In my review of last week’s Liberal Democrat conference, I drew attention to the positivity of the party, the belief that Liberal Democrats can and are making a positive difference at the heart of government and the determination of minsters to distinguish themselves from their Conservative partners
All that is true as anyone attending conference could testify. But there was another key characteristic of conference that has not been sufficiently explored: this was a conference of missed opportunities.
Let’s start with Nick Clegg’s speech, which was well-delivered and equally well-received by most delegates in the hall. The big surprise was that there was no big surprise. While not disagreeing with most of the substance of his speech (there was, indeed, much praiseworthy within it), Clegg essentially said everything I thought he would: the predictable defence of the coalition and his party’s role within it, a reiteration of his commitment to “social mobility” and “fairness”, a few half-hearted asides at the Conservatives and some encouraging words for activists. “You've shown – immense strength” he told us. Well, that’s nice. But it lacked both the humility and conviction of Tim Farron’s address as the leader spurned the chance to demonstrate some overdue modesty or a real understanding of members’ concerns and fears. He also failed to move beyond the oft-repeated call to keep on keeping on: “it’s not easy but it is right” he explained. I don’t disagree with the truth of that, but I would have hoped Nick Clegg would have been able to adopt a more pragmatic attitude than “let’s take this on the chin, we know we’re right – just keep telling people how much we’re doing in government”. It’s a tired line and Clegg’s inability to say anything remotely new in regards appealing to the public was positively depressing.
Unlike the party president, Clegg didn’t refer to Scotland or address directly the problem of regaining the faith of the electorate: another missed opportunity to gain credibility. On policy, Clegg also failed to promote any meaningful strategies for promoting social mobility (especially for those of us who are not children) while turning down the option of laying down an alternative economic vision (something that would have been timely given the IMF’s intervention days earlier and the increased likelihood of a double-dip recession). I’m not necessarily talking about a radical u-turn or a “plan B”, but a new liberal take on the current government strategy - an amendment if you like - that can reassure both markets and voters. A series of jokes at the Conservatives’ expense from Lib Dem ministers does not disguise the fact that, at least as far as economic policy is concerned, our leadership have simply acted as the front men for George Osborne. The economy is the issue that matters most, and the issue on which we are singularly failing to be distinctive.
Cable attempted to suggest a different approach in his speech, during which he drew parallels between the Social Democratic economic theories of Roy Jenkins and the route he has chartered. But even he failed to provide any detail or substantial alternative ideas and no-one else seemed willing or able to challenge the Osborne wisdom of cutting our way out of economic downturn as quickly as possible.
Charles Kennedy picked up on another missed opportunity: to identify key aims, run with them and win the necessary battles. We are fighting on too many fronts, Kennedy told The Independent; what we need to do is “pick a few important fights and win some of them”. Clegg’s chief weakness isn’t on policy, but his inability to define clearly achievable goals. Conference represented an opportunity to “pick our fights” and set our agenda, but the chance was never grasped.
What Clegg needs to do is identify what his and his party's chief priorities are in government for the next three and a half years - preferably priorities shared by the general public - and do everything he can to deliver on them. His conference speech made many references to Lib Dem successes, including ending child detention. The problem is that the average voter doesn't wake up in the morning and think "Yippee! Thank God for that Nick Clegg - without him we'd still have child detention". Of course it's important to deliver on this and other issues we passionately believe in, such as Lords reform, but if the Liberal Democrats and Nick Clegg are to regain their credibility in the eyes of the electorate they have to identify areas of public concern they can both act on and use as a basis for a distinctive new message. At the moment the leadership's core strategy consists of asking activists to remind the public how grateful they should be now we've safeguarded chequebooks and made wheel clamping illegal, while labouring under the false belief that voters will reward us when they finally understand the significance of our role in government.
Mark Pack has touched on something I have long been critical of: the party’s incapability to communicate what it is for. “The party was much better at saying what it was not and what it was against” he explains, and turns his attention to the many and often mixed messages sent out by the party during conference. There is little sense of cohesion and no clear theme or “common message” – and far too many inconsistencies, he claims.
Pack picks up on the party’s lack of economic ideas with a criticism of the party’s failure to promote its achievements on banking reform. Why are we so keen to promote lesser “achievements” over more radical and far-reaching successes?
The message is a simple one, says Pack: “there isn’t a message. That’s a problem.” It is, and it’s something I’ve been concerned about for some time. Identity is ultimately connected to the message. So why doesn’t the leadership grasp this reality; why have we allowed another conference to go by without seizing the opportunity to formulate a positive and truly distinctive characteristic that encapsulates who we are?
One thing we’re good at is telling the public what we’re not. There was a time it worked for us, especially during by-election campaigns in the 1990s. It’s now time to change tactics. Minister after minister taking to the platform and telling the converted that we’re not Tories isn’t a promising long-term strategy. Neither is the mysterious silence on economic issues.
The Scottish Liberal Democrats will be holding their conference in Dunfermline on 8th October. The agenda contains many opportunities for the party to express its distinctively liberal policy philosophies, but the key challenge for the party is to portray itself as politically relevant. This won’t come from a few unreported conference motions, but through Willie Rennie deciding what his message is, determining key priorities, picking his fights carefully (and winning them) and effectively communicating what we are for as a liberal party in Scotland. Hopefully he will be better equipped to seize the opportunities to forge the fresh, intellectually liberal “message” Mark Pack rightly identifies as so necessary to progress than Nick Clegg, who appears so convinced of his own “rightness” that he has closed his eyes to potential openings.
For further photographs from Conference, please see the Photographic Review of Conference on my facebook page:
Photographic Review of Conference (Part 1)
Photographic Review of Conference (Part 2)