For the second year in a row, I am not attending Lib Dem conference. I went for ten years straight, but now, I both emotionally can’t face it and also, given the decline in the party’s fortune, I have no real professional reason to go (I’ll be at both Labour and Tory, if any of you reading we be at either or both). While I applaud Vince’s efforts to try and turn the ship around with his latest ideas about opening up the party, there was a vote that took place yesterday on the floor of conference which sums up why the party will continue to struggle for the foreseeable future.
Now, I’m about to get into something that many of you will roll your eyes about: votes at Lib Dem conference. I realise this bores the hell out of you, and with very good reason, but hear me out. The Lib Dems, for better or for worse, are the most actually democratic of parties. While Corbyn drones on about how the membership decide everything while avoiding votes on anything he might find tricky, Lib Dem policy is actually decided by the membership. Therefore, votes at Lib Dem conference give you a real insight into what is going on in the party at any given time. Unfortunately for the Lib Dems, it seems at present like a majority of the membership aren’t even actually liberal.
An amendment was put into a motion on what Lib Dem foreign policy should be yesterday. The fact that this had to be an amendment rather than in the original motion says a lot about the problems I’m discussing here, but here’s what it said:
“After 4. b) (line 87) insert:
c) Continuing to promote free trade across the world, in particular between developed and developing nations, recognising the benefits this brings to all nations involved.”
That is so unpunchy, you could probably get that passed at Labour conference this year, if you so desired. But at Lib Dem conference, the amendment failed to pass. By two votes, so it was razor thin, but there you have it: the Lib Dems don’t, as a party, think that free trade should be promoted, in particular between developed and developing nations. Okay.
More than ever, I am confused about what the Lib Dems are supposed to be there to stand for, apart from stopping Brexit, which several people are doing much more to help happen, including Boris Johnson and the ERG group for starters (albeit unintentionally, at least in regards to the latter mentioned there).
I took a look at the whole 2018 Lib Dem conference agenda, just to punish myself a little. The first item to be voted on this year was “Improving animal welfare”. Now, I have nothing against the cause of improving the lot of my fellow mammals, but when you look at the rest of the agenda and see absolutely nothing on housing, health, infrastructure, transportation, or indeed any public policy matter of any importance whatsoever bar Brexit, you have to wonder: what are the Lib Dems trying to achieve? I mean that seriously.
Put aside getting a second referendum, just for a second. The party has ruled out going into a coalition with either of the two main parties, making it largely irrelevant in parliamentary terms. You could throw this accusation at the Greens but in fact, the Greens make a lot more sense. They have acted as a sort of pressure group to pull Labour further leftwards, a plan that, given where Labour are now, has mostly paid off. If the Lib Dems exists to do nothing but act as a third string pressure group to get a second referendum on Brexit while doing a really bad impression of the Green Party, what is the point?
I, like so many people, wish the Lib Dems were good. We demand better but unfortunately do not get it. A Tory friend of mine recently said to me “I have soft spot still for what the Lib Dems could be, if only they would realise it”. I could only agree with her wholeheartedly.
One request: by all means, come after me on anything I’ve written above, but please, I beg you, do not reply with anything to do with dull, internal Lib Dem politics along the lines of “Well, Joe Righty put the motion down and we think he’s an Orange Book reading stinky, so that’s why we all voted against it”. Please.
Apparently (I was not there), the motion was opposed partly as some of the membership wish it had read as “free and fair trade”. Annoyingly, I think the wider membership would stand by the amendment, and so many of us are a more than a little surprised / annoyed it did not pass.
The party already has some excellent & up-to-date policy on a number of other issues, and conference cannot rehash every single policy, every 6 months – e.g. spring conference policies included education reform. Debate time is limited, and policy motions take a lot of development too – no-one does detail like the LDs.
But, the autumn conference also covered at least two controversial, and important votes:
1) Internal Discipline, which is a reflection of our approach to dealing with abuse, racism & harassment in wider politics, as well as a vital part of getting our own house in order.
