So, what do we make of #ldconf so far, then?

by Stephen Tall on September 22, 2009

I’ve just come from speaking at the ippr fringe event, The end of politics as we know it?, alongside Ming Campbell, Shirley Williams and Charles Clarke.

In my introductory remarks, I looked at the two big crises of the last 12 months – the economic crisis of recession, and the political crisis of MPs’ expenses scandals – and their impact on the Lib Dems, with special reference to this week’s conference. I approached the topic as (I hope) a constructively critical friend; harsh but fair was the reaction I was (I guess) looking for. Here’s more or less what I said – see if you think I got the balance right …

I suspect we Lib Dems feel a little bit hard done by at the moment on both the big issues of the last 12 months. On the economic recession, we’ve had Vince. On the political crisis, Lib Dems have been talking for decades about the need to fix our system – in many ways this is our issue.

So, we have been ahead of the curve on the two big issues of the last year, and yet we’re pegged in the polls at 18-20%. We’re as worried about maintaining our number of MPs at 63, as we are optimistic about growing our numbers at the next election. Why? Everyone will have their own views, and I’m going to explore a couple of my own.

First, fixing the political system.

I think we Lib Dems have to face up to the fact, like it or not, we are now seen as part of the establishment. We control councils up and down the country, it’s no longer a strange thing for Lib Dems to be in government. No longer are we the repository of protest votes. In one sense this is a real advantage for the party. We now have as a party a much more coherent identity. Lib Dem voters are pretty unified around the party positions on key issues: not just Iraq, but also civil liberties, immigration, Europe and the environment. But the downside of this is that the public is unlikely to turn to us at a time of political crisis if they want to give the politicians a bit of a kicking.

The second aspect of our failure to benefit more from the MPs’ expenses scandal is this: the party did long-term damage to its brand – that the Lib Dems are fundamentally decent – by the manner in which Charles Kennedy was defenestrated. I don’t want to spend time disinterring the rights and wrongs of the issue, I just state it as a simple fact that, for very many people, the Lib Dems emerged as a political party which looks ‘just the same’ as the other two main parties.

Secondly, on the economic crisis. In Vince Cable we have the most trusted politician in the UK, the man who has given the most clear-sighted, pithy and punchy analysis of the recession and its causes. So, again, why has the party not benefited more?

I think there are two overlapping issues here: the party’s response, both in terms of policy and campaigning, has been confused and confusing. Three years ago we adopted the Green Tax Switch; then we urged a 4p cut in income tax; then we started talking about the need for £20 billion of spending cuts; and now we’ve said we’ll take the poorest out of income tax altogether by raising the threshold. And then of course this week, the leadership has mooted a range of policies, from “savage” cuts, to dropping the party’s commitment to abolish tuition fees, to ‘mansion taxes’.

Now none of these policies is wrong, or illiberal, in itself, at least if argued in the right way. But what it doesn’t do is give us a single, compelling argument to put to the electorate on the economy, to explain to voters on the doorstep why they should place their trust in the Lib Dems during the severest recession in a generation.

And I’m afraid this week’s conference – the one time in the year when we’re guaranteed at least some media attention – has been a lost, some might even say wasted, opportunity clearly to communicate what our core message should be. It’s not been communicated clearly to us as activists – let alone the public. And that’s, I think, a real shame.

What’s worse is that I don’t think it’s actually as hard as our leadership has made it out to be. I know it’s hard to encapsulate complex policies in a couple of sentences, but I’m going to have a bash at it:

You can’t trust Labour to spend wisely, and you can’t trust the Tories to cut wisely. Only the Lib Dems can be trusted to make the right, balanced judgements on tax and spend, and in Nick Clegg and Vince Cable we have the perfect comibination of energy and experience to do the job.

That should have been the message we broadcast loud and clear this week. Instead there have been far too many distractions. I think it’s fantastic that we have a leader in Nick Clegg who is so intellectually curious. But the party conference is not the time to fly kites or set hares running.

We need four things from our leadership in the next nine months:

1. Define the key message, in particular on the economy;
2. Be disciplined enough to stick to that key message;
3. Consult with shadow cabinet colleagues and the wider party before announcing major policy initiatives;
4. Then campaign from the front around those agreed policies.

I’m afraid all four have been lacking from the Lib Dem leadership this week.

What of the future for the Lib Dems beyond those nine months, past the general election? There is a danger we assume progress in politics is certain, that the future will be better than the past. As we discovered in 1997, progress is not certain; it can also be faltering. The Labour party wasted their chance in 1997. The Tories are even less likely to step up to the plate.

The task for the Lib Dems, then, seems to me to continue to be what it has always been. We are there to campaign for liberal causes which the other parties forget inbetween elections. And we are there to work for the transformation of the political culture – electoral reform, localism – so that liberals from across the political parties can unite in common cause, and so that power is handed to people in the communities where they live to use as they wish. We need to break down the tribal barriers that stop like-minded polticians and people from working together when they agree with each other. Only in that way do liberal – and Lib Dem – policies have a genuine future.

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