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.