Thursday, September 27, 2012

The media write their stories in the bar in London before they travel to the seaside.

I think it was 1979 when Michael White wrote in the Guardian that Margate pier was the ideal image for the Liberal Party.   Our conference in Margate had been interrupted by occasional explosions as the demolition experts tried to destroy the pier.   It was, said Michael, "a Victorian structure that refused to go away".  I wondered if any journalists this year would be tempted to compare the party to Brighton's West Pier, cut off in the middle of a hostile storm, but none of them did, although Allegra Stratton's Newsnight piece extended the weather metaphor and included a shot of the pier.

Journalists searched Brighton in vain for despair and rebellion.   Instead they found what you will always find at a Liberal Democrat Conference - debate and decision (not to mention drinks and dinner).   Today Andrew Sparrow told us in the Guardian that the Lib Dem Conference had taught us 10 things.

"1. Nick Clegg is trying to forge the Liberal Democrats into a new party"
We are down to our core vote and  there are no fair-weather friends any more. That doesn't make us "a new party", it makes us the party we always have been without the temporary penumbra that politicians waste so much time seeking to attract.

"2. The Lib Dems seem more committed than ever to the coalition"
"As committed as ever"  maybe.   I detect no more or less enthusiasm.   We have the same distaste and doubts about the Tories.   We will be happier if our leaders express it more often.   Andrews cites the so-called rejection of an economic "Plan B".   Sadly Ed Randall's amendment to the growth motion was poorly worded and worse presented in debate.   I believe our Conference Committee selected that amendment because it could be easily defeated and they chose not to select Prateek Buch's much better amendment.    Andrews concludes " the Lib Dems face an existential threat, and if the coalition fails, the party is doomed too".   This is nonsense and perhaps wishful thinking by the Guardian, given their Toynbee-esque prejudices.   Failure of the coalition's economic policy will be bad for both parties in the coalition but fatal for neither.   The sooner we start exploring the economic alternatives (and I don't mean the Balls that the Labour Party talks) the better the party will recover.

"3. The Lib Dems are seeking to reassert their identity"
He's right.  Some of us have been doing that from the beginning of the coalition (two beds not one) but like the rest of the Guardian stable , he doesn't know what our identity is.  He writes, " ...many Lib Dems ...think the party would be mad to give up on leftish voters who are attracted by the party's social democratic instincts." (my emphasis).   As I explained to Jackie Ashley last year, we don't have "social democratic instincts";  we have social liberal instincts, which are quite different and date back to the writings of Green and Hobhouse in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries.

"4. Clegg intends to fight the general election"
Well spotted, Andrews, who obviously has a MA in the Bleeding Obvious.    He even raises the old chestnut of Nick Clegg going to Brussels in 2014.   This was never a runner (do chestnuts run ?).   Why on earth would the Tories send Clegg to Brussels ?   Do they want someone British committed to the development of the EU sitting in the European Commission ?   Do they want to make a vacancy for Vince or Tim Farron to lead the Lib Dems ?   I don't think so.

"5. There will be no imminent leadership challenge"
Yet Andrews thinks there might be in 2014 or before.   Do this journalists ever think things through ?   For a challenge, there must be a challenger.   If, surprisingly, the economy picks up and things look better, Nick Clegg will be safer.   If, as looks likely, there is no recovery and the deficit looks as bad as ever, Nick Clegg is even safer.  Why ? If you had plans to be leader of the Liberal Democrats, why would you want to take over just before a really bad election when all you have to do is wait until after it and let Nick take all the blame ?

"6. Vince Cable is the party's undisputed leader-in-waiting"
I do not share the reported adoration of St Vince.   He is not a team player.   His economic judgement is not as reliable as believed.   His presentation and political management of the tuition fees (as opposed to his masterly negotiation behind the scenes) was catastrophic.   I think his ascendancy to the leadership is unlikely and possibly unwanted by him.  Andrews for some reason not explained, believes Tim Farron's star to be falling.  I have seen no evidence of that.

"7. Election manifestos are going to look different in the future because they will clearly differentiate between non-negotiable promises and negotiable ones"
Possibly although I doubt it, but the problem last time was not the manifesto but the pledge.  Nobody reads manifestos.

"8. Coalition is making government more open"
Yes, but sadly not enough.   We don't really have a new politics.   Labour's visceral hatred of the Liberal Democrats exceeds their dislike of the Tories and effectively, especially in parliament, we still have two sides and old-fashioned adversarial politics.   The culture of disagreeing about everything has yet to be replaced by a culture of seeking agreement which will outlast a single parliamentary term.

"9. The Lib Dems are still overwhelmingly white and male"
He is, of course, judging by the House of Commons, not the party membership.   I don't deny that there is more to be done but it's not a Lib Dem problem, it's a problem with politics across the board.   Conference this year seemed to me to have more young people, certainly more women and in my estimation, more representatives from ethnic minorities than in previous years.

"10. But it's a great party to join if you want to speak at a party conference"
Finally he gets something right.  In his own words:
This week has confirmed that the Lib Dems are still the only main party in British politics genuinely comfortable about letting the members debate policy. Labour and the Tories use their conferences to showcase their leaders and rising stars. If you want to go to party conference, get involved in debates and speak on more than one occasion, I'm afraid you haven't got much option. You'll have to join the Lib Dems.

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