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Red storm rising?

November 18th, 2010 Posted in Liberal Democrats, Opinion by

David Hall-Matthews of the Social Liberal Forum raised an interesting point on Lib Dem Voice this week. Have the ‘left’ of the party “become the mainstream”?

His evidence for the shift is the result of the internal party elections, which, as with last year showed greater success for explicitly left candidates like Evan Harris than moderates and aspirational liberals. Tim Farron (left) beat Susan Kramer (moderate) for the Presidency, and across the committees the people’s front of Judea dominate the Judean people’s front.

It one sense he’s clearly right. I’m not sure though that it means what he thinks it means, or it’s all good news for his side.

In any coalition between the Liberal Democrats and Conservatives the opposition to the government within the party is predominantly going to come from the left. Either those who still regard us as some kind of annex for a grand realignment plan, or just those for whom liberal democrat politics is about opposition for the sake of opposition. If you want to send Nick Clegg a message of disapproval, voting for this year’s Miliband-tendency is pretty low risk.

It’s also the case that Nick Clegg is not Tony Blair, and Danny Alexander is not Peter Mandelson. Party management from the leadership has been notably absent. Where New Labour took on their internal critics and crushed them in a series of internal battles for control, Nick has been, well… liberal…

What David has identified is two fingers politely raised to a Leader who is looking the other way.

The issue there I suspect, is that if the internal committees of the party actually mattered, Nick would not be quite so relaxed. The Federal Executive is a case in point. Technically it is the governing body of the party. In reality all serious political decisions are taken by the MPs, all operational ones by Cowley Street. It has a serious role scrutinising those decisions in the manner of a Council committee, but on almost every occasion it has had the power tested, it has proved rather keener to ask the Leader and Chief Executive for direction than rock the boat.

Their one big power is to appoint and sack the Chief Executive, but even that is devolved to a Finance and Administration committee, and the real test of a CEO is whether or not they have the confidence of the Leader.

The Federal Policy Committee technically steers party policy to Conference for approval, and is responsible for how policy is developed. Technically Conference votes are sovereign in deciding what policy is. In reality the FPC is one voice amongst many, and significantly less well resourced than an average-sized think tank. The selectorate who choose the committees and get to vote at conference represent activism not liberal opinion or even the membership of the party. No serious politician would regard that group as having the right to be sovereign over their political decisions, they are primarily accountable to their constituents for their campaign promises and votes in Parliament.

What both conference and the FPC have in spades is influence. It is a story if the FPC or Conference shoot down a leadership proposal.

But it a power best used infrequently and wisely. And this is where David may not get what he wants.

The more the FPC behaves like an anti-government faction, or impractical left-wing ideas shop, the more likely it is it will be ignored.

A key test for example will be what the committee recommend to conference in respect of our tuition fees policy for the next election, and what conference decides. One does not need the foresight of a deceased German octopus to predict that a left-leaning FPC will leave the policy unchanged or back a graduate tax and the Conference will wave it through. Government MPs will ignore it, those planning to vote against will stick it on their leaflets. Overall the party will look confused.

Tim Farron is likely to spend the next two to four years as President planning the Leadership bid that he is crystal clear he does not want. This will involve walking a tight-rope between constructive opposition and sabotage. He will become one of Ed Miliband’s sternest critics whilst agreeing with almost everything he says. He will be effusive in his praise of Nick Clegg whilst disagreeing with almost every decision he takes. He may occasionally stick-up for the Leadership at Conference to show willing whilst privately supporting attempts to get anti-government motions passed via caucuses like the SLF. He and Nick are real friends, but they are both also ambitious politicians.

The win for the left is not in this Parliament and internal elections, it is if and when Tim gets his shot at the big job.

Betting against that after the narrow result between Nick and Chris, and Ed Miliband’s success against New Labour, would be unwise. It is further not at all clear at the moment who would be the opposition. David Laws is brooding in his cave, Jeremy Browne has too marginal a seat, Vince Cable will be too old, Julia Goldsworthy is not in Parliament, and Sarah Teather has not fully recovered her internal reputation since the removal of Charles Kennedy.

Most ministers will struggle to build the kind of party-love available to a candidate outside the coalition. Chris Huhne is plausible, but given he ran on the left-wing ticket last time he would have to perform some quite canny shifts to build a new platform. Danny Alexander oddly looks rather like the compromise candidate who might emerge in the middle, but is untested and has always shone as a loyal number two. He’d be much more likely to back the candidate he thought would win than stand himself. It is though insanely early in the Parliament and the rise of Tim Farron is a plausible scenario not a forecast.

Another plausible scenario is that the left overplay their hand and provoke the friends of Nick into taking the party more seriously. Moving to one member one vote, or registered supporters being allowed to vote for the leader would undermine the committeeariat. Tough change to deliver. It requires a Conference vote. But events might deliver the right circumstances to make the party more democratic and reflective of liberal Britain.

The other key shift  is that the balance in the membership is likely to shift to the right to reflect support for the Coalition whilst more liberal socialists go back to Labour. The economy should recover by 2015 without a collapse of public services. The party might just win the balance of power again in a closely fought election, AV or no AV.

So that Alexander premiership, or even a decade or more of Clegg (sorry Miriam) are both entirely possible. Evan’s vision of a party obsessed with increasing spending, state control through councils, and endless redistribution schemes “distinctive, radical, and progressive” is far from assured.

5 Responses to “Red storm rising?”

  1. Ed Joyce Says:

    Andy hits the nail on the head when he points out that we fear who the next leader might be but then finds it hard to pin down a good option for classical liberals to support. We need to know who is the most liberal of our MP’s. I remember we did this before. Maybe we can see who was near the top of the list who is still in parliament or rerun this exercise.


  2. Jack Says:

    Maybe he is in “too marginal a seat” anyway (didn’t stop Ed Balls or Chris Huhne running for leadership of their respective parties) but Jeremy Browne is also an embarrassment whenever he speaks.

  3. Mackem Kev Says:

    It is interesting to watch the avalanche of bile and malice being directed at the Lib Dems from your erstwhile suitors, the Labour party. Anyone who mildly considered themselves sympathetic to the left wing approach should be so thoroughly disgusted that they should reject any remote possibility of working with them for evermore ! As a confirmed floating voter I really do hope the Lib Dems stick to their guns and see this coalition period through and become the main opposition as Labour’s star will decline as we come out of recession and run up to 2015.

  4. Geoffrey Payne Says:

    I think this is really a matter of events taking their course. At this moment in time Nick Clegg is unpopular at grassroots level. The danger is that the left leave and are not replaced, leaving the party smaller and weaker. If on the other hand the economy recovers as you predict, we might see a rebranding; the “comeback kid”. However whatever you think of domestic economic policy, the sovereign debt crises in Ireland, Portugal, Spain, Italy may bring down the Euro and generate the next recession regardless. This will be compounded by a diminished welfare state that attempts to force people into non-existent jobs and makes them even poorer. The future of the Lib Dems is very unpredictable at the moment, but the different scenarios vary from light at the end of a long tunnel to almost complete annihilation.

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