A perpetual party of protest?

by Stephen Tall on September 21, 2005

This year’s Lib Dem conference has been a frustrating paradox. There is an honest disagreement in the party between those, like me, who believe the private sector can deliver key public services equitably and at lower cost, both of which would further the cause of social justice; and the many (clearly the conference majority) who believe only the state can possibly provide citizens with the services they need.

This is an important debate – a clear point of difference – and we need to discuss it openly. Far better we start it at this stage of the Parliamentary cycle. After all, half the criticism of the Orange Book was that it was gauchely timed, six months before the election. (And the other half was from people who seem never to have read it…)

But we Lib Dems have grown rather accustomed to cheery conferences where we can parade our latest by-election victor, and forget our political differences – which are larger than our philosophical differences.

Blackpool’s been different, and – despite my huge frustration with those activists (and MPs) who seem to have relished ostentatiously flexing their muscles against the leadership, sometimes out of sheer bloody-mindedness – I’m glad it has been. It shows we’re starting to take the prospect of power a little more seriously, recognising we need a well-thought-through slate of policies.

However, the media has pretty much ignored our splits – a stark contrast to the coverage of the disastrous Alliance split on nuclear disarmament – obsessing instead about Charles Kennedy’s performance as leader. Nothing could more strikingly demonstrate the party’s credibility gap with wider public opinion than the fact that only our personality politics are held by the commentariat to be of much interest.

My fear is that Blackpool ’05 will have given the clear impression our party is less serious about government than we like to think we are, and is far happier being a perpetual party of protest which will never need to take responsibility.