Being good ministers is not enough for Liberal Democrats

Over the last couple of weeks I’ve heard several Liberal Democrat ministers talk to groups of party members about how they are finding it in government. Although the personalities and the departmental challenges vary in many ways, several common themes have come out.

One is a credit to the team behind Yes Minister, for it is still the default frame of reference for talking about how the British civil service behaves. All those Lib Dem ministers say they can recognise parts of the behaviour the TV series satirised several decades ago in the current behaviour of civil servants. Not too much, but still some.

Another theme is the number of decisions which ministers – even those with Conservative Cabinet members more senior to them – are able to take. It’s reassuring to hear at first hand that Liberal Democrat ministers outside of Cabinet are managing to plough a Liberal Democrat furrow in their own areas rather than simply being junior implementers of a Conservative Cabinet member’s policy.

Reassuringly too for those of us who have seen local councillors disappear into the bureaucracy and do a hard-working diligent job but forget what it is that makes them Liberal Democrat rather than just an apolitical competent administrator, there looks to be some consistent liberal themes across the decisions being made. In particular, issues about empowering individuals and decentralising power come up time and again.

The trickier question, however, is whether a collection of liberal victories scattered through government will add up to a convincing overall picture for the public of what Liberal Democrats have achieved in government. The danger is that, rather like a good speech writer, the party may end up making many significant changes to government, improving what is being done, but whose good work is not noticed by the public as it is behind the scenes.

The challenge for the party – at all levels – is to be seen as more than that. That both requires, as people get to grips with their jobs in government, a stronger flow of information from the parts of the party in government and also the usual hard work at publicising the party’s work by local parties, helpers and supporters.

I’ve been struck by an odd contradiction when it comes to information about what the party is up to in government. On the one hand, people have been very willing to respond to emails and phone calls, answering questions. But on the other hand, when the questions are not asked there has – so far – been relatively little information flowing out, such as the details of why cutting the loan to Sheffield Forgemasters was justified. In fact, the case is an extremely strong one: the firm wanted money and had two choices – issue shares or get a loan from the government. When the former was an option, why should the government step in instead to make a loan? Issuing shares to raise money for a firm is a normal part of business life all around the country and it’s a rather odd comment on New Labour’s love of business for it to have preferred to offer up public money in order to protect the firm’s owners from diluting their own shareholdings by issuing new shares.

Of course, the easy way to reconcile those two hands is that people are new in post and busy getting to grips with government. So the contrast is understandable and even expected, for the time being. It needs though not to become a habit.

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