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.