This is my second post about the Liberal Democrats one day policy conference Creating a Progressive Society held at the LSE on Saturday.
The first of the two main sessions, following on nicely from the Leader’s speech, looked at where the Liberal Democrats currently stood, both in policy terms and politically, in reference to the main theme of the conference. It was chaired by Sarah Teather MP. The speakers were Steve Richards of ‘The Independent’ and Carey Oppenheim the Co-Director of the IPPR, with a response from Danny Alexander MP the chair of the manifesto group.
The session started with a typical mischievous introduction from Sarah Teather, including mispronouncing the name of Danny Alexander’s constituency and a crack about Duncan Brack’s lack of hair. Then we were down to business with Steve Richards who started with a cautionary note about the dangers of being candid in these sorts of sessions and how he had offended a leading Tory. He wanted to first talk about the big positive for the Lib Dems before getting on to two negatives.
First the positive. He applauded our very strong distinctive message about tax, Europe and public services. He was certain that we had carved out our own particular space within the political world and it was unique to us. Referring back to Nick Clegg’s speech he was sure that neither David Cameron or Gordon Brown could have made such a speech.
“it is an absolute myth that you are being overcrowded by the other parties moving on to your terrain”
Having buttered us up with that he then went on to the negatives. These were the flaws in the substance of what we are trying to say.
First, he wasn’t convinced by our taxation and public spending policies. He thought we were peddling a myth that we could find substantial savings in government expenditure at this time. While he thought we were right to criticise the governments vat cut and approved of our plans for an alternative fiscal stimulus, he regarded our plans for “cuts” to public spending as not being realistic. It is “myth that you can pretend to find these savings”. The savings just aren’t there.
Second, he noted that Nick Clegg had responded to the credit crunch by talking a lot about failures in regulation and the need for better and tighter regulation of financial services. However, he foresaw a problem in making that case. He thought that the Labour government had steered clear of tackling issues of regulation because the role of the state had become such a taboo. He argued that you needed to articulate how government can have a positive role in the economy, to build support for the case for state intervention, before you could develop strong enough policies for regulation. Our current approach was not doing that, he was critical of our “anti-state” rhetoric, and so we were not able to make the strong pro-regulation case that we, alone of the main parties, had the opportunity to do.
Finally he talked a little about strategy. He argued that the media are very good at spotting “relevance”. They will always ask “does this really matter?” Most of the time, in the media’s view the Liberal Democrats are just not “relevant”. It is only when we develop a closeness to power do we start to become relevant. His conclusion that we needed to “forget about the purity of opposition” given the possibility of a hung parliament. We should “celebrate it”. We should be more open about the possibilities of a hung parliament and talk much more about power. It is this that makes us relevant and gets us noticed.
Carey Oppenheim ran through a brief overview of what she saw as being the bigger questions for “progressives” to deal with in the current climate. She thought it was important to look at these given how significantly the debate has changed over the last year.
Obviously, she saw unemployment and insecurity being an important theme over the coming year and that that issues of inequality are now on the agenda in a way that wouldn’t have been possible a year ago.
She was interested in how the political narrative over climate change would develop. The importance of this issue had meant the development of a new way of thinking but she thought that this had not been fully integrated into the general political debate. This was an important political space for progressives to explore. In particular she thought that we needed to be much braver on the agenda of creating green jobs
She thought that politicians have been cowardly in not more openly admitting the trade off’s between our long hours culture at work and the quality of childcare that children receive. We needed to be more honest about similar trade off’s, take a more lifetime view of the balance of work and care, and develop a richer idea of quality of life.
But more fundamentally progressives needed to look at an approach to the underpinnings of our economy. Essentially we needed to ask the question of how do we develop a Keynes fit for the 21st century. She saw contradictions in how we discussed the role of the state and was concerned with how this tied into a crisis in political legitimacy.
In conclusion, she thought the big challenge was in stringing all those together, developing that elusive political narrative.
In responding Danny Alexander agreed with Steve Richards that that the Liberal Democrats do have a distinctive position but he emphasised that this is value based. But he disagreed with the criticisms believing that there are ways we can change and shift spending in government and so there were possible savings. He thought that in looking at the role of state we had to start from our critique of the political system. We don’t just have an economic crisis but a political crisis too. The current economic crisis gives the Party an opportunity to reach a wider audience with our message of the need to fix our broken politics.
On the issue of a hung parliament. He was clear that we can’t talk about who we want to work with, openly making choices between the parties, but he did recognise that it was an opportunity for us to talk about the things we would do differently.
He then said that he was sympathetic with the overall picture painted by Carey Oppenheim and agreed with a lot of the specific issues she had raised. He finished by saying that the Liberal Democrats have to do two things. We need to talk about how we will solve the short term economic problems that people have. Yet at the same time we also need to talk in the long term, inspire the hope for a different kind of country in the future.
What are my conclusions from this session? The first strong theme I picked up was the emphasis on how much the economic crisis has shifted the terms of the political debate and the consequences of that. There is a genuine and urgent question over whether the Liberal Democrats have adjusted sufficiently to the new context. In particular, we need to look again at how well our, recently adopted, policies on taxation and public spending fit with the political landscape we are facing.
The second theme, and the one which seemed to have the starkest disagreement within the audience, was how the Party should approach talking about hung parliaments. On this particular point I was in total agreement with Steve Richards. I believe we have to be much more up front about the subject. However, it is clear that there is a body of opinion within the Liberal Democrats who are extremely nervous of going anywhere near the subject. One comment from the audience was stark;
“we talk about it – we get less votes”
Finally, I felt that underlying everything was an ongoing discussion about the nature of the role of the state. Explicit in Steve Richards advice, and implicit in Carey Oppenheim’s contribution, was support for an interventionist state. The responses of Danny Alexander and other Liberal Democrats was more equivocal.
I expect all three themes will be returned to over the coming months.
This content was originally posted on my old Process Guy blog.