#ldconf day 3. Cable and Clegg defend the coalition record with confidence

imageDay three of the Lib Dem conference in Glasgow and this 50-something attendee is getting a bit tired. The mood continues to be good, but the controversies are rather minor. I will offer a few highlights.

There were two important set-pieces. Vince Cable’s speech and the leader’s Q & A. Mr Cable’s contribution was more assured than Danny Alexander’s yesterday. It was largely a defence of the party’s record in government. In policy terms he stuck to the same line as Mr Alexander. A strict policy on the deficit to be softened significantly for investment in infrastructure, including housing. He claimed that the Tories were dead against this. This is welcome, and backed up by a recent research paper from the IMF. He readily got his standing ovation.

In the Q & A Mr Clegg showed off his grasp of detail. He criticised the Conservative and Labour parties for being uninterested in political reform beyond short term tactics. He may right. The question is whether they can be manoeuvred into something more fundamental by their promises to Scotland. I am not optimistic except that after the next election both parties may fall apart, opening up British politics.

Policy did not get my full attention. There was a motion on building more houses, which was worthy enough. At a fringe group Generation Rent and Crisis, housing pressure groups, urged us to present a more coherent strategy on housing and the rented sector in particular. They are right.

In the evening I attended a fringe on teaching science and maths, sponsored by the Royal Society. I spoke up to support the key role of primary schools. Interestingly a business lobbyist said that employers needed skills rather than knowledge. This is the opposite to what seems fashionable in Westminster, where they attack “soft” skills-based teaching in favour “hard” facts. Well maybe some teaching of skills is a bit soft, but this is ultimately what education is for. I was always taught that education was to teach you to think, not recite facts.

On Sunday evening, at a fringe on Liberal thinkers, veteran Scottish MP Malcolm Bruce said that he joined the party at one of its low points. It was the only way in which he could promote his liberal values. He was being urged that he had to take sides between the Tories and Labour- but he rejected this notion. Something like this idea drives the party now. It is deeply unfashionable. Many cannot forgive it for dealing with the devil in the current coalition. But these are the same old people who feel that there are only two important movements in politics and that ultimately you choose. But both the socialists and the conservatives are fundamentally wrong, and any deal with either is a matter of temporary pragmatism.

 

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#ldconf Day 2. Lib Dems steadily move to the left

In an election year you can’t expect too much excitement at a party conference. Not if things are going well. And day two of the Lib Dem conference was not terribly exciting. But for those who want to read between the lines there was plenty of interest.

The big item in the morning was a motion on welfare. The progenitors of the motion were from the left of the party, or at any rate those who have been resisting the party’s flirtation with “neoliberalism”, as many on the left like to call it. I missed the debate, but apparently it faced no serious resistance. This no doubt partly reflects careful wording by the movers, but one of them told me that two years ago the leadership would have resisted a motion like this.

The morning session (technically afternoon) ended with a speech from Steve Webb, the Pensions minister, and one of the most successful ministerial appointments from any party in this government. It wasn’t very exciting and the reception was a bit muted. This was a bit of an achievement in a way. Mr Webb doesn’t do political grandstanding and the reforms he has pushed through are both radical and liberal, and yet have somehow achieved something close to political consensus. Which makes it difficult to make political capital. But it’s liberal politics at its best. It Is achievements like this that make Lib Dems feel that they handle government well – and are so much more than the chaotic protest party that it used to be portrayed as.

After lunch came the Treasury Secretary Danny Alexander, who had played a big role in the Scottish referendum campaign. He dressed casually and seemed tired. He delivered his lines flatly, failing to pause properly for dramatic effect. And yet his speech had stature. First he kept faith with his Scots co-nationals, and was determined to build on the referendum campaign, and not quietly bury it, as one suspects that many English politicians want to do. On Treasury matters he had quite a simple message. The deficit needed to be reduced to zero, importantly excluding investment. The overall national debt must be brought down. But this must be done with a “fair” sharing of the burden. By this he meant that the tax and benefit system had to retain its strongly redistributive character. In stark contrast to Conservative proposals. I agree though my reasoning may be a bit different from his. I think the days of steady economic growth may be over. In which case deficits and debt will not be as sustainable as previously assumed. But borrowing for investment is an important exception, and I hope he sticks to that in the face of Treasury scepticism. And redistribution is economically efficient in an age where the winners seem to be taking everything. Mr Alexander got a standing ovation that the speech itself probably did not deserve.

