The Sheffield conference shows that the Liberal Democrats are starting to find their feet as a party of government.
I spent the weekend in Sheffield attending the Liberal Democrats spring conference. As usual the conference generated an awful lot of things that I wanted to write about and comment upon alongside ensuring that it was almost impossible to do so at the time. So it is afterwards that I can sit down and try to work out what it all means. First is an attempt to sum up what it means for the Liberal Democrats as a whole.
The Sunday morning debate on party strategy, positioning and priorities included the approval of an amendment promoted by Evan Harris and Chris White which called on the party to develop new procedures and ways of working for the development and agreement of party policy. With its talk of consultation, committees, reviews and reporting back the amendment may not appear to be very exciting and perhaps only to be of relevance to those obsessed with procedure. But there was some real raw politics going on here.
Behind the amendment was the recognition that the party needs to change the way it makes and discusses policy so as to fit with the challenges of being in government. The motivation was to ensure that activists, conference, and the party membership as a whole remain influential as the agenda of the coalition government development and we move beyond those policies negotiated in the coalition agreement.
Reflecting back on the events of the last few days I felt that this amendment was to some extent symbolic of what this year’s spring conference was about. Since entering the coalition the Liberal Democrats have been on new and unfamiliar territory. The party leadership, the parliamentary party, officials and staff, councillors and campaigners, and members of kinds find that they have to adjust to a set of circumstances that are very new to them. Each in their different ways are having to find new methods of thinking, talking and acting in order to deal with the different dynamics of being in government. Ones that are very different from the familiar, and possibly more comfortable, dynamics of opposition and protest.
Back at last year’s autumn conference in Liverpool the mood was one of a slightly nervous celebration mixed with a level of uncertainty about what it all meant. The unofficial slogan for that conference should have been “WTF”.
A few months later and the party appears to be working through its confusion. We are getting down to the practical business of adjusting to life as part of the coalition. I saw several examples of this over the weekend. Having the strategy debate in the first place was a healthy recognition of this need for adjustment. It was also a much better and more focused debate than the rather woolly discussion on party strategy we had at the Liverpool conference.
So the lesson that I take from the Sheffield conference is that collectively the Liberal Democrats are starting to find their feet as a party of government. We are discovering the new ways of doing things we need to adopt to make it work.
As someone whose greatest concerns for my party have focused around, not the policies and decisions of government, but the party’s capacity and approach to the business of politics, I find this enormously reassuring.
This content was originally posted on my old Strange Thoughts blog.