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Saturday, September 29, 2012

After the Liberal Democrats Federal Conference

Although this post is a few days after the fact, I nevertheless thought that this insightful and intriguing article by the Guardian's senior political correspondent, Andrew Sparrow was worth referring to.

Mr. Sparrow sets out ten lessons from the recent Liberal Democrats Federal Conference that underlines the risky but necessary course that Nick Clegg has embarked on. In particular he identifies that the Liberal Democrats leader is seeking to recast us into a mainstream party that can win by first-past-the-post:

As Matthew d'Ancona put it in a column recently, he wants "nothing less than to create a third party of government; not an electoral dumping ground for the Undecideds, the Outraged and People Who Still Hate Blair, but a party ready to participate in future coalitions and bring its own distinctive approach to bear on government". But with the polls as they are, this new entity could face a virtual electoral wipeout in 2015.

He also says that Liberal Democratss seem more committed than ever to the coalition, and that the party seems to have realised it is past the point of no return:

It may not know where its journey will end, but the bridge back to April 2010 is in cinders. The clearest sign of this came when the party endorsed the coalition's key economic strategy, decisively rejecting a call for a Plan B. Clegg made the point convincingly in his speech to the conference rally on Saturday. "This is the first time anyone in modern Britain has experienced a national coalition government," he said. "We must show them it is a form of government that works well for them. If we don't we will have lost not only the argument for having Liberal Democrats in power but for having a third party at all." In other words, the Lib Dems face an existential threat, and if the coalition fails, the party is doomed too.

He adds that the Liberal Democrats have not resolved the right/left argument, but the conference showed members can unite around three themes: taxing the wealthy (the mansion tax has been championed ad nauseam); defending civil liberties (the leadership was trounced on secret courts, in the best debate of the conference); and green growth (which has become a key dividing line with the Tories).

His last three points are particularly telling:

8. Coalition is making government more open In the past ministers used to argue in private and defend their collective decisions in public. When the coalition launched, the two parties tried to play down differences in public, but now Clegg and the Lib Dems are so open about their disagreements with Tory colleagues that, as this week has demonstrated, it has almost stopped being a story. Danny Alexander proposed a motion implicitly attacking his boss, George Osborne, and the media barely batted an eyelid. Conversations that once took place behind closed doors are being conducted in public. It's a notable shift in Whitehall culture.

9. The Lib Dems are still overwhelmingly white and male The party has no ethnic minority MPs and there seemed to be very few ethnic minority delegates at the conference. The most senior woman to get a high profile speech slot was Jo Swinson, a junior minister. In diversity terms, this party has a very long way to go.

10. But it's a great party to join if you want to speak at a party conference This week has confirmed that the Lib Dems are still the only main party in British politics genuinely comfortable about letting the members debate policy. Labour and the Tories use their conferences to showcase their leaders and rising stars. If you want to go to party conference, get involved in debates and speak on more than one occasion, I'm afraid you haven't got much option. You'll have to join the Lib Dems.

Personally, I am comfortable with this analysis. This is a long game, but it is also a risky one. If we do not embark on it then we will be doomed to remain at the margins of British politics.
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