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Commentary 348 – September 2011
04 September 2011 (17:16:30)

CLEGG’S CLAIRVOYANCE

Most people had forgotten about Nick Clegg’s pre-election prediction that a Conservative victory would lead to riots, until they erupted in August.

The reasons he cited – essentially the effects of spending cuts and unemployment on poorer people – did not spark the original riot, but certainly played their role in the subsequent ones as young people who felt they had little to lose played a substantial role in the disorder.

So if Clegg was right about the malign effects of austerity in April 2010, can he do anything to limit them now?

He has been at pains in the last year to stress that the Liberal Democrats did not win the last election and that this is not a Lib Dem government, but one in which the Lib Dems can limit the impact of what the Tories would have done if left to themselves.

That is no doubt true, but voters are rarely interested in what might have happened; they are interested instead in what they can see around them.

And what they can see is that the coalition’s economic policy is two-pronged: cut public spending, then hope (in the style of Dickens’s Mr Micawber) that something will turn up of its own accord to make the economy prosper.

This has been the substance of George Osborne’s ‘Plan A’, in whose wake the Lib Dems have been dragged along.

So far, we have seen almost zero growth (and not in the benign sense that environmentalists once wished to achieve), collapses in business and consumer confidence, and a continued lending strike by the banks.

Suggestions abound as to what the government could and should do (and some are to be found in this issue of Liberator), and there will be judgements to be made on what is economically viable and politically possible within the coalition.

Bill Clinton’s maxim that elections are won on the “the economy, stupid” has seldom been wrong, and the next election will turn on this.

The drumbeat of Labour’s “too far, too fast” slogan is growing louder. It is a dishonest message, since Labour would have cut almost as deeply as has the coalition, but it is a simple and seductive one if voters continue to see around them economic misery inflicted for no discernable purpose.

Quite simply, if the coalition is allowed to carry on cutting and hoping for the best, the story it will be able to tell at the next election will be both inadequate and unconvincing.

THE SLIPPERY SLOPE

As our cover shows, the amount of time devoted to policy motions at the Lib Dem conference in Birmingham has sunk below the halfway mark at 12 hours, against 19 for everything else.

And of the motions on the agenda, only that on work capability assessments is likely to cause the government any difficulty if passed, though it must be said that it was brave of the Federal Conference Committee to include the perennially controversial and misinterpreted subject of drug policy reform.

Since there is hardly anyone on the FCC who could reasonably be described as obsessed with currying favour with the party leadership, the reasons must be sought elsewhere.

The last proper Liberal Assembly in 1987 started on a Saturday and finished on a Friday morning, with almost the entire proceedings given over to policy debates.

As the Lib Dems have grown in political size and influence, the time devoted to conference in total, and to debates within that, has shrunk.

It still leaves the Lib Dem conference a vastly different event from the fan club rallies held by the Conservative and Labour parties, as anyone who has attended either can attest.

But the danger is that the Lib Dems are sliding unconsciously towards that sort of event as a kind of group-think takes over: lots of us hold important positions and therefore want to spend less time at conference; we are in power at local (and now national) level so do not want boats rocked or embarrassing things said; we have a ‘shop window’ on television so let’s fill it with people promoting messages determined by the leadership rather than by people disagreeing with each other.

The problem is not that some malign group of people is seeking to neuter conference, but rather that there isn’t such a group. If there were, it could be countered. Instead, there is just a prevalent state of mind about what a ‘serious’ party should be doing and how it should conduct itself.

At the end of that road lies the Tory and Labour conferences, events of little interest to anyone except commercial lobbyists and exhibitors.

It’s true that delegates are allowed a little more off the leash at spring conference, and that some of the rubbish submitted for debate at Birmingham may have left the FCC with less choice of decent motions than it would wish.

But look at the other party conferences and consider. If the Lib Dem conference ever came to resemble them, who would want to attend?

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