As Ed Maxfield wrote about last month, the Lib Dem conference in Liverpool will see a consultation session on the party’s strategy and priorities. Penned by Gordon Lishman, the paper is a good starting point for debate and goes through the obvious yet important questions, such as how does being in government change the party’s approach. Being a paper from Gordon it also places many of the questions in a broader context, with nods towards history, community politics and the variations in political perspective across the UK.
Reading through it, there was one section I found particularly welcome, and one rather too conventional.
The particularly welcome section was this:
How can we create a liberal movement?
The liberal movement goes beyond party, asserting our leadership on a wide range of issues and themes, including climate change; civil liberty, equality and human rights; political reform; rural affairs; and many more. This is partly a matter of working with other campaigning organisations, think tanks and popular movements where our goals coincide; it should also involve Liberal Democrats in leadership of such organisations: what better role for Parliamentarians outside government and other competent members of the Party? For instance, how do we build on Liberal Democrat overall responsibility for human rights: in the Foreign Office, Home Office and Ministry of Justice?
Gordon’s absolutely right about the need to place our electoral campaigning and our work as a political party in a wider campaigning context. The debate we will be having at conference about marriage being open to same-sex couples illustrates this. It’s a cause dear to many liberal hearts, but is by no means exclusive to Liberal Democrats. Cross-party support is often a key ingredient in securing legislative change. Moreover, the issue is not just about what Parliament does or doesn’t legislate. Parliament decides whether same-sex marriages result in the same legal entitlements as traditional marriage. What Parliament cannot directly do is make society hold same-sex marriages in the same esteem. The emotional and cultural parts of equality come from how we all feel and behave. That requires broader change and campaigning than the MPs of one party trooping through the right lobby in Parliament.
The part of the document that struck as me as far too conventional is about regional parties in England:
The English Regional Parties should have a key leadership role in supporting and motivating activists, representing the Party publicly, influencing the UK Party and ensuring that we have the right candidates in place at the right time.
Those are roles that regional parties have had for a long time and overall they have a very mixed record in many respects. The context in which regional parties operate has changed significantly. It used to be rare in most regions for there to be significant elected Liberal Democrats outside of local government. Now we have MPs and MEPs right across England, with GLA members in London too. Our membership and its perspectives has also changed, along with society more generally, with people often having looser geographic roots and interests and instead placing themselves more firmly in non-geographic communities which share particular interests. At a time too when many councils are looking to share large amounts of their back office organisation with neighbouring councils, to simply restate those roles for regional parties misses out the bigger questions of what they should be for.
Do regional parties really have a role in representing the party publicly? When there are Lib Dem MPs and MEPs in their patch could they ever hope to do so effectively? Are regional conferences best organised by many separate teams working independently in each region? How effective really are regions at maximising the number of local council candidates (a very important question in my view)? The list of questions goes on and a good review should address the role of regions rather than work on the basis that the old model is still the right one to try to make work.
Here is the full Lib Dem strategy document.36890632-Liberal-Democrats-Party-Strategy-and-Priorities-Consultation