2) Immigration Reforms, a very heated debated & in danger of being sent back to the drawing board because the party membership felt it was too timid, and not nearly liberal enough. Here we actually saw the membership stand up to the leadership to pass 5 amendments to fix a policy many felt was compromised by fear of the “Daily Mail”.
I think we are right to rule out coalition with either party in their current form – neither is a suitable partner, both are ideologically committed to Brexit. But they can still be the kingmaker in parliament. They can still influence a minority government – and work with (small-l) liberal rebels on both sides to push through legislation (on any subject) that neither the opposition nor the government would consider.
I think many of us worry that the party is losing its way, aiming for the nebulous centre and abandoning liberalism lest it scare away the public, but from what I can see – the membership aren’t ready to let that happen.
Paul W says
“Continuing to promote free trade across the world, in particular between developed and developing nations, recognising the benefits this brings to all nations involved.”
Was there some backstory to the vote against this free trade amendment or was it a random event? Professional organisations, political parties included, shouldn’t do ‘random’. Even so, it’s all a bit rum. Liberals voting against free trade but, presumably, being OK with membership of a protectionist customs union that impedes developing nations from moving, say, their agricultural products up the value chain?
But then, again, I completely agree with your other point, which is equally rum: “when you look at the rest of the agenda and see absolutely nothing on housing, health, infrastructure, transportation, or indeed any public policy matter of any importance whatsoever bar Brexit, you have to wonder: what are the Lib Dems trying to achieve?”
These are very noticeable policy omissions. I would be fascinated to know why this is the case. There could be some organisational-cultural explanation for it. I would guess that there is too much volunteer-led internal democracy and not enough professional-led political direction. Thus the party becomes a cosy political club for the (fairly) like-minded bringing with them enthusiasms for second order issues that wouldn’t get much of a hearing from the two main parties – Brexit excepted – and for good reason.
Image what would happen if either the Conservative or Labour parties operated on this basis. We get a taste of what could happen from the baleful influence Momentum has already exerted on the Labour party.
But the nub of the matter is this: many voters have lost patience waiting for the “better” to be delivered by the Liberal Democrats. Now they have cancelled their order and taken their custom elsewhere.
Iain Sharpe says
This is a bit unfair
There WAS a debate on housing (Monday morning) which was pretty well attended for a 9am debate and I thought showed a high standard of debate (although to declare an interest my wife was among the speakers).
More than that the characterisation of conference here is a bit unfair. The free trade issue came up in a debate on foreign policy, which is a pretty significance policy area. While I would rather the free trade amendment had been agreed, the policy paper that was approved has positive references to free trade. I think many Lib Dems worry (wrongly in my view) that the idea of free trade suggests the Hayekian right, but the party has hardly reverted to neomercantilism or autarky.
Paul W says
“I think many Lib Dems worry (wrongly in my view) that the idea of free trade suggests the Hayekian right”.
Well, precisely. How could real Liberals confuse the two?
Alex Macfie says
I suppose it’s something that you are now saying we are trying to be Green-lite rather than Corbyn-lite. I don’t think Labour’s leftward move has anything to do with being pushed by the Green Party; rather, it comes from Momentum entryism. It’s a different sort of left-wingery.
There *is* a lot of overlap between the Lib Dems and Greens, particularly on Brexit and the environment. There is little overlap between Lib Dems and Momentum. The Bennite left, with its rigid class-based political analysis, doctrinaire and intolerant approach to politics, knee-jerk anti-western approach to foreign policy, and leader-cultism, has practically nothing in common with the Lib Dems.
If you think that Lib Dem members decide policy, you have failed to appreciate the role that Federal Conference Committee have in deciding what goes on to the agenda in the first place. Rather like Josef Stalin “The people who cast the votes don’t decide an election, the people who count the votes do” it is the FCC that decides what motions and amendments are accepted for debate. A few of the “awkward squad” get elected to it, but there is still a large proportion of “the great and the good” on it, often there as representatives of other committees, State parties and Parliamentarians..