On Saturday the Liberal Democrats’ main annual conference starts, this year in Glasgow. As this parliament moves from mid-term to end-game, the party’s professionals will no doubt want us to focus on the fight for survival at the next General election, scheduled for 2015. I am more worried about the party’s soul.
Being part of a coalition government has been a searing experience for the party. It remains strong in some areas, but it is much weaker through most of the country, as members, activists and supporters have drifted away. In national opinion polls the party languishes at about 10%, or about half the level it achieved in the last General Election in 2010. It used to be that the party was ignored as an irrelevance. That problem has been solved, at the cost of it coming under relentless attack from all sides: from the party’s coalition partners, the Conservatives, from the Labour opposition, and less attached observers generally. Most of this criticism is not particularly fair, but that’s politics. It is a necessary stage in the party’s evolution if is ever to be a major political force. But it is not entirely clear that the party will survive the experience. If it is to survive, the party will need to have a clear idea of what it is for: otherwise it will fail to recruit new activists and win back the people that have drifted away.
The party’s leadership, and its professional staff and advisers, seem to concentrating on another question, however. And that is the case that the party needs to present to voters in 2015. There is some clarity on this, as suggested by the party’s slogan: “Stronger Economy in a Fairer Society”. Framed positively, it is actually a double negative, contrasting with Labour’s alleged economic irresponsibility, and the Conservatives’ focus on making lifer better for the rich. This is fine as far as it goes: negative messages have a wider appeal than positive ones, and it should help the party benefit from the negative campaigns the other parties will wage on each other. But it is not enough to rally the faithful. Firstly because many are not convinced that the Coalition’s economic policies have been right, and secondly because, without spending more on public services and benefits, it is not clear to many how society is to be made fairer.
And here, I think, we come to a much wider crisis in British politics. Politics is increasingly the domain of a professional political class who have spent their entire working careers in politics or at its fringes. They pick up their ideas on policy from a series of lightweight think tanks and university politics departments. Their main concern is to compete with each other to attain the status and prestige of office. They operate within a series of assumptions about what government is and how it works: that it is about adopting the right policies at the centre of government, passing the necessary laws in parliament, and then getting the civil servants to implement them. Missing from this are two things: any clear idea of how power can or should be devolved away from central government, and practical skills in the design and implementation of policy. It seems to be quite fashionable amongst political types to blame the civil service for policy failures at the moment. And yet civil servants are often asked to implement policies that have not been thought through, and which are often contradictory. The politicians and their advisers don’t seem to see it as their problem to resolve the contradictions, as this carries political risks.
And this criticism applies to the Liberal Democrats as much as it does to the Labour and Conservative parties. The party’s MPs are mainly professional politicians with little experience in either the outside world, or even in local government. They are surrounded by like-minded professionals who want to be MPs themselves. They are charming, intelligent people – but do they really understand how to make things work? Or what motivates the army of amateur enthusiasts that the party needs to keep going?
What I think is needed is for politicians to hold a different model of government in their heads: one that pushes political power away from the centre so that local communities can solve problems for themselves. That sounds like advocating support for motherhood, but it means rejecting generations of accepted social democratic wisdom, which sees issues in terms of generic problems – crime, healthcare, unemployment, etc. – rather than people. The old Liberal Democrat idea of community politics is a very good place to start this revolution – and no other political party has a better tradition to build on. But neither the party’s national professionals, nor, I am afraid, its younger activists seem to have much idea of what this is all about.
So, in Glasgow next week, I will not be paying so much attention to the grand set-pieces – though I will still follow them with interest – but I will be looking for any signs of bigger ideas taking hold: ones that will shape the party’s soul, and offer the country at large real hope.