The next act was a long motion on reforming public services, following a policy paper. The scope of this may have been too ambitious, and yet the thinking behind it was at the same time radical and pragmatic. We have to move on from an over centralised and compartmentalised approach to public services. We need to solve problems rather than manage throughput. This means more devolution and local problem solving. This was the thinking behind the motion, though it was easy to be lost in the detail. A wholesale rejection of the purchaser provider split in the NHS was rejected, but an amendment that facilitated radical changes at local level was allowed. While the right continues to believe in more throughput management using private sector outsourcers, the Lib Dems are moving in a different direction.

Apart from a rather stricter view of government borrowing than many on the left think is appropriate, this all amounts to a shift leftward for the party. The social liberals are slowly winning the argument. And, as somebody who has tended to side with the right in the past, I have to admit that this looks the right way to go.

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#ldconf Day one: clear vision and constitional confusion

The Liberal Democrats gather in Glasgow again for their annual conference, as we did in2013. This is not as interesting as it might have been if Scotland had voted Yes in the referendum. But Glasgow is a city that I like, for all that healthy eating seems a bit of a mystery to the locals. On the first day we were treated with a clear mission and a muddle.

The clear mission came through at the conference rally in the evening. It was greatly aided by the Conservative party’s lurch to the right, with its promise of unfunded tax cuts and attacks on human rights laws. They are avoiding a centre ground strategy, and instead they are looking for “wedge” issues that will peal away Labour’s more conservative supporters and push back Ukip at the same time. With Labour unwilling to stake out a clear ideological vision, Lib Dem activists can readily believe that their country needs them. There is clear ideological space for a liberal party. The process of rallying supporters is therefore straightforward. Whether this is enough to overcome the public’s scepticism of the party remains to be seen.

The muddle came from an attempt to reform the party’s internal voting system so that all members have a right to vote at conference and on internal committees, rather that representatives coming through a supposed election process from local parties. This was styled as “one member one vote”. This is rather overdoing it. To vote you still have to turn up at conference. It is a sensible idea because, with the weak state of local party organisation, the selection of representatives is chaotic, and largely boils down to self selection and luck. It is a far cry from democracy. The proposed system is more practical In principle. Also there is a misunderstanding about the role conference plays in the policy process. It isn’t a deliberative parliament designed carefully represent the membership, but a test run for new policies on people sympathetic to the party’s principles. Exactly who the people are in the conference hall isn’t so important. No doubt the new system will bring problems in its wake, but it is hard to believe that they will be worse than the present arrangements.

So what’s the muddle? The principle is simple but its implementation is complex. The proposed amendment was drafted in too much of a hurry and left many gaps. So we ended up approving a rather confusing motion whose impact is unclear. It’s going to take quite a it of sorting out – not ideal in a big election year. Perhaps it is a fitting verdict on modern politics. Lots of vision and sharp communication, but short of the patient detail needed to make anything actually work.

Still, with a clear mission spirits are high.

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Ed Miliband is Labour’s John Major. Short term success presages long term disaster

Britain’s two big party conferences are over, setting out the battle lines for next year’s general election. I keep seeing parallels with the 1992 election, which the Conservatives won unexpectedly. In the past I have drawn direct parallels between the two main parties then and now. But in interesting ways the Labour party resembles the Conservatives in 1992: pulling off an unexpected victory, leading five years later to its worst ever defeat.

The Labour conference was shocking. This was supposed to be a party with its blood up, ready for a battle to crush those hated Tories and despised Lib Dems. Instead we witnessed a subdued Labour Party, simply hoping that the other side would lose. The plan is to win the General Election in May 2015 by default. There are three elements to this plan. First hang on to the hard core of voters that were loyal at their low point at the last election in 2010. Second, snaffle up an extra 5-10% of voters who voted Lib Dem last time and are fed up with that party. Third: allow Ukip to eat into the Tory vote. Labour strategists think that these three things will be enough to give Labour an overall majority. The party does not have to spell out a clear policy vision, just create some mood music by talking tough about the nation’s finances, and “saving” the NHS.

