This year’s Lib Dem spring conference was an interesting affair. Here’s a few thoughts about it:
1. The narrative of the party leadership.
The tone of much of what the party’s coalition frontbench is saying is not massively changed, but there has been an evolution if not a revolution. As was widely called for and predicted 6 months ago, the penny seems to be starting to drop about the need to start to “badge” (to borrow Tim Farron’s phrase) more of our policy achievements in government as Lib Dem wins, whilst avoiding the potential pitfalls of exposing the push and pull at the heart of the government too much. In particular, the approach of Nick’s leader’s speech was subtly shifting in this direction, and where previously it was notable that he barely said anything disapproving about the Conservative party 6 months ago, today we saw him, if not laying into the Tory party, at least feeling able to start to express explicit differences.
The main shift by the party leadership, though, was in tone rather than content. More than once, we were urged to “keep your heads up”, not to apologise for being in government. I think this must be right, at least to some extent. 90% of communication is nothing to do with the actual content of what we say, after all. Rather, it is to do with the way we say it. Too often, “we didn’t win the election”, “it was the best we could do in the circumstances” etc. sound like cringing apologies for our part in government. They may be factually correct, but if it sounds like we’re trying to convince ourselves because we’re a bit down about the difficulties of government, it’s not likely to win many people over. What was noticeable about this change of tone is that it was ubiquitous across the spectrum of the party’s leading lights, not just from the cabinet ministers.
2. The battle for the ongoing identity of the party – a rise in social / economic liberal factionalism?
One consequence of coalition, it seems, is going to be the dredging up of old dividing lines within the party, as people try to win the battle for the “direction” of the party in the future. The drive for this seems to spring from suspicion of the party leadership, which I suspect is inevitable in the circumstances of a coalition. Much of our faith in Nick at the moment rests on what we as members believe he is doing within government behind closed doors. People don’t know what to make of Nick’s attempts to find intellectual common ground with the Tories. Some worry that in fact, Nick wants to shift the party to the economic liberal end of the spectrum, and he secretly agrees with some of the Tory policies we would like him to oppose. Others, meanwhile, accept that Nick respects the existing balance of opinion within the party, and is not trying to move us anywhere, merely to paint the party for the moment in a light which makes sense of the coalition.
I had, in the past, generally accepted the argument that the line between social liberals and economic liberals in the party was overplayed. Sure, there is a spectrum of thought in the party on some issues, but liberalism isn’t primarily about the left/right divide, it defines itself against authoritarianism – it lies on a different axis. I still believe this, but as the party tries to reassert its identity it is perhaps inevitable that it is going to end up pulling away from the centre of gravity of the coalition government.
Thus, we have seen a resurrection of the struggle between liberalism and social democracy within the party, with many within the party, consciously or not, playing up to these terms. The Social Liberal Forum, for instance, and many other members of the party, spent the weekend trying to reassert the values of what they insist (probably correctly) are the mainstream of party opinion. Speeches were heard in the debate on the strategy paper bemoaning the lack of reference to social democratic traditions from the leadership of the party. As if to underline their point, Nick then spoke in his speech of the great intellectual history of the Liberal party, but not so much of the social democratic tradition.
Partly, though, this is because Nick’s mission in his speech was to set out a coherent narrative of who the party is for and what it believes, whilst at the same time maintaining the intellectual coherence of the coalition’s joint programme. The language of the party’s liberal inheritance makes this easier; I personally don’t think Nick is deliberately shunning the other side of the party’s roots – indeed, quoting Shirley Williams in this context rather masterfully downplayed the significance of the divide.
Lastly on this point, it’s probably worth pointing out that, had we been in a parallel universe where we now found ourselves in coalition with Labour, I very much suspect that the economic liberals in the party would very similarly be decrying an over-emphasis on social democracy at about this point in time. I think this kind of ideological rebound is likely to be an inevitable feature of coalition for our party, and I don’t know that there’s much Nick or anyone else can do about it.
3. The NHS amendments and the risks of “going native”.
One problem for our ministers, it seems, is the risk that they may be perceived to be “going native” in their departments. In particular, many of the people with concerns about the Lansley reforms have been getting the impression that Paul Burstow pretty much approves of the policies in the proposed NHS reforms, rather than regretting that they are not in line with many aspects of Lib Dem policy. I rather get the impression that he is much keener on the reforms than Nick Clegg ever was. But of course, I have no idea what Burstow might have privately been saying to Andrew Lansley and his other Tory colleagues in the Department of Health. This, really, is the problem our frontbenchers have. We simply have to take it on trust that they don’t really believe everything they have to say as coalition ministers.