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Two nudges in the right direction

September 20th, 2010 Posted in Liberal Democrats by

For me there have been two welcome and significant signals from the Liberal Democrat leadership at this year’s conference.

The first is that a Liberal Democrat Leader has finally drawn a philosophical line against any notion the Liberal Democrats are a left-wing party. Nick Clegg’s interview with the Independent on Sunday goes some way to undoing the damage done by rolling out the red-carpet to left factions disaffected with Labour.

“The Lib Dems never were and aren’t a receptacle for left-wing dissatisfaction with the Labour Party. There is no future for that; there never was.”

The second is the quiet and confident way in which a Party Conference revolt on the government’s free schools policy has been ignored. In his Leader’s speech only hours later the policy was reiterated and the world moved on.

Both these changes in the tone of Leadership are seismic.

In positioning in recent years, Ashdown pursued New Labour, Kennedy flirted with Old Labour, Campbell wanted to part of a Scottish hegemony with Brown. The Campaigns department would have happily welcomed a defection from George Galloway and Bob Crowe if they thought it would help win a by-election. No wonder the left are hurt and confused by the Conservative coalition. All of sudden their liberal suitors are talking about liberalism again like it means something other than reading the Guardian.

It does look as though Clegg is serious about staking a claim to the centre-ground.

The dismissal of Conference was long overdue. The chimera of activist power, that the Liberal Democrat Conference could dictate what MPs did has been shown to be hollow. The schools vote will not change government policy, it will not influence current or future Liberal Democrat team bargaining positions. The outcome of the debate will sit alongside better researched ideas from the civil service and think tanks, and polemics from political actors and newspapers. It will be treated for what it is, a point of view from a pressure group, not a special mandate.

Some will find this distasteful. They will argue that something special and important has been lost, but it has been perfectly clear for sometime that Conference representatives do not represent the wider party well, let alone people minded to vote Liberal Democrat. They are barely accountable to any significant electorate (it is not a mini-Parliament of the party) and the Conference process is not a good way of developing or testing the quality of policy. The leadership can now listen to and consult the party through a variety of channels, town halls, media commentary, on-line polling, special policy conferences and working parties. It does not need a student union AGM to close the deal.

Slowly, carefully, little by little, Nick Clegg’s team is nudging the Liberal Democrat party into a 21st century where liberals don’t just aspire to government, they are the government.

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