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That Guardian article and my ask of Tim Farron…

By Angela Harbutt
November 13th, 2010 at 3:59 pm | 14 Comments | Posted in Liberal Democrats

Today’s Guardian has the most alarming headline…”Revealed: Secret documents show Liberal Democrats drew up plans to drop flagship student pledge before election”.

Hmmm. Whatever happened to standards over at the Guardian? The fact that the Liberals did a U-turn on tuition fees is not news. Welcome to the world of coalition politics…you stand firm on some stuff and have to give way on other stuff. And if we are being accurate, the Liberals drew up some contingency plans in the unlikely event of a hung parliament..but lets not let the facts stand in the way of a sexy headline.

Just for the record, had the Liberals managed, by some miracle, to be majority party, all the evidence points to the fact that they would have honoured the pledge to students  (having the option to scrap other areas of spend (eg Trident) to pay for it). Indeed the Guardian main story actually has a line buried in the article that states.. “The leaked document showed that during the preparations for a hung parliament the Lib Dems still intended to fulfil that commitment.” and  reiterates this point it in the Wintour and Watt piece   The Alexander document made clear the party was determined to maintain that pledge.”  

What this story reveals is the unexpected, and highly impressive, foresight of the leadership. They recognised that, in the unlikely event of a hung parliament they would need to negotiate, stand firm on some issues (eg electoral reform) and be prepared to give ground on others. And so they dedicated valuable election-strategy time to plan for that unlikely scenario- a hung parliament. Come the day, they had a well crafted plan (and thank goodness they did, given the furore that surrounded those few days of post election negotiations) . As for deciding that tuition fees would be one of those areas where they would give ground, well why be surprised they gave way? Given the Tory party and Labour party commitment to tuition fees we would very likely have seen coalition negotiations go on for weeks had the party chosen to draw the line in the sand on this particular issue. 

And to be honest u-turns in tuition fees is hardly new (witness the Labout party u-turn when it was the majority government). It seems a little rich to then condemn the Liberals for doing something similar in a coalition.

So,the story is not “Lib Dems planned to drop student pledge” they didn’t. Nor is it “Lib Dems do u-turn on tuition fees” thats not news..It’s not even “Lib Dems  show mature approach to politics shock” ..well that’s a bit more of a story to be honest.

So what is the story if indeed there is one?

To my mind the story is “Lib Dems must grow up fast” .

But given that the leadership show every sign of having done that, what else should be done?  Well (and here I address our new president directly)..for a start we must now change the undemocratic and frankly ludicrous system of allowing a few hundred activists at conference to determine Lib Dem policy – regardless of what the leadership want or believe – or wider party membership views . Firstly it makes the job of leader of the Lib Dems an almost impossible task  – constantly second guessing “what conference wants” and engaging in compromise and deal-making behind the scenes to shape the policies he wants. It is a handicap too far. Secondly, this out-dated policy making process is absurd. How can the Liberals argue so vociferously to the nation for AV because it s a fairer more democratic system than FPTP, I wonder, yet exclude 90% of their own members from having a vote in the formation of Liberal policy?

It’s time to modernise. Give Nick the power to put forward his proposed policies to the membership- and invite the whole of  the membership to take a vote on them. A modern system would not prohibit conference discussion ahead of the wider membership vote. It would not prevent other points of view being put to the membership. But it would give the party – and especially those facing Paxman et al on a daily basis – clarity.

As an ordinary party member, the idea that you have to suffer the vagaries of the local party system, curry favour with the local chairmen and their cohorts, deliver x number of focus leaflets and generally making sure “your face fits”  just to get a “conference voting pass”  (which you must have to have a vote on policy) is just plain mad. Is this an old boys network or a viable political party?

In case our President has not managed to meet the many thousands of members who don’t have a right to vote at conference, he should know that many (though certainly by no means all) local party hierachies hand these passes out like treats – and usually to those of like-minded views. Over time this has meant that conference voting views have fallen out of kilter with the wider Lib Dem member  (who largely take their cue on what they see, hear read from the likes of Clegg, Cable Huhne etc on TV, radio and newspapers). We have a blockage in the system between the face of the Liberal Party (the MPs) and its members. And that blockage is conference.

Maybe that did not matter when we were the permanent third party with no hope of actually implementing our policies. But times have changed. And so must we. We need a more realistic, modern and (because we love this word) “fairer” way of making policy. One that engages the wider party and unfetters Nick from back room deals with his own party to avoid humiliating defeats from the peculiar conference collective.

Untie the hands of Nick and we would not see him feeling the need to engage in silly unsustainable election stunts. The reason why the Guardian story has any legs at all is because off the over-the-top pledge made by the MP’s on tuition fees. And why was that stunt undertaken?..because of deals made with certain people around certain conference votes.  Plain and simple.

More generally allow the whole party to be involved in the decision making process and you may well find more people becoming engaged and get better policy as a result. And by the way, if we can democratise our own party and may be we stand a chance of convincing the electorate that our stand on AV is a principled one. 

It’s not the only change we need. But it would be a start.

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