In one episode of the masterly political comedy Yes Minister, the knowing civil servant advised his naive minster on the art of public presentation. It depends on how radical you are. The more radical that you want to be, the more sober the presentation needed to be, to reassure the wary. A contentless speech, on the other hand, needed to as glitzy as possible. On that basis the British Liberal Democrats’ leader Vince Cable’s speech yesterday to his party must have been radical indeed. Its presentation was as dull as ditch water, fluffing its one joke (something about erotic spasms). Its content was another matter.
Most commentators, inside and outside the party, have been unable to see past the superficial. They complained that it was dull, and lacked radical new ideas. They assumed that his appeal to reasonable, moderate voters, put off by the extremism of other parties, meant that his ideas were would be wishy-washy, and duly saw that both in what he said, and in the series of policy resolutions passed by the conference. But I have been listening to leader’s speeches for nearly 30 years. I’m tired of the presentational tricks, the crowd-pleasing jokes, the radical-sounding policy ideas that lead nowhere, and the personal stories injected by professional speechwriters to establish “authenticity”. What I actually heard was a series of direct answers to the hard political questions that the party faces; he never lost my attention. My first thought, as we got up to applaud it, was that it was the best leaders’ speech I had ever heard.
So what are these hard questions? The first was what actually do we say if the party succeeds in its quest to secure a referendum on the Brexit proposal, with an option to stay in the EU. This is something that most advocates of a referendum say little about. Vince recognises that most people that support Brexit have a real grievance, having been left out of whatever economic advance the country has made over the last generation. That needed to be addressed through public investment, and for public resources to reflect population increases more readily. He also recognised that the party needed to push for reform of the European Union itself. This is something most Remainers are silent about.
But this only poses deeper questions about what is wrong with Britain, that go far beyond Brexit. Vince took this on too. Part of his answer was a familiar liberal one: better education services, with a lifelong remit; he mentioned further education colleges in particular as a neglected sector that needed attention. He also supported Education spokesperson Layla Moran’s ideas for changes to schools. These are a little too crowd-pleasing for me (replacing Ofsted and reducing primary testing) but are generally going in the right direction. But he also had ideas, indeed firm policies, on the economy, often a Lib Dem weakness. He recognised the biggest problem: that too much money is being hoarded by the well-off. He wants to tackle this by taxing it harder. This is quite brave, since there is likely to be collateral damage amongst a swathe of older people (like me) who have made money from owning homes, and who (unlike me) want to pass on much of this wealth to their children (I don’t have any). This is surely part of the answer, but also I think it means being braver on government debt. But he hinted at this too – by loosening government rules on borrowing to invest, locally and nationally. My criticism in my previous post that the Lib Dems are weak on economic policy is being addressed.
He also wants to start thinking about how the impact of increased automation will affect our lives, and how public policy needs to change to reflect it. This will doubtless lead to a focus on empowering workers, as well as re-focusing regulation of digital platforms. Deputy Leader, and likely successor to Vince, Jo Swinson also talked about this.
But, of course, developing a policy platform that is relevant and radical is only part of the problem. The are small signs that the party’s fortunes are improving at the expense of Britain’s big parties, but far short of what is needed to turn the party into a major political force. The party isn’t speaking to the vast majority of the public, and media gives it little attention, almost none of it sympathetic. Amongst those who have some awareness of the party, it is considered to be well-meaning but ineffectual. It is unfashionable to support the party, and many people who might be supporters resort to sneering at it. There needs some kind of seismic shift, both in gathering supporters and, critically, money. Vince has launched a series of ideas for party reform in an attempt to do just that. I did not attend any of the consultations on these reforms, but I understand that attendees were giving them a sympathetic hearing, but were worried about some aspects, notably that the free supporters’ scheme might be subject to entryism. Many of the older hands are very sceptical, though. They way in which the leadership is trying to push the reforms through has ruffled quite a few feathers.
But the party doesn’t belong to these old hands, who include long time members like me, and more recent ones who joined in the 2000s, who consider themselves to be radical liberals. The party’s membership has exploded since 2015. The recent publicity of Vince’s reforms have drawn in thousands more. Nearly every other speaker claimed that it was their first time speaking at conference. By and large these were persuaded by the leadership line. A strong move by the old lags to derail a motion on immigration, recommending substantial reforms to Britain’s current system, but falling far short of making the country truly open, was easily defeated. The complainers were passionate, angry and numerous, but oddly unspecific. Against this most people were persuaded that the policy was a step in the right direction.
But the opportunity is palpable. The Conservatives are skewered by Brexit, as well tied to an outdated economic orthodoxy. Labour is riven by internecine struggles that are relegating many of its ablest people to the sidelines. Too many of its supporters indulge in tribal abuse as an alternative to building broad support for a radical policy programme. Its leader is failing to convince much of the public. A bit like the Lib Dems, he is seen as well-intentioned but ineffectual.
And meanwhile Brexit is hurtling towards us. Personally I still think that the Prime Minister Theresa May will succeed in getting a compromise deal with the EU through, allowing an exit from the union in March next year. The Lib Dems owe it to their supporters to try their damnedest to stop her. But its leader is looking at what the party has to do beyond that. That encourages me.