Tuesday, September 21, 2010

The healthy state of the Lib Dems

Just a few brief observations on the Lib Dem conference in Liverpool:

The expected media narrative of party splits and challenges to the leadership and the coalition was never going to happen. The party in a special conference in Birmingham just after the election had already agreed to support the Clegg leadership- even knowing that the coalition was going to be at times quite uncomfortable. In fact the ritual leadership defeat, this time on "free schools" was fairly half hearted and, given the government's significant failures of presentation, totally expected. In fact the conference has been marked more by sycophancy to Nick Clegg rather than challenges to his leadership (If I hear "I agree with Nick" once more, I reserve the right to puke).

The news of significant growth in party membership and party coffers is very interesting and rather off-sets the Labour narrative (enthusiastically promoted by the BBC and the Guardian as the conference began) that the Lib Dems face a choice of electoral oblivion or absorption into the Conservatives. That is not the message of local elections either, where the party has been making some important gains. The polls may be down a bit, but given the pretty volatile nature of political support these days, this is an occasion less for panic and more for reflection. After all, in several opinion polls in the General Election campaign, the Lib Dems appeared to be leading, and that turned out to be less than accurate too.

So the party will probably leave Liverpool with something of a spring in its step- and even a boost in the polls. Nevertheless, the future of both the party and the coalition will rest- however unwelcome it will be to say so- on the referendum for electoral reform. I don't much like AV, but this is less about the precise system, and more about winning support for the very idea of electoral reform in the first place. If we can get the voters to support switching to voting in order of preference, then it is a short step to change the number of MPs elected from one to several, that is to say to move to a single transferable vote for multi member constituencies- which is what the Lib Dems actually want. Unless the voters can be persuaded of the need to make some change, then the whole project of political reform is undermined.

The "fundis" in the party who reject AV, must understand that they are also throwing out the prospect of any other change - possibly for decades. The people who voted against the Scotland Act 1979 on the grounds that the powers being offered to the prospective Scottish Parliament by the Callaghan government were "insufficient" were left to wait another two decades before their chance came again. The referendum must pass for the Lib Dems to have a hope for the future- it really is that simple.

So, the conference is important, but perhaps not in quite the way the media hoped. Instead of the public rows of opposition, there is the muted debate of government. Yet the party does face threat: it is in danger of losing touch with the big picture as the minutiae of government preoccupy the ministerial leadership. I was not able to attend the Federal conference this year, but I certainly intend to burnish my friendships with like minded people across the party in order to frame our policy debates more firmly within the root of Liberal ideology- and I certainly hope to be in Perth for the Scottish conference.

The battle for Liberalism remains in doubt- even inside the party that should be the most Liberal of all: the Liberal Democrats.

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