The Liberal Democrat challenges for 2011: making progress on core Lib Dem beliefs

Over the festive season I’m running a series of posts on the main Liberal Democrat challenges for 2011. You can find all the posts in the series here.

Getting economic policy right may be at the heart of the government’s long-term fate, and crucial for the country, but even if everything goes right the benefits are long-term ones – so to keep the coalition working well over the next year will require a steady supply of other good news and much work on internal communications.

Ask Liberal Democrat activists why they are active in politics and why for the Liberal Democrats and the issues of political reform, civil liberties and the environment come up time and time again.

At any time reforming our political system, protecting our environment and restoring civil liberties should be priorities for Liberal Democrats, but after the tuition fees votes significant progress on this trio is also important for internal party reasons. For the coalition to have long-term support, tuition fees needs to be seen as the exception rather than the norm and hence the need for rapid evidence of core Liberal Democrat beliefs being delivered in other areas.

On political reform much rests on May’s referendum, but it is not the only significant news scheduled for 2011. Major progress on the plans for electing the House of Lords – and by proportional representation no less – is also due, with the opportunity for Liberal Democrats to show how their role in government is pushing aside the stream of excuses from many peers as to why democracy really is all a bit too new an idea for the Lords.

On civil liberties, the limits on detention without charge and control orders are both due for decision soon. For the former it is likely to be good news – a reduction back down to 14 days – and on control orders it looks as if they will be abolished with other arrangements similar to those applicable to suspected football hooligans (e.g. restrictions on travel) widened to include some terrorist suspects.

The environment is likely to bring less immediate political benefit to the Liberal Democrats for the policies that Chris Huhne has been laying out are ones that bring only few positive short-term headlines. That is in part the nature of the environmental policy for which he has responsibility and also reflects the limited resources in government. Relatively speaking his environmental areas did very well out of the spending review – but relative success against a grim backdrop is important and welcome – but also not the sort of success that really fires up people.

By contrast, the abolition of child detention for immigration purposes has been a good clear example of how persistent Liberal Democrat demands inside government have won out over resistance from some Conservatives and civil servants and delivered a result that is both important in terms of substance and important in terms of what motivates many Liberal Democrat activists.

However, to the outside world – especially the outside world of normal people with only passing interest in party politics – the contribution the Liberal Democrats are making to such decisions is often hard to spot. Hence tomorrow’s challenge is about messaging and communication.

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