Grappling with government: how will we change our minds when the facts change?

by Stephen Tall on September 20, 2010

Sky News’s Adam Boulton has an interesting take on this year’s Lib Dem conference:

… there is an overbearing sense of seriousness as the Lib Dems cogitate on the political hand dealt them after the last election. Far from glibly queuing to speak in debates, conference organisers report that party members are hanging back, wanting to listen to the explanations from the leadership.

It’s a perception that perhaps helps explain why there are relatively fewer requests to speak in debates, especially considering how much higher attendance at conference is this year. Most Lib Dem conference delegates choose only to speak in debate once they are sure of their arguments in their own minds — and there is certainly not that sense of fixed conviction at this stage of the Coalition. Rather, the mood is excited but sober, nervy but resolved, proud but insecure: all the usual paradoxes that greet a leap into the unknown.

One symbol, for me at least, of this more acute sense of seriousness is found in the party’s consultation paper, Party Strategy and Priorities, debated at conference on Sunday — in which there is an explicit recognition that, whatever policies we adopt at the start of government, it is inevitable we will need to adapt or even reverse some of these while in office:

How do we react when Coalition policies need to change – or don’t work?

Opposition parties are allowed the luxury of assuming that all their policies, crafted by experts and developed in debate, will work exactly as intended – with no hidden costs, unintended consequences or new perspectives. Unfortunately, experience of the real world does not always bear out these hopes. How should a mature party, confident in its principles, respond when policies and practice have to change?

As liberals we are all for evidence-based policy, for rejecting dogma in favour of pragmatism: so long as it squares with our principles.

The ultimate test of this will be the austerity cuts, staunchly defended by Danny Alexander yesterday. No-one — neither supporters nor critics — can yet know if these will work. Will eliminating the deficit in five years produce greater long-term gain in exchange for some short-term pain; will private sector growth expand to counter-act public sector contraction; will it be possible for the public sector to do more (or, more realistically, learn to make do) with less, while protecting frontline services for the vulnerable? The truth is we simply do not know.

The point has been made repeatedly at this conference that the vast majority of cuts being proposed would have had to have been implemented by Labour if they were in government. That while 25% cuts sound savage when baldly stated, the annualised rate of 6% a year is both less scary, and also little different to the 5% a year Labur were proposing. In other words, these economic issues are ones of acute judgement, not fundamental principle.

In the hyper-tribal political times in which we currently live, many politicians, commentators, citizens have re-discovered their long-dormant fixed and fervent opinions, are revelling in the luxury of certainty.

The rest of us live in the real world, where we anxiously hold our breath to learn based on the facts as they emerge, and work out how the tough and serious of business of governing can continue; how we can learn to think, reflect and analyse — neither triumphantly nor defensively — while also doing.