I am on my way to today’s Liberal Democrat Local Government Conference and thought it was about time I got round to posting my thoughts on last month’s Special Conference held at the NEC in Birmingham and called to discuss the coalition deal. So here it is:
Politics is always about both head and heart. Political decisions are made either through a process of rational thought, or by the emotional reactions of the human beings involved, or more usually by a combination of the two.
The ‘head’ of the Liberal Democrats on display at the special conference had made its mind up in a pretty clear and determined manner. It was more or less agreed that the logic of the situation the party had found itself in after the election pointed to a fairly narrow range of options. The Party seemed to have decided that a rational analysis of the risks and benefits of different courses of action leads to a strong argument for participating in this coalition.
Did head win out over heart?
Is it a clear case of the head being for and the heart being against? It certainly was for my friend Linda Jack one of the few speakers against the motion, who clearly stated that she was “voting with my heart”. But I think it was more complicated than that. While the head maybe clear the ‘heart’ of the Liberal Democrats was a lot more confused.
We feel very nervous. We know the risks are very high.
This pattern of a clear head and a troubled heart seemed to run through the speeches made in the vast aircraft hanger like hall.
I did miss the standing ovation for Simon Hughes’ speech, which I have heard several people describe as his best speech for years, as I was having a cup of tea and a, very tasty, muffin at the time. But of the speeches and contributions I did hear this is my assessment;
Vince Cable gave the best speech I heard. I think he spoke for many, if not most, people in the party when he argued that although the risks were great for the party, for the benefit of our ideals and the country we had to take that risk.
Why should we participate in the coalition? “I want to confront the present reality and advance my hopes for this party and this country” he said.
The speech that moved me most was the one by Tom McNally. Others have noted Toms extraordinary journey from Labour Prime Ministerial advisor to Minister in a Lib Dem/Conservative coalition. But his speech showed how that journey wasn’t without passion and principle. His was one of the more effective lines of the day as in describing his responibility for the Human Rights Act he declared that he was now “Minister with responsibility for this Party’s soul.”
The best speaker in the two intervention slots was Alex Wilcock who managed to make several telling points in a short space of time.
The most politically effective speech I thought was from Lynne Featherstone MP. As the new Minister for Equalities she dealt well with issues of concern for the Party – “there will be no roll back on equalities on my watch” – and set out an agenda for her new role grounded in political reality – “We are here to help David Cameron’s frontbench deal with the head bangers on his back bench.” (I will say though that the speech would have been more politically effective if journalists and TV cameras had been allowed in to report on it.)
Time to get dirty
There were a number of speakers who made an argument that was essentially along the lines of it is time for the Liberal Democrats to grow up. This is a time for the party to get real, make the tough decisions, and become proper players in politics. Andrew Stunnell MP used the line that the Liberal Democrats are “not a hobby”. Similary Chris Davies MEP said “We are members of a political party, not a knitting circle”.
Evan Harris typically made the point by quoting Woody Allen – “Is sex dirty? Only if you’re doing it right!” Well, he argued, it’s the same with politics.
Evan’s speech saw one of the more poignant moments as the long applause the hall gave him demonstrated the respect the Party has for him and our distress at him narrowly losing his Oxford seat.
But it was Vince Cable who got it most right – “The biggest comfort zone is opposition”.
While some did get rather excited at the sight of real live Liberal Democrat cabinet ministers, most understood the point that power and position is only important for the things it can achieve.
So there was much talk about the amount of Liberal Democrat policies in the coalition deal. But there were also those who had brought their shopping lists.
The amendments were all about things peole wanted from this deal; concerns over human rights and support for the HRA, social liberal concerns about social justice and the new governments approach to the poor, the ever present issue of tuition fees, the Digital Economy Act, and so on.
I did wonder what the two speakers from Wales thought they would achieve with what was essentially a whinge that there was not enough in the coalition deal for Wales. I do hope that now we are in government demands goodies for particular constituencies or areas doesn’t become a feature of Liberal Democrat conferences. Pork barrel politics is never very attractive.
One of the themes I want to highlight from the day, mostly because i have some sympathy with it, was an underlying dissatisfaction with the deal over electoral reform.
The clearest advocate for this was former MP David Rendel, who was apparently the only member of the Party’s Federal Executive to vote against the coalition agreement. He was not a happy man. He said that the decisions of those crucial party meetings had “left me feeling very lonely”.
His concerns are real, I have some understanding of where he is coming from. He could be right that we will see five years of good government followed by five decades in the wilderness. I very much hope he is wrong.
But then that is very much the gamble we are taking. Will the things we achieve for the country be worth the potential political damage that could hit the party and can we turn delivery in government into renewed growth for the party.
But as Chris Huhne MP pointed out in his summation coalition government can work. With his tongue in his cheek he referred back to a previous coalition government, the 1940-45 coalition government under Churchill; “you know what I learnt about the Second World War? – we won!”
At the end of the debate the vote against the coalition agreement was barely into double figures.
This content was originally posted on my old Strange Thoughts blog.