Simple pressure of work prevented me from attending or even commenting on the course of the Liberal Democrat conference in Bournemouth. Having spoken to several attendees and of course absorbed some of the coverage, it seems like it was one to miss. That is in itself a disappointment. The last conference before a general election should be a constructive and energetic one,and though in different ways I think all three party conferences are set to be slightly anti-climactic, for the Liberal Democrats not to make the most of their coverage is very much a wasted opportunity.
The problem for the Liberal Democrats is that the media narrative continues to be defined by a two party system. The media assume that politics is a binary choice and that sooner of later it comes down to which other party the Lib Dems choose, and here's the rub: the Liberal democrats are actually very divided about both strategy and tactics in dealing with the other two parties. Electorally our primary battle remains with the Conservatives - we contest more seats against the Tories than against Labour, and historically a recovery of the Conservatives generally means the eclipse of the Liberal/Liberal Democrat vote. The result is that the battles between Conservative and Liberal Democrat seems to have far more needle than might seem strictly necessary. It certainly helps explain why so many Lib Dems in the conference hall wanted to mix it at least as much with the Conservatives as with the dying Labour administration. Indeed, listening to Shirley Williams, it was hard not to think that the only values of the party that the leadership recognised were those of Social Liberalism. It was therefore a certain irony that in the past defectors from Labour have been welcomed, while defectors from the Conservatives were sometimes received with short shrift.
Yet the fear of being swamped by a resurgent Conservative tide may be misplaced. A recent poll of marginal constituencies suggests limited Conservative inroads into the Liberal Democrats, indeed the Lib Dems may yet gain seats over all. The question now becomes one of what our ideological battlelines should be. Clearly Nick Clegg is now setting out his positions to attract a large block of defecting Labour voters, and so it is understandable that Social Liberalism is being given more prominence over Economic Liberalism. Indeed I did see on a blog recently- which shall remain nameless- that the Economic Liberalism of the German FDP was the "wrong" Liberalism. Anyone who could write such nonsense needs to go through a crash course in Liberal history and values. It does serve, however to underline the frustrations of the more Libertarian Liberal Democrats- and Jock Coats' comments may be unpopular, but his concerns about some Lib Dem positions are well taken.
The fact is -as the conference demonstrated- the party needs to pull its socks up if it is going to be a success in government. It is not an accident that the Scottish Liberal Democrats are more economically Liberal than the English Party. The Scottish Party- unlike the Federal Party- has had to face the responsibilities of government, and if power forces compromises, it also forces you to clarify what your real priorities actually are. In Scotland we had to set out several clear policies: free personal care for the elderly, for example, and as part of a coalition negotiation to make sure that as many of these policies as possible could actually happen. However, the Scottish Liberal Democrats also had to define the ethos of the party far more clearly. In Scotland that meant defining ourselves against the Labour establishment. Though, in the short term we have been somewhat drowned out by the rise of the SNP, nevertheless the Scottish Party remains much more ideologically coherent than the Federal Party now is and is set to be quite resilient at the next general election.
This then poses a question for the Liberal Democrats. let us assume, as now seems likely, that the Conservatives obtain the largest share of the vote but that they fall short of a working majority after the next election. The Liberal Democrats may have a choice as to whether to put either a Conservative or Labour Prime Minister into office. It could be the dream scenario for the Lib Dems.
What will the leadership do about it?
On the evidence of Bournemouth, they may be tempted to think of it in terms of political tactics. However in my view, the time has come to think strategically and to put the Liberal Democrat ideas of constitutional reform firmly at the top of the political agenda. Instead of talking about whether the choice is David Cameron or Gordon Brown in office- which for the majority of Liberal Democrats is the choice of being hanged or being shot- we must talk about what we would insist upon in order to support any other government. Party strategists fear that this is an admission of weakness, yet, in my view it propels the policy choices, and not the party choices to the front of public notice.
If either Gordon Brown or David Cameron wanted Liberal Democrat support there must be a full programme of constitutional reform. The House of Lords and the House of Commons should be thoroughly reformed- and the total number of Parliamentarians must fall. The constitutional place of Parliament must be restored, with clear lines drawn between Westminster, Cardiff, Holyrood and Stormont. The political power of the Crown prerogative- i.e. the Prime Minister- must either be placed under Parliament or the PM should be directly elected. Above all, there must be a change to a voting system that allows all parties gaining more than 5% of the vote to be represented fairly in Parliament so that every elector has an equal chance of getting the MPs that they vote for. No more "safe seats"- the 21st century of "Rotten Boroughs"- must be allowed. In my view explaining to the electorate that the vast majority of rogue expenses claims came from MPs with "safe seats" usually wins the argument.
The Liberal Democrat leadership, by waffling about Social Justice, is missing the point: the party has been in the vanguard of demands for a complete overhaul of the political process for decades, and now there is an opportunity to show with great clarity that the Liberal Democrats are asking not just for a change in the party of government, but a change in the system of government. Bournemouth was a cantankerous and waffly waste - yet if Nick Clegg wants to snatch victory from the jaws of defeat, now is the time to revert to the deepest roots of the Party and its highest principles.
As of today I do not see such clarity and without it, the challenges of facing the economic crisis; the decisions to made in Afghanista; the need for radical changes to the public sector, and the profound sense of national ennui can not be addressed either. The Liberal Democrats need to renew their focus and order their priorities. Discipline and leadership are now required from Nick Clegg, Chris Fox and all the leaders of the party.
Without it then the Lib Dems will face decline at the next election.
With it, the battle for political reform may yet be won- and far sooner than we ever dared hope.