I am again late in writing about this but I did want to present my thoughts on the Liberal Democrats special manifesto conference held at the LSE in London on Saturday 12th January before diving into the wider debate about public services.
I do enjoy this kind of thing. Listening to the discussion, formal and informal, and picking out what themes, concepts and ideas are doing the rounds within the party. ‘Meme spotting’ is a fun, if somewhat rarefied, spectator sport and this short conference was an ideal opportunity to indulge in it and to enjoy several hours of valuable and worthwhile intellectual exercise.
I had attended the similar ‘Meeting the Challenge’ conference, held in the same venue, two years ago. Comparing the two I would say that in policy terms this was the better event. Not holding it in the middle of a leadership contest helped in avoiding distractions from the far more important business of policy development. If the previous one day conference had an overarching theme then it was the need for the party to find a narrative. Something we are still struggling with.
If this latest conference had a theme it would be how the Liberal Democrats should approach the provision of public services. Our new leader made the issue central to his opening speech, which unfortunately I was late for but have caught up by reading the full text, and the issue was the focus of the final session of the conference.
The format of this session seemed designed to reinforce the idea that this debate is about a divided party arguing about conflicting approaches. The three speakers each were tasked with putting the case for a different vehicle for the delivery of public services. David Howarth MP was tasked with making the case for local government, Jeremy Browne MP with arguing for the market, and Liz Barker making the case for the voluntary sector. However, there was a very welcome reluctance from the speakers to fit neatly into this rather simplistic structure.
David Howarth highly effectively challenged the idea that local government should be seen as a vehicle for the delivery of public services at all. Instead he argued that it should be a place where the decisions about how public services are delivered are made, emphasising the political and democratic nature of local government.
Jeremy Browne started with a discussion of Britain in the 1970’s which was part nostalgia and part critique. He then sort to contrast this picture with Britain today to emphasise the huge explosion in choice we have seen over his, and my, lifetime. Making the point that this was largely driven by market forces he challenged the Party to embrace choice as a fundamentally liberal idea.
On the voluntary sector, rather than advocating that it should do more, Liz Barker talked about the restrictions and limitations that it currently faces. It is good to be reminded that those politicians who call for the voluntary sector to do more and proclaim charities as the answer often have little if no knowledge of what the voluntary sector is good, or not so good, at doing. Liz was very clear that the voluntary sector had a hugely important but specific role, and that role was not to be a general provider of services. Her contribution reinforced my view that we have to give much more thought to how we develop the right kind of relationship between the voluntary sector and the state.
The discussion that then followed was valuable, but what struck me most was just how much people seemed to be talking past each other. I have a feeling that one of problems with the debate about the delivery of public services within the Liberal Democrats is that we keep misunderstanding what other people are going on about. If we could develop greater clarity we might find that the differences aren’t as great as people think they are.
By way of an example one of the things I remember most clearly from the discussion were two remarks relating to the issue of choice. Someone raised the familiar point that choice in itself was not necessarily a good thing. For instance, being given a choice of schools for your child becomes purely theoretical if there are practical difficulties that make exercising that choice impossible. What people want is for their local school to be a good one. The argument is that choice only has value if it is meaningful. However, someone a little later in the discussion dismissed the meaningful choice argument as missing the point. The purpose of encouraging choice is, through the collective impact of those individual choices, to raise standards across the board. The point is not to give parents a choice of schools for their children for the sake of it, it is because the operation of choice means that there are better schools for everyone.
Here we have people talking about two different things. One is approaching the issue of choice from a perspective of outcomes. The other from a perspective of mechanisms. It is these kind of misunderstandings that often make the internal debate about public service provision unproductive. We do need to approach this stuff with more clarity.
This content was originally posted on my old Process Guy blog.