Ahead of the annual conference of the British Liberal Democrats there has been a certain amount of posturing. Nick Clegg has been talking about the need for a "grown up" party that can carry through the responsibilities of power. This supposed debate of Realos- the pragmatic party of government- versus Fundis- unrealistic keepers of some pure Liberal flame- is a complete straw man anyway. Clegg may actually wish to face a challenge in order to be seen as being the master of his party, but the truth is that the Lib Dem leadership is promoting an inward looking and irrelevant debate. The political weather is not going to be made by whether or not a Lib Dem junior minister receives the whole-hearted backing of the party membership in their promotion of some Civil Service inspired political initiative or not. The Cleggite "Realo" case is that the most Liberal thing that the party can do is support the parliamentary party in the exercise of power. The "Fundi" case, in as far as it is not an Aunt Sally set up by the leadership, is that the party must return to its principles.
In fact it is the so-called Realos who are living in Cloud-cuckoo land. Although it is true that the party can claim some success in administration, the party, as a junior coalition partner, can not claim ownership of these successes, because they are just too diffuse. There is no single area of policy that the Lib Dems can credibly say that they built a coherent agenda. If successes are nebulous, failure is all too obvious- not least on tuition fees. More seriously still, the comprehensive way that the party was outplayed on political reform in the first year of the coalition has left the progressive agenda for political reform much weaker. The disastrous failure of numerous attempts at political reform, notably the AV vote, and the subsequent collapse in Lib Dem support leaves the very real prospect of the Parliamentary party being decimated at the next general election. The only way the Liberal Democrats can make progress on this central plank of their political identity is to establish a coalition after the next election, and right now that looks, at best, a pretty iffy prospect. It may be that we can be more resilient than the polls suggest- we probably will be- but the opportunity to promote any kind of Liberal political agenda in government may not come again for decades as the political pendulum swings away in a different direction.
The fact is that there are three problems that the party faces to try to address this and to turn prospective defeat into lasting victory.
The first is that the Liberal Democrats have become increasingly inward looking. The fact that Clegg felt that he had to ask for support in this way is almost a sign of pettiness. Even as a passionate and convinced Liberal I find it hard to get excited about the various initiatives that have emerged in office: they are at best tinkering with the administrative apparatus, and most could have come from any party- there is little that distinctively Liberal about almost any of them. As always, the leadership- as it has under successive leaders- retreats from internal party criticism. The appointment of new peers is a classic example: "Party donors and party hacks" was one withering criticism I have heard. I certainly would not go that far, but it is clear that the leadership has appointed people that it knew, rather than exploring outside a magic circle. I, for one, am disappointed that we did not take the opportunity to make a more radical political stand, and fear that this politics as usual approach falls far short, not merely of our ideals, but of what is politically necessary. The excuse for this failure is that the progress of political reform is blocked and we can therefore do little about it. In fact in the country at large there is real rage at the failures of the political class and in fact talking about radical political reform is exactly what we should be doing- precisely because the other parties continue to block it.
The second is that- as I mention above- we have failed to take control of a single part of the political agenda. There is a partial exception to this, and this lies in the raising of the income tax threshold. Tax in the UK is a national disgrace- we have one of the longest tax codes in the world, and one of the most expensive and inefficient systems of collection. The response to this scandal by all parties has been pathetic, and the Lib Dems, by suggesting that we need better enforcement and by boasting of hiring 3000 new tax inspectors have, sadly, been no exception. Frankly the 11,000 odd pages of tax code are not merely a cheaters charter, they also help to disguise that fact that the rich are taxed dramatically less than the poor. In my view we should be promoting a radical Liberal agenda for tax reform and simplification. The damage of Gordon Brown's micro management in the tax code should not have been extended under the coalition, but it was. The Liberal agenda should promote fair and transparent taxes- and this should include the wholesale repeal of taxes in many areas.
Obviously the second area where the Liberal Democrats could seize the agenda remains political reform. With hindsight it is clear that we should not have compromised on AV, but should now go for broke with an integrated agenda for fair government and fair votes- the advent of home rule in Scotland and Wales as well as Northern Ireland is driving the agenda for a new Federalism - and the Liberal Democrats should be speaking out for a radical reform to create an ultimately more balanced democracy.
With a twin track of tax reform and political reform, I believe we can be distinctive, radical and right.
The third area we need to tackle is what you might call the failure of ambition. In a sense this is a national as much as a party question, but the truth is that the party membership is dwindling and interest in politics as a whole declining because there is a sense that the political process no longer matters. Debates on great issues of principle have given way to the tedium of committees. Experts are ignored and political hacks promoted. The party system has become merely a mechanism to sustain these political hacks in their search for power, and to my deep anger, this has happened in our party too. Liberalism is a radical ideology determined to promote human freedom, it is not a claque of cheer leaders for the pupil premium or any other specific policy of the day. When Clegg asks for "grown up" politics he should initiate debate and not attempt to suppress it. It is the suppression of debate, the cover up and the facade of false political unity that insults the intelligence of the electorate and turns people off politics. It is unworthy of the leader of the Liberal Democrats that he is, or appears to be, attempting to stifle debate and not to engage with it. Grown up politics is being frank about the options- good and bad- and not misrepresenting the prices that we have to pay to achieve the gains we promise- or rather hope for. Politics is and should be passionate- and we have lost that fire.
The Glasgow conference will be critical for the next decade. We can work together to map out new way points on the Liberal road, building on the successes of the coalition and learning from the failures. We can seek ownership of a radical political agenda. We can recover our reputation for intelligent, multi-faceted discussion. We can engage in confident and forceful debate and attract support for our openness and honesty. We can rekindle our passion.
That is politics for grown ups, and that is far more likely to attract the voters who deserted us than any cynical exercise in media management.
The alternative, for our ideals, our party, and our country is bleak indeed.