Monday, November 03, 2008

Time to let peace break out in our party?

Just back from the ELDR congress in Stockholm. Great company, great food and outstanding debate. There is something so much more grown up about European politics. A system based on the need for consensus, hasn't resulted in stalemate. The ya boo politics we have grown up with in this country, the need to "beat" the opposition, sadly even extends into the shenanigans in our party.

I travelled with Paul Reynolds, an economics professor and a good friend..........but politically sitting almost diametrically from me. We had lots of debates where neither convinced the other, but we began to think about what consensus might look like. As Paul sagely observed, if we could begin to crack some of the nuts on policy that so divides our party, we could be so much more effective. Those almost 50% of us who opposed Trident and the tax position on "Make it Happen" have been slapped down by this system. Ming Campbell was wheeled out to swing the Trident debate because it was played up as an attack on his leadership, similarly the great and good were wheeled out to sway the doubters in "Make it Happen". Wouldn't it be good if our elders and betters were more concerned about developing policy we could all live with, rather than having to prevail all the time?

OK, I can already hear the cogs wheeling in the heads of my detractors and of course there will be issues where we can never reach that point, but isn't it time we considered that as a last rather than first resort?

The issue that of course is foremost in many minds for the next conference is of course tuition fees. If we thought Trident was bloody, this I fear may all end in more than tears. I know that the working party has gone back to try and find a solution and I would so strongly urge them to do so. But, I am not convinced that will happen. And of course, as someone who likes a good argument and a bit of drama at conference, there are many who would be disappointed if we lost all that.

However, what was clear in Stockholm is that it is still possible to have robust debate but there is an underlying and overwhelming respect for the notion that where possible we need to be able to take everyone with us. An example was on the issue of a European Army, a concept many are wedded to, however, the congress was willing to accept that this was something that many member states were not ready to consider and pushing for it would cause some of us real problems. This approach did not make the debate any less passionate, but I would argue enabled the result to be far more effective.

I am reminded of the time, many years ago now, when I was speaking on the same platform as Malcolm Wicks about his bold new idea for the "Connexions Service". I had serious concerns, which I expressed. On the way to the conference I had been very busy looking up to see the street names to check I was heading in the right direction - I was wearing a skirt with a split in the front and consequently, not looking where I was going, ended impaled on a bollard! This became a great metaphor to finish my speech "It's all very well knowing where you want to get to, but you need to be careful how you get there". We can be so obsessed with our ultimate goal that we can leave others and even ourselves, impaled on the invisible bollards - with absolutely no chance of ever arriving at our dreamed of destination.

5 comments:

Darrell G said...

Personally speaking i've never been one to follow the advice of the great and the good or rather I prefer to judge it on its own merit...(for the record, I think we should oppose trident and was swayed slightly on tax cuts by my partner; not any wonderful Nick Clegg oratical performance) nor do I think disagreeing with a leadership is 'an attack' on it...such a siege mentality wouldnt be out of place in sect...

Tuition fees will be an emotive issue but in my view single issues become emotive when they are symptomatic of deeper concerns....i might tentatively suggest that it is a concern some people feel that the centre of gravity is moving away from a social justice/social welfare angle which as I never tire of pointing out will be an electoral disaster...put quite simply if we do change our stance on tuition fees then we will take a serious panning in student areas (most likely from the Greens)....

Jon said...

At a time when most of the party's activity is squeezed out by the media, abolition of tuition fees is one of the few issues that ensures new young voters and activists take a close look at the Liberal Democrats.

Wider afield, abolishing fees is not a particularly popular policy and would be very difficult to advocate during a recession. I'd hope we would retain a clear timetable for abolition - it is a tax on public education and against everything the party stands for.

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