It could work. This kind of strategy reminds me a lot of John Major’s strategy for the Conservative Party that he led from 1990 to 1997: visionless, and relying on its opponents’ weaknesses. This led Mr Major to that spectacular and unexpected victory in the 1992 election, followed by the Tory party’s worst ever defeat in 1997. Something like the same fate awaits Ed Miliband’s Labour Party. At Labour’s conference he failed to address doubts about his leadership. His speech was a disaster. It was an overlong, rambling, whinge-fest, full of speechmaking clichés. His act of not using a script and teleprompt drew much praise the last time he tried it. This time it meant that he forgot to include some vital messages on the deficit and immigration, passages that it is hardly surprising his subconscious suppressed.

Over the four years or so of Mr Miliband’s leadership, the Labour Party has proved remarkably united, and in London at least, its local organisation looks in good shape. After three terms in power, this is a remarkable achievement, considering what happened to the Tories after they finally ended 18 years of power in 1997. But this achievement looks more like Mr Major’s clinging on to power after Margaret Thatcher was ousted in 1990. It comes at cost of not resolving conflicts within the party. In particular much, if not most, of the party’s grassroots thinks that austerity is the malicious pursuit of class warfare by the rich, and that capitalism is an utter failure. They are egged on by a collection of intellectuals untroubled by the responsibilities of ever having run anything. But the party’s leaders, who have genuine ambitions to govern, realise that this is mainly nonsense. Though they have been clear about this in their speeches (when they remember to mention it), there is no sign that their followers have actually taken it on board, such is their detestation of the current government.

And that’s not Labour’s only faultline. Labour are under attack in their working class strongholds. Ukip are taking votes from the party in northern towns, where the party is not used to being challenged. The SNP made a very successful appeal to the working class voters in Labour’s stronghold in Glasgow in Scotland’s referendum. Labour’s leaders are being urged to respond to this by sounding “tougher” on such touchstone issues as immigration and human rights, which is taken as meaning undeserved privileges to migrants, terrorists and criminals. Labour have made some mealy mouthed concessions, especially on immigration. In particular they suggest that the Labour government was mistaken in allowing free immigration of east European migrants after their countries entered the EU. This is very muddled. The tension between liberals and working class conservatives is palpable.

For now Labour are papering over the cracks. Even if they hold together until the election, there is sure to be an explosion after it. If they win, a Labour government will be utterly unable to reconcile the conflicting ideas of their supporters. They will simply pick up where the last, deeply unpopular, Labour government left off. If they lose, their supporters will be unable to understand why, given what they see as the self-evident failures of the coalition years. And if the party is forced into a coalition with the Lib Dems (if that party does better than expected), or a grand coalition with the Conservatives, the reactions of Labour’s supporters can only be guessed at.

Meanwhile the Conservatives are sharpening their knives. This party’s divisions are even greater than those that Labour is troubled with. But their leader, David Cameron, delivered a strong conference speech, setting out a very clear strategy for undermining Labour’s passive electoral hopes. This is the familiar “two-horse race” theme, so that Mr Cameron’s leadership skills can be compared favourably with Mr Miliband’s. And then there is tax. Labour’s ambivalence over reforming the public sector and benefits can be linked to the prospect of higher taxes for the majority.  Interestingly the Conservatives are making no attempt to woo middle of the road liberals, attacking the Lib Dems for stopping their illiberal ideas on civil liberties. This is no doubt part of their strategy to woo back Ukip defectors. But they may also calculate that raising the liberal credentials of their coalition partners may help the Lib Dems win back some of their defectors to Labour. This vigorous Conservative attack on Labour will put the latter under severe strain – though it is difficult to see how the Tories can win outright.

The outlook looks dire for Labour. Things are no better for the Tories. It is difficult not to think that Britain’s traditional two party politics is on its last legs.

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