Membership numbers are falling in all the parties and the annual conferences are an essential way of motivating those who deliver leaflets and knock on doors at election times. Without them seats might be lost and the leaders out of their jobs but giving members a voice in policy debates risks dissent and challenges to those leaders.
The Liberal Democrats, who met this week in Glasgow, have a history of querulous conference debates but this year there was more discipline and fewer complaints that the party is losing its soul. Being in Government probably helped but given the party’s poor showing in the polls it was still surprising.
The most likely explanation is the line taken by Nick Clegg and Ministerial colleagues. Between them they identified all the perceived achievements of the Coalition and claimed credit exclusively for themselves. Thus Danny Alexander, Treasury Chief Secretary, said, “Thanks to our efforts, by 2015, we will be clawing back an extra £10bn a year from tax dodgers.” Similarly he claimed credit for cutting corporation tax. These measures are welcome but the Treasury team delivered them, not just its Liberal Democrat member. Inevitably, George Osborn will make an equivalent statement at the Conservative Conference. Nick Clegg adopted the same script and went further, announcing the sixteen times he had blocked Conservative policy proposals. It is inevitable that this should happen in a Coalition that brings together parties with different values and priorities but what does publicising his vetoes 20 months before the General Election do for the survival of the Coalition? What will it do for working relationships with his Conservative Ministerial colleagues?
Fourth place in the polls, behind even UKIP, is the reason. Lib Dem Ministers like being in Government and desperate measures are needed to keep them there. So, Nick Clegg has to say that the worst outcome in 2015 is for either the Conservatives or Labour to win a majority. Labour cannot be trusted to manage the economy and the Conservatives would take us out of the European Union and be nasty to immigrants. The only way forward is another Coalition including the Liberal Democrats to keep either Conservative or Labour in check.
That is a plausible argument but only if the public buys it and the other parties are willing to work with Liberal Democrats who flout Cabinet confidentiality and claim exclusive credit for collective decisions. The case for coalition government is that no party has all the answers or a monopoly of talent. In wartime a coalition made sense and the challenges facing us today – economic, environmental and demographic – may also call for cross party collaboration. That necessitates a different way of doing politics, a greater degree of maturity and discretion from the politicians and wisdom amongst the voters. This could come when we recognise that identifying and serving the common good is more desirable than the politics of sectional interests. That is surely what ‘loving ones neighbours’ means, at least in government and politics.