Monday, 11 March 2013

Riding it out - Some reflections on #ldconf

On paper, this should have been a great Spring Conference for the Liberal Democrats. Having won in Eastleigh, and getting to grips with the allegations against Lord Rennard, the party should have been in good spirits throughout and come away enthused for more campaigning, and more success. With County Councils elections in England just a few weeks away, this would have been a very desirable outcome.

Instead, I came away feeling somewhat bruised and (slightly) downbeat.*

Now, I don't want to overplay this. It is always good to spend lots of quality time with fellow Liberals. Whether it be in the conference hall listening to debates, in fringe meetings on any of a whole host of topics, in keynote speeches or just catching up with friends, it is just good not to have to constantly justify where you're coming from.

And there were some highlights on the floor of conference: Paddy's rallying call, Steve Webb's speech, Chris Jeffries' excellent contribution to the emergency debate on the Leveson report. And away from the conference floor: seeing friends from Autumn conference and Twitter, Glee Club, and my fanboy moment when Lynne Featherstone mouthed "good morning" when I passed her.

But there was trouble in paradise... the leadership's position on the Security and Justice Bill - at complete odds with the motion passed overwhelmingly at Autumn Conference - was very much on the minds of delegates. It wasn't just that the position taken was so completely out of kilter with the party -  it was the almost complete lack of engagement with the activists that stuck in the craw.

And then there were the shenanigans which led the Federal Conference Committee to decide that the Social Liberal Forum motion on the economy would require an hour to discuss. The effect of this decision - instigated, I am led to believe, by the leader's office - was to ensure that the motion wasn't debated. (There were nine motions in the ballot, and the FCC had decided there would be two half-hour slots. Had the economy motion came top it would have had both slot. But the motion on Secret Courts was always going to win so the economic motion, which came second, was bumped and the third placed motion, on Leveson, was debated instead.)

Due to a schedule clash, I missed Nick's Question and Answer session in which he angered the hall by failing to answer the questions he was asked. I also missed the attempt to have Standing Orders suspended so that the SLF's Economy motion could be taken on Sunday. The latter move failed, on a card count, to achieve the require two-thirds of votes in the hall. So the scene was set for the finale of this 3 act play.

The Secret Courts debate has been well reported elsewhere in the Lib Dem Blogosphere... Jo Shaw who, with Martin Tod and Charlotte Henry, had been leading the Lib Dems Against Secret Courts campaign, moved the motion and resigned from the party. The leadership, having clearly decided some time ago to ride the issue out, didn't even put up a defence. The debate was carried with just ten votes against - with more minds having changed in the course of proceedings.

The hall was subdued for much of the rest of the morning, although Tim Farron's stint as warm up for the Leader's speech did raise the mood somewhat. But Nick's speech, when it came, was disappointing. Yes, it hammered home our slogan for the next two years. Yes, it had some good attack lines against both the Tories and Labour.

But on its central tenet of defending our economic record, it was weak. It lacked any acknowledgement that the current policies were not delivering the results anticipates at the pace desired. To do so would need not necessarily be an admission of error - it is perfectly reasonable to argue that following Labour's opposition strategy (as compared with what they had proposed) would have led to a different but also difficult position: spiralling deficit and debt, much earlier loss of AAA status at a time of Euro crisis, greater currency flight and consequently increased borrowing costs, a vicious circle of spending and borrowing - and all this without a guarantee of increased growth unless it was sustained by the increased public spending.

Clegg's behaviour in scuppering the SLF motion (which would have been embarrassing, calling as it did for much higher levels of capital spending) along with lashing himself to the Government's economic mast, merely emphasised how out of touch he is with many of the activists. The sustained applause that greeted his defence of the European Convention on Human Rights must have been tinged with irony against the backdrop of Secret Courts.

His insistence that we won Eastleigh because of being in national government as well as local government rung hollow (although I still think there are national messages worth communicating.) In the confluence of the circumstances and the rise in the UKIP vote, it clearly was the local record that won through in Eastleigh, though.

Having decided to ride out the party's opposition to Secret Courts, Clegg may now be leading a party whose activists have decided to ride it out with him. Who will continue to fight, for what they believe to be Liberal Democracy. Who will continue to deliver leaflets, canvass, call, fund raise and attend conference. Who may well attend the leader's speech and applaude. But they may well be doing it with a bit less love for Nick than before.

My money would still be on Nick staying until the general election. But unless he makes serious attempts at rebuilding a conversation - a genuine two-way conversation- within the party, he may be the leader of a party fighting in spite, rather than because, of him.

Andrew

*I wasn't alone in this, as Mark Thompson outlines. 

** Alex has a good piece on this topic, including Nick's lack of arguments in favour, here

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