Leadership v. Activists – a personal reflection on Bournemouth ’09

by Stephen Tall on September 23, 2009

I’m not, by any means, a party conference veteran – Bournemouth ’09 was in fact only my fourth. But it has been distinctive for one thing in particular: it’s been the first year when the media coverage of conference has genuinely reflected what folk (at least those I’ve met) have been talking about at conference.

In previous years, we have been continually told that Lib Dem delegates were chattering about the fate of our leaders – when actually we were quite contentedly chewing the fat of meaty policy issues. This year, there has, as ever at a Lib Dem conference, been plenty of meaty policy debate, but there’s also been more than a little discussion, and not a little grumbling, about the style of the party leadership, both Nick and Vince. And it seems to me – as I blogged here yesterday – that these grumblings are fair.

The usual complaint made, not always so sotto voce, by the Lib Dem leadership against party activists is that they are self-indulgent, putting idealistic high principle ahead of pragmatic electoral politics. And I have, in past years, had some sympathy with that position.

But this year, at Bournemouth, the position has been reversed. It is the party leadership which has lacked discipline, while even those party activists who are least enamoured of the leadership’s positioning on tax and spend have done their best to compromise and avoid rows in the last party conference before 2010’s general election.

It would have been all too easy for those on the social liberal wing of the party – Steve Webb, Evan Harris, Duncan Brack – to have provoked an argument with the leadership by moving an amendment during Tuesday’s A Fresh Start for Britain debate making plain their belief that many of the party’s spending commitments currently listed as ‘aspirations’ should be retained as firm manifesto pledges.

They chose not do so, instead putting forward an innocuous-but-pointed amendment re-iterating the centrality of the party’s democratic policy-making processes in drawing up the Lib Dem general election manifesto. It was a carefully coded warning to the leadership to stop announcing and dropping policies – whether in media interviews or via think-tank pamphlets – without warning or debate.

The party’s leadership seems to have taken this amendment not as a sign of compromise but of weakness, and has spent the last week – with talk of “savage” cuts, downgrading the tuition fees commitment, announcing the ‘mansion tax’ – upping the ante. It’s almost as if the party leadership has been trying to provoke party activists, rather than (the usual complaint) the other way around.

Now I’m more of a believer in cock-up than conspiracy. I don’t actually think either Nick Clegg or Vince Cable set out with the deliberate intention of bouncing the conference into accepting their preferred policies. I imagine it was more a case of slightly careless complacency. Its effect, though, has been to upset not only the ‘usual suspects’, but also to rile those – and I include myself in their number – who are loyal and sympathetic to the leadership’s position, and recognise the difficult economic and political circumstances we face, but do not take kindly to the party’s settled will being ridden roughshod over.

Personally, I am in favour of university tuition fees; but the party has had that debate, and I was on the losing side. As a democrat, I accept I’m in a minority in my views, and am happy enough that that there are lots of other Lib Dem policies I do agree with, and on which I am happy to campaign. Those are the compromises you make when you join – or lead – a political party.

There is so much that unites this party, and only a relatively small fraction which divides us. It is a shame the latter has been more on display than the former this week.