Must try harder. That’s my chief take-away from this year’s Lib Dem conference

by Stephen Tall on September 26, 2012

This year’s conference seems smaller, quieter than previously.

That’s not surprising; the party’s shed 20% of its membership in the past couple of years and hundreds of councillors have lost their seats. With so many of the poor bloody infantry lost in battle, there are fewer of us able to walk towards the sound of gunfire.

Add to that the cost of attending a party conference – even staying at a spit-and-sawdust B&B I’m shelling out £500 for the privilege of being here – and it’s small wonder numbers are down and many debates in the conference hall are patchily attended

We Lib Dems are very proud of our internal party democracy. And compared to Labour and the Tories we’re right to be. But we’re also extraordinarily complacent about it.

Though we claim to be a one-member-one-vote party, it is conference representatives elected by local parties which vote on policies at conference and elect from their number to key committees, including the policy committee which writes the general election manifesto. We call it representative democracy, but little effort is made to find out if that’s any more than a label, and whether the views of the party membership as a whole are being accurately represented.

On Monday for example, the party devoted an entire session to debating whether 20mph zones should be rolled-out nationally with a minister in Whitehall monitoring progress, just the kind of well-meaning centralising lunacy which if Labour had proposed it we would have attacked. Thankfully, the motion was rejected, localism won the day. But who thought that, at a time when we are in national government for the first time in decades, this should be a top priority?

It’s not that all the motions debated by conference this year are bad (though a couple are), but too many of them are just a bit, y’know, soggy. We’ve got two more years in government and we may not have another term of government for who knows how long. Looking through the conference agenda, how many people genuinely think the ideas within it show the party aspiring to be truly a radical, serious and ambitious party?

Must try harder. And yes, that applies to me as much as anyone.

Update: I wrote the above on Monday night. It’s only fair then to add a postscript that the debate on Tuesday on the Government’s attempts to introduce ‘secret courts’ (which the party rightly and overwhelmingly rejected) was a debate of the highest quality. As I tweeted during it: