#ldconf Nick Clegg needs to be clearer on the “smart, liberal and enabling state”

The Liberal Democrat conference ended yesterday on its fifth day with the party leader, Nick Clegg, giving his speech. By then I was on the train home, wishing to save money on fares as well as arrive home at a decent hour – though I have read a text version of the speech, and seen the comments. It ended an uplifting conference for the party. While good for the spirits, has it answered doubts over the party and its leader? It is a step forward.

The doubts centre around the party clearly articulating what it stands for. To date it has been keen to identify itself as covering the “centre ground”, and to spend time justifying its role in the coalition government. The problem with defining yourself as being centrist is that that you are using other parties to define yourself. The party risks presenting itself as either or both of “Labour-Lite” or “Tory-Lite”. This is not a convincing rallying cry. Neither is a list of policy proposals; if they are popular, the other parties will steal them. The Conservatives are already “stealing” the raising of tax allowances, the Lib Dem signature policy of this parliament. Lib Dem whinging about this, and the Tories getting the credit for the economic recovery rather than them, is all rather pathetic and will win the party no credit with voters. The public does not give the party credit because they don’t know what it stands for – beyond winning the prestige that goes with being in government. The policies and the record of action are the supporting evidence for a proposition, not the proposition itself.

Lib Dem activists have a strong idea of what the party stands for: liberalism. This is not the economic liberalism of the 19th Century, but one where the state plays an active role in making sure everybody gets the opportunity to develop and fulfil their lives. That “everybody” is a central idea – it is not qualified by national, ethnic, class or other identity. This leads to clarity around a certain set of policies: human rights, written constitutions, distributed political power, strong social insurance and a degree of redistribution of wealth and income, to improve the chances of the less lucky. There is also a strong environmentalist steak.

Amongst the general public, who do the Lib Dems need to convince? There are two main groups. First are those who are liberals, but who are more convinced by other parties – mainly Labour and the Greens, as the Conservatives seem to have given up on liberals. The second group are people who are drawn to non-liberal politics, being those of identity, individualistic self-interest, or a large centralised state, but might be convinced otherwise, perhaps as a second-best. A socialist may be convinced that liberalism is better than conservatism, if Labour are locally weak.

How did Mr Clegg and his party do? Better than before. Mr Clegg’s speech contained more about liberal values and why they make sense. He called for a “smart, liberal and enabling state”. The party made a clear stand against illiberal policies of their Conservative coalition partners. The signature policy Mr Clegg chose was parity for mental health with physical health in the NHS. If this is a bit tangential to liberalism (you don’t have to be liberal to support it), it will at least serve to draw attention. It showed the party capable of fresh thinking.

But it is only a start. I would like to hear more about the “smart, liberal and enabling state” – and in particular how it contrasts with Labour’s vision of the state. Indeed I think the party is being too soft on Labour, and needs to find some “wedge” issues that will pull liberals away from it. There is a bit of paradox in political presentation; you need to get over a strong positive message, but contrast is needed for visibility, which means that attacking other parties can be one of the most effective ways of defining your own. You need to say what you are not, and how you are different. The party is doing this with respect to the Tories, and the Tories themselves are lending a helping hand. But to a Labour sympathiser it opens the question of why the party is in coalition with the Tories, and thereby letting in a host of nasty Tory policies. It isn’t enough just say that the party stopped the worst ones, and put through one or two ideas of its own. The main reason the party ganged up with the Conservatives was the hopeless state of Labour – something that went further than their electoral failure.

Labour is a loose coalition of values and interests, albeit with a strong tribal solidarity. Liberals are an important part of this coalition, alongside public sector workers, state dependents, working class conservatives, left wing intellectuals and northern city council mafias. Lib Dems need to show that this Labour coalition is unable to produce coherent policies for government, still less implement serious liberal reforms. This means developing the vision of a “smart, liberal and agile” state, and showing how this is different from the Labour and Tory versions. At this conference the policy paper on public services presented some interesting new thinking on just that. That is only one piece of a jigsaw.

The Green Party is also worth a bit of attention in my view. It has moved on from a focus on environmental policies. In its current statement on values the first two of its three policy bullets are its opposition to austerity and to privatisation for public services – and only then does it cover climate change. This is no more coherent than Ukip’s policy stance. In Scotland the Greens supported independence in spite of the fact that the Yes campaign’s economic strategy depended on getting carbon out from under the sea and into the atmosphere as fast as physically possible. The party’s leader in England leader, Natalie Bennett, has also said that the party wants to avoid the responsibilities of government, and to limit any cooperation with a future government to case by case parliamentary support. All this is half-baked and could break up quite fast under scrutiny. Still I’m sure the professionals would urge that ignoring them is the best way of handling them. But they picked up a lot of liberal votes in my neighbourhood in the European elections this May.

But one thing is going for the Liberal Democrats. The main parties are concentrating on a core-vote strategy, leaving space on the centre ground. If the party can spell out its liberal vision more clearly, it can surely advance from the 7% support that it currently languishes at. It is gradually winning more respect, to judge by newspaper editorials. Its conference in Glasgow was a step forward.


#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.


#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.

#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.

Liberal Democrats: pragmatic policies – small steps to a liberal future

We ended the Liberal Democrat conference today on a high note. Ni2014-03-09 12.45.53-2ck Clegg gave one of his best conference speeches, in confident form. We are now learning what this “centre ground” strategy means in practice. Mr Clegg did not utter the dread words in his speech at all. Instead he talked freely about Britishness and liberal, inclusive values. He painted an optimistic, happy picture, to contrast with the sour, pessimistic one that dominates so much of politics now. This went down predictably well with the faithful, but it is a sensible strategy in the wider political debate too. It answers the question “What is the point of the Liberal Democrats”.

The centre ground bit came in the policy programme. In yesterday’s immigration debate, the party talked inclusive, but toned down official policy – for example dropping the idea of a path to legality for illegal immigrants. On the constitution we talked about the Single Transferable Vote, and job shares for MPs. Sweeping reform, including top-down devolution to the English regions, was dropped. The party no doubt still believes in the bigger ideas, but it realises they have to be achieved in small steps. We don’t call it centrist – we call it small steps to more liberal future. But centrist is what it actually is.

So the party’s rhetoric is firmly liberal and optimistic. It helps that Ukip has come on the scene to help define what the party is not. The idea that the real political battle in Britain (well, England) is between the liberal, optimistic Lib Dems and the fearful, pessimistic Ukip is, of course, fanciful – though not on the critical issue of Britain’s place in the wider world. But it helps give the party definition. The majority of Britons may not be liberals, but neither do they feel threatened by them; they are a good second choice. And since democratic politics is largely about compromise and coalition, second choice often comes out on top.

It is a long, long road to return to electoral success for the party. In May in reality it more a question of trying to stave off disaster. The party’s previous tendency to protest, and being all things to all people has lost it a lot of credibility, especially amongst working class voters. The media remains dominated by Labour and Conservative allies. But it is a start, and party activists left york in good heart.

What is conference for?

At a fascinating fringe meeting this lunchtime at the Lib Dem conference in Glasgow, four parliamentarians from various parts of the world (Sweden, the Netherlands, Lithuania and New Zealand) expressed their admiration for our conference, or congress, as they preferred to call it. Clearly we must be doing something right. For those of a more reflective nature it can be a bit difficult to work out what it is all about, and therefore how it should be developed. Today’s debates have not made things much clearer.

But let’s start with yesterday. We had two debates of particular importance. First there was one on energy policy. At its heart conference was presented with a choice between two options, one ruling out the use of nuclear energy in all circumstances, and the other a grudging maybe. This went rather narrowly in favour of maybe, in a break from previous party policy, though there has always been a substantial body of opinion sympathetic to nuclear power. I voted with the maybes, but only after changing my mind several times during the debate. But this looked very good; two well rehearsed positions, each backed by weighty figures slugged it out. I was not alone in my dithering, but gave the leadership the benefit of the doubt. But it felt like a valid decision process and debate.

If that looked good, the same could not be said about the second important debate, on education policy, which covered student finance. This, of course, is the issue that has caused more grief to the party than any other over the last few years, with the party spectacularly reneging on a pledge to abolish student fees as soon as it entered coalition government. And yet there was no real debate. The leadership’s main critics had been headed off at the pass with a compromise. The motion was 108 lines of rambling detail, including 26 of preamble. This was cue for a series of speakers to talk about their particular hobby horses, consisting of a few lines each and no controversy. A couple of speakers who complained about this got quite a bit of sympathy.

And so to today. This morning’s debate on the economy had been widely billed as a key challenge to the leadership, underlined by the fact that party leader Nick Clegg himself “summated” in the ugly conference jargon. The motion was another quite long one, at 76 lines, carefully crafted by the leadership to head off various lines of criticism. There were two amendments, equally carefully crafted by opponents of the leadership. What the party was trying to do was resolve a deep controversy over the coalition’s economic policy, which has not been accepted by large swathes of party activists. This controversy has been headed off at previous conferences by what looked like shady political manoeuvring. Critics of the leadership were led by an organisation called The Social Liberal Forum (SLF).

Regular readers of this blog will appreciate that I have been generally supportive of the government’s austerity economics, notwithstanding widespread criticism. But credit is due to the SLF. Their criticism, focused by the intelligent Prateek Buch, in spite of a lack of formal economic training, has been measured and careful. They have not fallen for the naive Keynesian arguments so popular on the left, but instead focused on investment, research and housing. Apart from a flirtation with loose monetary policy, which unfortunately infected one of the amendments, it is intellectually pretty sound. It is not very far from the official leadership position, and I am disappointed that the leadership of the party did not do more to include them in the way they did for their critics on student finance. Instead they engineered an artificial confrontation.

What they should have done was to coopt these moderate critics and instead turn their firepower on the full-blown Keynesians. These were represented by just one speaker, Helen Flynn, who actually made a good, intelligent speech, but who was completely ignored by pretty much everybody else. No ordinary party representative would have understood why it was these arguments had been rejected.

Thanks in large part to a very able final speech by Mr Clegg, who responded to the debate rather than trot out pre scripted sound bites, the leadership easily won. But the whole episode was highly unsatisfactory.

This debate was followed by a motion on cohabitation rights, which amounted to 49 lines of preamble to one of actual policy, which was the adoption of proposals made by the Law Commission. Still it was admirable policy which inspired no real controversy.

The next big set piece was on tax policy. This motion was backed by a more detailed policy paper and was a model for future policy resolutions. This huge area of policy was covered by just 67 lines, with just 5 lines of preamble. The economy of verbiage worked because it was clearly strategic. At the centre of the debate was another choice: this one on the top rate of tax, whether it should stay at 45% or return to 50%. This was clearly something the party needed to get get out of its system. The leadership favoured the former option, but did not overplay its hand; they won by a very narrow 4 votes. Not that this matters all that much. If the party is lucky enough to be part of another coalition government after the next election this will clearly be up to whichever party it teams up with. What is clear from both this and the energy policy debate is that offering conference this type of Option A or B choice greatly improves the debate and gives the membership a feeling that it is helping to decide something. Amendments to motions, by contrast, rarely provide satisfactory debates.

The day concluded with a motion highly critical of the Bedroom Tax, about which I blogged yesterday. The party leadership were completely absent, clearly giving the impression that they thought government policy was indefensible, but without having the guts to confront it openly. The motion was passed unanimously, but it was entirely unclear as to whether this would have much effect. A bit of a lame end to the day.

Lib Dems tend to be very self congratulatory about this supposedly democratic way of adopting party policy by a biannual meeting of self appointed activists. Scepticism is in order, but I think the process is of real value in keeping members and activists involved. But this does not inevitably follow from the constitutional processes. It matters a lot how the party’s various leadership bodies choose to use them.

Beveridge, the Bedroom Tax and community politics

Yesterday at the Lib Dem conference in Glasgow a noisy group of protestors gathered outside the entrance. I couldn’t tell exactly what they were protesting about, except that I caught a reference to the so-called “Bedroom Tax” on a banner. There were fewer protestors braving the wind and rain this morning, but some of them got close enough to press leaflets about the Bedroom Tax into our hands. By the time I reached the security tent at entrance to the centre the rain had pretty much destroyed them, and I accepted the the scanning machine operator’s offer to throw them away. The Bedroom Tax has become the centre point of left wing criticism of the coalition government. It refers to the withdrawal of housing benefit from social housing tenants who are deemed to be living in bigger properties than they need. The rule has applied to private sector tenants for some time. I have not been following the issue closely, but I don’t particularly trust the complainers to report the matter fairly. But it stinks of an arbitrary change of rules that has left unforeseen misery in its wake.

Let’s change the scene to yesterday afternoon’s speech by party president Tim Farron. This speech attempted to stake out some ideological space for the party. He celebrated the consensus forged after 1945 by the great Liberal William Beveridge. His master plan to deal with the nation’s great ills (poverty, lack of decent housing, poor health, unemployment, and lack of education) did indeed evolve into a social democratic political consensus, which gave the country the NHS and social security, amongst other national,systems. According to Mr Farron’s narrative this consensus was destroyed by the malign Margaret Thatcher, with Tony Blair and Gordon Brown completing its demise. Mr Farron wanted to re-establish Beveridge’s ideas into a new consensus. Leaving aside the impossibility of forging a political consensus on the issue, he then went on to combine this idea with that of developing the party’s commitment to community politics. This struck me as being inconsistent, but I did not pay it too much attention at the time. But it became clear from a comment I made on Facebook that many Lib Dems cannot see the inconsistency. To me this sums up the ideological problem that the party faces, and I need to explain why.

The Beveridge consensus represents a bold national programme which was implemented through a series of national policies enacted by Westminster politicians to confront a series of systemic problems. Community politics is the opposite. It is about finding local solutions to problems that can be clearly identified with particular people. This is not about the local implementation of national standards and policies. There is a fundament conflict.

So what has this got to do with the Bedroom Tax? It is a problem that has clearly been begotten by the sort of national policies favoured by advocates of the Beveridge consensus. To meet the problems of inadequate housing it was felt necessary to create a system of housing benefit that was designed nationally although administered locally. This evolved into a system where massive sums of taxpayers money was being poured into the pockets of landlords with rather doubtful social benefits; the benefit simply provided an incentive for landlords to raise rents. This was difficult to reform though, so not much was done. But eventually it was deemed to be unaffordable. And hence a series of arbitrary changes to the rules were made to save money, which affected many poor people who had adjusted to the system as it was, and for whom change meant hardship. This included the Bedroom Tax.

To me this is what happens when national, centrally imposed systems collide with the complexities of world they are trying to change. It was not so much that the systems were badly designed, but that the bad design took so long to fix, and when the fix came it had many unforeseen consequences. What if municipalities had designed there own systems of housing benefit out taxes they themselves raised? It is difficult to see that they would have dug such a deep hole for themselves. For one thing it would have hit crisis point much earlier.

But what if housing benefit was merely part of a community run system of aid that was centred on the needs of individuals, rather than a set of arbitrary national rules run by a series of separate agencies each reporting to a different minister in Whitehall? This is where community politics should lead. But it is incompatible with the system of nationally run social democracy…which is where an invocation of Beveridge leads.

Most Lib Dems are very comfortable in principle with the idea of locally administered solutions. But they have little idea of the costs these have to national institutions and power structures, that they simultaneously want to preserve. Invoking Beveridge’s legacy does not help the party to make that necessary transit . Instead most prefer to occupy a soggy middle ground with elements of both. For as long as they do they will be struck by more bedroom taxes.

Paddy lords it in Glasgow

“You’ve dropped some paper!” A shout came from behind me as I was wandered dazedly around the labyrinth that is Glasgow’s SECC, where this year’s Autumn Lib Dem conference is being held. I turned round to discover that is was no less a person than former Lib Dem leader Lord Paddy Ashdown who was calling out. And I had dropped accidentally dropped one of the many handouts that conference goers pick up. This one on plain packaging for cigarettes; or Battersea Power station; or from retailers fearing the effect of a new law on minimum pack sizes of cigarettes.

As I picked up the offending litter, Paddy went on to ask his assistant loudly about whether he had to wear a suit for this evening’s rally. He duly turned up at the rally wearing a suit. But no tie. But then party leader Nick Clegg was tieless too, though the evening’s host, Orkney & Shetland MP Alistair Carmichael, wore one. Paddy was first of a series of speakers, but for me he stole the show. It wasn’t so much what he actually said. He invoked memories of truly inspiring leadership in days when the party was a much lesser force. More than that, Paddy is one of the few current politicians that really seems to get it when it comes to understanding the need for a radical decentralisation of power, though that did not enter into his speech tonight.

There is an irony in this. Paddy had a very imperial style of leadership when he was in charge. Some members complain that Mr Clegg ignores the party membership but that is as nothing to how Lord Ashdown was.

Nick Clegg’s speech was chiefly remarkable because he spent more time attacking the Conservatives than Labour. We are starting to get the hang of this coalition business. He also put in good word for public sector workers. He is trying to distance himself from that species of villain that people on the left like to call “neo-liberal”.

What else? There are a number of food vendors in the SECC, and yet I could find only one sandwich that did not contain ham, bacon, or cheese. I’m going to have to bring my lunch in if I want to keep the saturated fats down. And they wonder why life expectancy is so low here.

The battle the Lib Dems’ soul

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.

The Liberal Democrat conference: life outside the bubble

The “Westminster bubble” is a useful expression.  It refers to an ecosystem of politicians, journalists, think tankers and numerous hangers on based Westminster who have there own version of reality.  The Liberal Democrat conference in Brighton, which ended yesterday was firmly outside that bubble.  Lib Dem conferences tend to inhabit their own bubble, of course.  But after two years of appalling local election results, the complacency that characterises that bubble world was largely absent.  Liberal Democrats are coming to terms pragmatically with a very uncomfortable reality.

Westminster bubble types expected the party to be obsessed, as they are, with the leadership, and mobilising to ditch Nick Clegg, whose personal ratings with the public at large are miserable.  But that was not so; the party maintained admirable cohesion on the matter.  It’s not that members don’t think that Mr Clegg’s standing is problem, but they recognise that there are no easy solutions and that public agitation would be unhelpful.  The whole issue has in effect been outsourced to the parliamentary party, who were making no attempt to stir things up.

For me that party’s mood is best caught by three debates.  On Tuesday on local pay in the public sector and the Justice and Security Bill, and yesterday on housing.  On local pay (sometimes wrongly referred to as regional pay, which would be a non-starter as we do not have recognisable regional economies) the party resisted attempts by the Chancellor, George Osborne, to abolish national pay agreements and let local bodies, including hospitals, schools and local governments, to set their own pay rates.  The interesting thing about this is that localism, delegating responsibility to local authority level, at least, is supposed to be a key part of the party’s ideology.  But the party’s politicians and activists are acutely aware of the fear felt by many in their communities that this would simply mean lower pay, which would not be compensated for by a private sector revival.  Local pay does not have to mean lower pay, and often doesn’t – but it is an understandable fear, since, after all, that is why Mr Osborne supports it.  For me though, principle trumped pragmatism and I was one of a small number of people who voted for the motion.  I hold the deeply unfashionable view that the purpose of national pay agreements is for the Treasury to hold public sector pay down, not keep it at artificially high levels, and that unions only go along with it because it gives their national leaders a raison d’etre.  And as for national pay being simpler, any idea of that has been shaken by the encyclopedic size and complexity of the national agreement on teachers’ pay that occasionally lands on my desk.  Still, the party’s mood was a reflection of the feelings in their communities, and not the theoretical arguments so characteristic of the Westminster bubble.  The concluding speech by John Pugh, Southport’s MP, was a ruthless and effective hatchet job, in which people like me were characterised as having a fetish for markets against all evidence and reason.  I am trying to work out how to get revenge.

Funnily enough, though, on the Justice and Security Bill it was the pragmatists that were drowned out.  At issue was the possibility of allowing secret evidence in cases of national security, where, for example, intelligence sources might be compromised.  No matter the impressive unity of parliamentarians to support this idea, the party emphatically rejected this attack on natural justice.  There were a number of stirring speeches including many from people like London’s MEP Sarah Ludford, who are usually rather disappointing public speakers.  On an issue that is not widely talked about on doorsteps, the party allowed itself the luxury of the moral high ground.

And then there was housing.  There is a clear feeling in the party that housing should be a top priority.  More homes should be built; developers resisting the supply of affordable homes, while sitting on “land banks” of property with planning permission, should be faced up to; private sector lettings should be regulated more strongly.  Once again the debate was characterised stories from the front line; this was one topic in which the principled and pragmatic converged – but the voice of local communities came through the loudest.   Simon Hughes, deputy leader of the parliamentary party, another speaker who usually disappoints, delivered a barnstormer in favour of the motion.

The strongest set-piece speech that I saw came from Sharon Bowles, an MEP who delivered a powerful attack on critics of the EU and business leaders who were keeping quiet instead of speaking out.  She got a standing ovation.  So did new minister Jo Swinson, though her speech was nothing very special – it was the person they were applauding (mind you she delivered an excellent speech in the conference rally on Saturday night).

I missed Mr Clegg’s speech – though I’m not really a fan of the leader’s speech since Paddy Ashdown.  From reports it sounded as if he struck more or less the right tone.  I don’t think his attempt to portray the party as a natural one of government was all that wise.  There is a tendency for Westminster bubble types to assume that things will carry on as they are – but it is most unlikely that the Lib Dems will be in government after the next general election.  It all gives the impression that he enjoys being in government too much.  Still, he is right that government is what the party should aspire to, rather than being a constant party of protest.  And if the party can survive the next few years, then a return to government is very much on the cards.