Sunday, 12 October 2014

Reflections on Lib Dem Conference and Beyond, by Linda Jack

During Lib Dem Conference, I bumped into a Tory journalist, who couldn’t believe how upbeat and cheerful the atmosphere was given our 6% rating in the polls.

‘If this were the Tories, Linda,’ he said, ‘they’d be murdering each other by now!’

And there we have the enigma wrapped in a mystery. It doesn’t matter how hard you hit us, we just bounce back. Whatever anyone throws at our party, resilience is our stock in trade.

So, despite concerns about the internal issues in the party and our external prospects – at conference we are a family – having the odd spat but coming together on the last night for a good dose of gallows humour at Glee Club.

For me, the issue is very clear. A political landscape without a strong liberal voice will be all the poorer.

Both main parties offer a form of authoritarianism – even Labour didn’t try to centralise education the way the Tories have.

Both are more concerned with vanity projects and targets than delivering truly effective and joined up services.

Both give a nod to localism and then continue to hoard power.

Both take every opportunity to chip away at our civil liberties – while the Tories want to take away our human rights as well.

In this respect, I’m not sure the ‘Stronger Economy, Fairer Society’ works in clearly stating who we are and what we are for. If anything, I’d prefer Fairer Economy, Stronger (and Freer) Society.

As someone who never supported our decision to go into Coalition, I feel I am at last beginning to see the light at the end of the tunnel. Even if we come out at the other end, blinking, battered and bruised – at least we’ll be back in the light.

Our leadership is getting back to stating our core values and what it is that differentiates us from the Tories.

Whether this is too little too late remains to be seen, but I was particularly moved by Nick Clegg’s commitment to parity for Mental Health – that is a real demonstration of what we say we are for.

The enormous force for good that both Paul Burstow and Norman Lamb have been in an area that has been ignored by successive governments, presumably because there were no votes in it, is a clear demonstration of what a Liberal Democrat government would look like.

However, if we are to rebuild trust with our erstwhile supporters and attract new ones, we need a much bigger dose of humility and the courage to be honest about when and where we have got it wrong.

Apart from the car crash that was Tuition Fees; or our inability to explain how signing up to cruel and vindictive benefit reforms furthered our aim of ‘no one enslaved by poverty’; or the attempt to justify Secret Courts, or ‘top down reorganisation’ of the NHS, allegedly ruled out in the Coalition Agreement.

Apart from all that, and more, we have a mountain to climb to rebuild trust.

I think it is harder for us as a party because we claimed to be different. We were going to ‘clean up politics’, remember?

People may have been unsurprised when Labour broke their promise on tuition fees, but they were truly shocked when we did.

Whenever I used to get told on the doorstep ‘you’re all the same’m I used to be able to say, ‘If we were all the same, why would I be in the Lib Dems?’

But sadly, we have not proved immune from the malaise that seems to infect anyone in or near power. So now we need to take our share of the blame for the rise and rise of UKIP, filling a vacuum as much of our making as anyone else’s.

So, where now for the party? Well, it won’t be good in May, but it won’t be as bad as our detractors would like to imagine.

There won’t be a coup this close to an election, and the party will grit its teeth and get behind the leadership. After all, a house divided against itself will fall.

If our manifesto has some strong messages like our commitment on mental health, although we have a way to go, since the pre-manifesto was a little disappointing and safe.

If we are seen to be recognising the error of our ways and taking the fight to the Tories on Human Rights, the Bedroom Tax, and I trust arguing to reinstate the Independent Living Fund.

If we can find a narrative that recognises why the electorate has lost trust in us; that owns up to, and apologises for, our mistakes; that sets out a clear vision and an even clearer programme to create the freer, fairer society in which ‘no one is enslaved by poverty ignorance or conformity’ that we exist to create

Then, and only then, will we have a chance to continue to be a force in British Politics.

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