Tim Farron, the Lib Dem leader saved the best until last. His speech to close the party conference in Brighton yesterday was a barnstormer. He was interrupted by standing ovations several times. It was up to the standard set in Bournemouth last year. How much substance lies behind the expansive rhetoric?
The speech was ambitious. Tim set out make the Lib Dems the main opposition to the Conservative government, accusing Jeremy Corbyn’s Labour Party of abdicating the role. This is another example of the supreme, irrational optimism that, as former MP David Howarth pointed out in a fringe meeting, is the Lib Dems greatest strength and weakness.
Tim continues to use his big speeches to stake out the political ground for the party, on which we might hope for more substantial things to be built. The party’s policy motions at the conference failed to build anything much though. The many new members were no doubt delighted to meet up with so many like-minded people, and learn about how politics works – but would have struggled to understand what the policy debates were for.
Tim places the party is the unambiguously on the left (or among the “progressives” in the favoured, rather misleading word), by defining it in opposition to the Tories. With the Conservatives hitched to Brexit, this is safer than it has been – but not as safe as trying to get the party to define its own, distinctive place in politics. Interestingly he made an appeal for the Lib Dems to be the party of business and free enterprise, and urged businesses to switch allegiance – and this went down quite well amongst the members. This is not the first time he has planted such hints, but I’m still unclear of what it will mean. Where I want it to go is a model of regional economic development not dependent of central state largesse. We shall see.
But the main policy fields sketched out were on Europe, health and social care, and education. The party is unambiguously pro EU, wishing to draw in Remain supporters. Tim advocates a referendum on whatever alternative to the EU the government eventually reaches. This may be cunning positioning, but I struggle with the idea as serious policy. The “destination” as he calls it probably will not be clear until Article 50 has been invoked and the bridges burnt. Hopes for some sort of middle way between hard Brexit (being outside the single market or a customs union) and full membership are fading. Still this is changing terrain and a more coherent pro-EU position may emerge. Nothing came out of the conference on the party’s vision for the EU itself, even though the institution is clearly in crisis. Where Tim was much stronger was in acknowledging the concerns of working class Brexit voters, referring to his own Lancashire working class roots. He is not trying to blame the voters, but to build bridges. This must be right, if not entirely consistent with some ideas of a “core vote” strategy.
He is much braver on health and social care. Tim, and his former leadership rival Norman Lamb, have identified that health and social care are in crisis. Norman, who remains highly respected in the party, is putting together a commission of experts to develop new vision – and one that will probably involve higher taxes. This is promising – it entails some thought leadership on an issue the public really cares about. With Labour bogged down in union vested interests, and the Tories lacking convincing policy, this development starts to answer the question “why the Liberal Democrats?”.
Alas there was much less thought leadership on education. The party’s instincts are sound enough, but I don’t think Tim, or many in the party, have quite caught up with where schools really are, rather than some rather lurid caricatures. But with the Conservatives veering off to the blind alley of school selection, the political opportunity remains for the party. Yet it would be good if it could develop more ambition. There is a policy working group on education (I applied but was not included) – but these groups tend to square off the party’s internal pressure groups, rather than try to develop a wider public debate – which the health initiative is clearly intended to do.
Tim also developed a general direction of travel for economic policy. He wants more for the regions outside London and the southeast – led by infrastructure investment. He said that these areas had been let down by both the Thatcher and Brown/Blair governments, who were seduced by the bankers, and under-invested in infrastructure and skills. There is something in this. And he did not walk into the leftist trap of employing abstract villains, such as neoliberalism or austerity. This is all sound, but not very distinctive. He could have been much stronger on green investment, but I think the party has sound instincts on that.
But what of my question of last week, about how the party is developing a narrative on coalition? It still wants to play both sides on this, and Tim talks about it as little as possible. He neither sells the coalition’s achievements, nor condemns it as a mistake. I attended a very interesting fringe with former ministers David Laws and Chris Huhne on the coalition years. They acknowledged errors – on tuition fees, benefit reform and NHS reform in particualr, but still enthused on what the coalition had achieved. Fine, but the party still has to explain how it can be of the left and at the same time prop up a government of the right. “That was then, and this is now” is about as good as it gets. The truth is that it very hard for the party. Some members expressed frustration that it does not make more of its achievements – others find many of the things the coalition did (notably on benefits and legal aid) a betrayal of the party’s principles. Expect the muddle to continue for a while. Personally I want the party to rethink its exclusive identification with the left, while seeking to identify areas of agreement with it. The party will help the left by becoming semi-detached – but in the right circumstances it will work with the right too.
And that takes us to a further question. How will the party work with other parties to get things done? It is all very well for Tim Farron to condemn Mr Corbyn’s leadership of Labour as an abdication, but what if Labour, under Mr Corbyn or otherwise, gets its act together? Tim did not rule out working with other parties, and there was plenty of talk at the conference of working with Labour and the Greens. I have bought a book, The Alternative, which tries to develop this – and I will report back when I have read it. For now it is far too easy for us Lib Dems to simply rule out working with Labour and dream to replace them, rather than wake up to the cold, hard realities of how little party is trusted. Working with Labour is about the only way the party is going to achieve anything practical if it rules out working with the Conservatives again. It is fanciful to suggest that Labour will collapse and leave the field clear for the resurgence of the Lib Dems. But the party can still pick off Tory seats beyond Labour’s reach. Surely we are better off trying to get some form of constructive engagement?
What is clear to me is that the left needs to develop a new policy agenda which is capable of capturing the imagination of a sceptical public. The Lib Dems are engaging in this process. But, to put it at its kindest, it is far to early for the party to imagine that it can lead it.