the media to endlessly obsess about who Lib Dems would partner with in the event of a hung Parliament. The Lib Dems exist to represent a liberal tradition that remains relevant. Indeed, the lack of liberalism for nearly 100 years has a lot to do with our national predicament; for several decades the UK has followed a socialist mirage then changed tack to follow a neoliberal (ie not-at-all-liberal) Thatcherite fantasy which has been continued by NuLabour. It is hardly surprising if some in Scotland and Wales think they could do better while in England support for minor parties is growing.

    I suspect that a genuinely liberal policy mix would look very strange to those schooled in the stale binary norms of recent decades. Some bits will seem excessively conservative, others will seem impossibly radical. But then I’ve always rejected as overly simplistic the traditional left-right characterisation of politics. We need a Party that’s brave enough to break the mold instead dancing to the tune of opinion polsters and marketing gurus.

    And so to the first question I would say that Nick Clegg needs to articulate a coherent world view about he in particular and the Lib Dems in general would run the country. He needs to work out where the pressure points are that make a difference and how to apply leverage to each without spending lots of taxpayers money and he needs to set out a clear vision for the role of government.

    Has he done this yet? Not really. He’s getting there but too slowly. In particular I see little evidence that he has found a way to galvanise the policy process. (Hint: stop trying to do it top-down and find a way effectively to hoover up the expertise that undoubtedly exists among the membership (and fellow travellers who might become members). The not-very-exact parallel here is how Obama managed to raise so much money in small donations).

  • Liberal Eye 14th Sep '09 - 5:56pm

    I just rediscovered this post by Paul Walter questioning what the Party President and Federal Exec are for and getting no answer whatsoever.

    The proposition that a Party that cannot effectively manage itself should nevertheless run the country is one I have some difficulty with. So do most other voters.

  • Paul Griffiths 14th Sep '09 - 7:31pm

    The proposition that most other voters know or care how the party manages itself is one I have some difficulty with.

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