What is the point of Liberal Democrat conference?
|Liberal Democrat members decide party policy,
but what happens when policy is wilfully ignored?
Whatever can be said of Nick Clegg, there can be no escaping that his handling of key situations isn't improving.
Nearly three years into the coalition, Clegg seems determined to demonstrate that he either doesn't understand his party or that he has not wish to listen to it.
That it the most simplistic of interpretations of his management of debate surrounding the Justice and Security Bill and, in particular, its provision for what have popularly become known as "secret courts". But the fact that it is simplistic does not in itself mean such an assumption is wrong. Clegg has contributed unnecessarily to increasing the pressure on himself and to widening divisions between the parliamentary party and the membership.
Liberal Democrats can be a pretty tolerant lot. We're also a very broad church. However, when it comes to civil liberties we are generally united. Open justice is a key part of our identity. Conference sets party policy and in no uncertain terms that party policy makes absolutely clear that we are opposed in principle and practice to secret justice. Conference affirmed this last year, entirely unsurprisingly. Our parliamentarians, however, no longer feel bound to treat party policy any more seriously than did Blair's Labour Party. Predictably, this apparent disdain for the wishes of Conference has inflamed passions and many within the party have been angered to the point that they have returned their membership cards.
Civil liberties matter, and especially to Liberal Democrats. Indeed, if we cannot exist as the party to actively champion civil liberty, then questions have to be asked about what our purpose is - or what indeed should be the point of any "liberal" party that refuses to come down on the side of liberty.
Clegg will have known of this anger among the party membership, and also the simmering resentments that have the potential to create deep divisions within the party that could prove hard to heal. And so, yesterday, at the now customary leader's Q&A session, he anticipated the issue would rear its head. George W Potter asked the question: why didn't Lib Dem MPs vote against the Bill? His response, as reported by Alex Marsh, was revealing on a number of fronts:
It entailed quite a bit of blustering; attacking sundry strawmen; patronising the audience by suggesting it was all rather technical; arguing that even though the policy might appear illiberal that was, in fact, mistaken; and, finally, misconstruing the questions asked and answering a preferred version. So we saw pretty much every tool deployed from the box marked “evasion tactics for politicians who don’t wish to engage”But of course that doesn't answer the question. It doesn't deal with the concerns of Liberal Democrats Against Secret Courts. What it does do is smugly state that the leadership is right because it believes itself to be right. It does not get to grips with why recently formulated party policy - agreed and endorsed by Conference - has been ignored and in the process undermined.
What Clegg has not done, and seems unwilling to even consider, is to explain why Liberal Democrat MPs can freely ignore the wishes of conference. While I am very much of the view that "secret courts" should have no place in our justice system, that is no longer the main issue and that is almost entirely due to Nick Clegg. Not only has he shown how detached he and the parliamentary party have become from the membership, conference has been undermined and our internal democracy compromised. The needs of coalition government now trump all other priorities. Clegg has handled the situation badly and then, in attempting to communicate with the party, has only angered it further through his failure to fully appreciate its concerns.
The actions of MPs in ignoring party policy in this way raise huge questions: what is the point of a liberal party, if not the promotion of the civil liberties that are necessarily a pre-requisite for a liberal society? What is the purpose of conference when its expressed will is not only ignored but when it is powerless to hold parliamentarians to account? What is the purpose of party policy when it is rendered meaningless in this way? What of our claims to be the most democratic of the major parties? Why should members feel they are listened to, or that their voices will make a difference, when their collective views are treated with apparent disregard?
There is a very real danger of our conference becoming not the policy-deciding forum it has traditionally been, but instead yet another philosophically vacuous political rally, in which the only purpose of delegates is to applaud speeches or to express gratitude that a leader takes his time to deliver condescending responses to pre-selected questions.
Today conference debated an emergency motion on "secret courts". The result was never in doubt, although the scale was certainly a surprise. Only ten members voted in support of the leadership's line. Ten. That raises its own questions, not least in respect to why parliamentarians are willing to vote against their party in the Commons but less eager to debate the matter with their supporters and activists at conference. It is again suggestive of disdain and disrespect for conference.
Jo Shaw, who has spearheaded the campaign against secret courts, today announced that she is resigning from the party over this issue. I suspect that is not entirely true; she will be leaving because of the way the leadership has handled the issue. That is an important distinction. The Liberal Democrats' MPs could not have blocked the legislation, but they could have - and should have - stuck to their professed principles. All the same, in some respects Shaw's resignation is an odd decision: why resign now at the moment when your campaign seems to have momentum, when virtually the entire conference room has supported your stance and put significant pressure on the leadership? Admittedly Clegg's response/statement yesterday gave absolutely zero reason for optimism but surely Shaw is able to make a greater contribution campaigning within the party than outside it.
That said, another depressing feature of the party's current malaise is the number of dedicated, capable Liberal Democrats who seem to leave whenever Nick Clegg makes an announcement. Their complaints at first glance seem varied and relating to a range of issues, but essentially they amount to concerns that they are not understood or their respective positions valued. Only last weekend, Zadok Day - co-chair of Liberal Reform - announced he was leaving the party and yesterday human rights barrister Dinah Rose followed suit.
It is more than regrettable that people of such calibre are leaving our party and in many cases turning their backs on politics altogether. I will no longer attempt to dissuade anyone from doing so; while I am committed to the Liberal Democrats and will continue to fight within the party for the liberal society I wholeheartedly believe in, I recognise why others feel they are helpless to save the party from itself and fully respect their decisions.
Next week, the "secret courts" issue will be debated at Scottish Lib Dem Conference. Bets are already taking place as to whether those opposing will outnumber the ten at federal conference. More seriously, Alistair Carmichael and Jim Wallace will be arguing the government's position and the analysis of their arguments will, in all likelihood, be of greater interest than the vote itself. Will they, like Nick Clegg, avoid the real issues and reinforce the members' anger? Will it become increasingly obvious that a chasm is opening between grassroots activists and parliamentarians that is both destructive and unnecessary? Or will they succeed in convincing the members that they are listening, respectful and receptive - even if they take a different view on the policy detail?
More significantly, what will Carmichael and Wallace do in the event that conference rejects their arguments in Dundee, just as happened today in Brighton? Carrying on regardless could be as damaging to our party's internal relationships as the ridiculous tuition fees pledge was to our relationship with many previously loyal voters.
There is little doubt that the Justice and Security Bill will become law. There never was, given the support of it from Labour. What has been surprising is the willingness of the leadership to ride roughshod over the wishes of conference, under the misguided belief that commitment to policy no longer matters when in coalition government.
That is a very mistaken attitude, with enormous ramifications.
David Laws, interviewed today on TV, expressed his belief that the party was "in a very good state...very bouyant". Clearly he hasn't been speaking to Jo Shaw.
And so, for me, the most significant question this throws us is: what is the point of conference? I suspect when the leadership - after next weekend - chooses to ignore not one but three conference motions passed with huge majorities, we'll know the answer.