This year’s Liberal Democrat conference was essentially about the party’s identity. Do they want to be a party of Government, competing for the political centre ground or a centre-left party of opposition and protest?
They are a young party, formed in 1988 when the Liberal Party merged with the Social Democrats. Until 2010 they were an opposition party, though their Liberal forebears were regularly in office during the 19th and early 20th century, including a coalition with the Conservatives during the 1914-18World War. The subsequent rise of the Labour Party saw them demoted to third party status with no hope of office. The 2010 election, which left no party with an overall majority, changed that but at a cost. Coalition means compromise. They had 57 MPs whilst the Conservatives had 306.The top jobs went to the senior partner which also gave them higher media profile. Leftish Lib Dems began to resign and the party’s poll ratings dropped. What should they do?
Some wanted their leaders to leave the coalition, stop compromising on liberal values and win back their lost members. Others realised that quitting now could mean political oblivion in 2015 because there is insufficient time to restore their old identity and voters would see it as a cynical move. The alternative would be to remain in office, take every opportunity to advocate liberal values and be seen to do so. This week in Brighton the party chose that latter option. They were led to that conclusion by the Ministers in their ranks who trumpeted numerous examples of liberal influence on Government policies. It remains to be seen how far these claims are confirmed or challenged at the Conservative conference in Birmingham.
Partisan politics apart, there are several reasons to be encouraged by this outcome. First, speeches by some of the Lib Dem Ministers demonstrated the political astuteness and grasp of the issues for which they are responsible. Second, both from the platform and off the record, those Ministers expressed respect for their Conservative colleagues and agreement with the latter’s policies. In a difficult situation electoral arithmetic forced them to work together for the good of the nation and they are doing their best to make it work. Third, some of the policies they have made are surely to be welcomed from a Christian perspective.
One example is committing 0.7% of GDP to help the poorest and most needy people in the world through the International Development budget, even when we are ourselves in a period of austerity. Another is seeking to reform and simplify the benefits system. This is a complex process but I am told that every effort is being made to prioritise care for the poorest UK recipients. A third example is the concern for the common good rather than sectional or individual interests. At the same time it was shocking to see no motions on foreign and defence policies when British troops are dying in Afghanistan.