Friday, 16 September 2011

Off to conference...with history in the making

It's Conference time again, my favourite time of the year. This year I'm actually attending various fringe events at the Conservative and Labour conferences as well, which will hopefully give me a more rounded view of political developments as they occur.

Unlike last year, where I updated the world with conference news via my blog on a daily basis, I will not be doing so on this occasion. I don't think it's possible to get the most from conference, either socially or in terms of political revitalisation, if I'm chained to a laptop. However, I intend to indulge in some critical analysis of events upon my return, in addition to providing some witty banter and curious anecdotes.

The Liberal Democrat Conference in Birmingham will be many things. What it will surely be is one of the most crucial conferences in our party's history. The leadership faces key challenges which are well-documented, but so does the party as a whole: the Liberal Democrats have to ask themselves how to move forward, how to respond to the task of winning over an electorate while delivering in government and how to facilitate a liberal revival. Unfortunately what seems to have happened even before conference kicks off is that discontent over tuition fees, security measures and the NHS Bill have set many activists and members against the party leadership - understandable, but not the most promising nor positive of starts.

There is nothing that conference seems to like more than to get one over the leadership, as was famously the case in 1986 (on defence) but also last year on the issue of free schools. Nick Clegg, like Steel before him, seems to relish the opportunity of such conflict with the rank-and-file. None of this is helpful. As Matthew Green spells out on his Thinking Liberal blog, it's time for the Lib Dems to grow up. It's time to move beyond the oppositional role we are so used to and grasp the new political reality. As David Laws suggested in The Sun, "it would be a disaster if the Lib Dems were simply to evolve into an internal Opposition". If we are to be successful, both in government and in projecting our values to the country, we have to adapt to our new responsibilities. This also applies within the party: while we should be vocally critical where necessary, and while we will never fully embrace a lot of government policy, we must resist the temptation to allow the formation of a party within a party - which would result in a divided party and a core of sincere but oppositionally-minded individuals on a collision course with the leadership. The Tories' internal difficulties, especially on Europe, during the 1990s and early 2000s when they became virtually unleadable are testament to the consequences of such oppositionalism. That's the antithesis of the kind of grown-up politics Matthew Green is championing.

Conference has the opportunity to put the leadership under pressure, to ask serious questions about policy direction and promote the liberal values of its members. I am confident it will. But we can not allow ourselves to be caught up with internal matters and be seen as inward-looking or self-satisfied fighting for "principles" no-one else in the real world cares much about, however important they are to us as liberals. What I genuinely hope is that this Conference will serve as something of a reality check for all of us as well as providing a platform for facilitating the kinds of positive changes we all want and our country needs.

Will it be that kind of Conference? It's tough to tell. The media no doubt will play up the divisions between Clegg and the wider party and between parliamentarians and the rank-and-file. Some of those are very real, others less so. But I imagine the dozens of reporters present, weighing up every word of Nick Clegg's carefully constructed and polished speech, will overlook the passion and purpose of delegates or what actually brings the party together: the desire to create a more fair and liberal society. In fact, by focusing on Nick Clegg or even the actions of the coalition both the media and the oppositionalists do the party a disservice, effectively sidelining progressive policy motions and broader matters of what the party stands for and how it can project its values.

The Liberal Democrats have to think carefully about how to approach the future. The answers will not all be found at this year's Federal Conference but I hope that many of us who dislike what was falsely labelled the "new politics" by Ros Scott will at least see the value in the responsible "grown up politics" espoused by Matthew Green.

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