Monday, September 20, 2010

Protecting our distinctiveness

After two days at party conference it has been very interesting to listen to the views of Lib Dem activists about the coalition, its policies and the implications.

There is overwhelming agreement that going into the coalition was the only game in town.

There is a lot of recognition that on a number of key issues, particularly civil liberties and the environment, we have already made great strides and there is more to come.

And there has been jubilation that there is to be a referendum on a fairer voting system next May - an issue which has brought many of us into the party over the decades and which Lib Dem activists will relish the chance to campaign on.

Where there is disagreement is about how the party maintains its distinctiveness whilst at the same time playing its proper role in Government.

There is no simple answer to this, although there are a whole range of opinions.

Evan Harris, writing on the Guardian website, argues that we need to be ready to set out which things the coalition did that we agreed with and which we didn't. I can see what Evan is getting at, but there is an inherent danger with this approach that it will make us look weak (why did you let it go through if you opposed it) and duplicitous (why did you support it at the time and tell us you don't now).

At the other end of the spectrum are those senior figures who tell us that we should simply trust the leadership and not attack Tory policies at all because we wouldn't like it if they attacked ours. This view is, frankly, barking. In an event there has been too much experience of 'trusting the leader' only to find out later that he had been seeing someone behind our back.

Nick's line is a bit more nuanced. He sensibly points out that he would be laughed out of court if he turned up to introduce some new policy to the media while at the same time pointing out that he and the Lib Dems disagree with it.

At the same time he and others are strongly encouraging us to campaign very hard for a YES vote in the referendum, and describing it as our opportunity to have an all out battle with the Tories.

On the face of it this is a bit of a contradiction, but I think it actually points in the direction we should head in.

Amongst many activists there is a further concern.

There are several areas where we have clearly compromised, or where the Tory approach appears to be dominant, that coincide with known differences of emphasis within our party. The coalition's policy of 'Free Schools' is one such area. There was a lot of debate within our party about the approach to schools, and some support from the party leadership for a policy similar to the coalition's policy. This view was rejected by the Federal Policy Committee and by Conference, yet is now Government policy.

So what approach should we take?

In broad terms I think Nick is basically right. It is in our interest, and the interest of the country, for the coalition Government to look united, particularly in its approach to the economy. We have a direct interest in demonstrating that we can govern in a responsible way and, in so doing, that coalition government is nothing to be feared.

We can also choose which elements of the government's agenda we particularly want to highlight, and claim credit for having achieved things which were in our manifesto.

But we can also choose some ground on which we agree to disagree with the Tories. In some cases the coalition agreement sets out quite openly where these differences of opinion exists: on changing the voting system, tuition fees and Trident.

In my view the public will be quite happy to see the two parties disagreeing on a limited number of issues, particularly if we can be seen to do so in a mature manner.

The harder part may be the run up to the next election.

At that point we will, I hope, want to set out our own distinctive set of policies for the 2015-20 parliament.

I can't see how we can, at that point, suddenly disown large parts of what the coalition government has implemented.

We will have to write a manifesto setting out how we will take Britain forward from that point and set out a distinctive platform based on our principles. The emphasis will need to be on what happens next, and not on criticising what has gone before.

We will need to highlight those things we are most proud of in the coalition's record but I can't see that we go on the attack against things that we have helped implement.

The reality of coalition government is that there are a lot of areas where a genuine consensus can be found, quite a few where a compromise is made between two positions, and a few where one side has to concede to the other.

If we are to demonstrate that coalition government can work, something that is vital to our future, then we should not be frightened of being honest it.

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