11th MARCH 2011
As Liberal Democrats gather in Sheffield for spring conference, The Liberal magazine highlights some of the key issues of concern to delegates as the coalition approaches its first anniversary. The magazine’s editor, Benjamin Ramm, notes that the coming months are decisive for the party: “We are entering a defining season in British politics, commencing on March 26th with the first mass mobilisation against spending cuts – the depth and speed of which were opposed by Lib Dems at every level – and culminating in a crucial day of voting on May 5th, when Lib Dems outside London will face the consequences of the party’s choices at Westminster. By the end of spring the position of the coalition, and of the Liberal Democrats as an independent electoral force, may have altered radically”.
The following topics will be the subject of discussion in the coming days:
The motion to be debated on Saturday celebrates “the social solidarity of shared access to collective healthcare” – the achievement most likely to be eroded by the government’s proposals. This exemplifies the gap between rhetoric and reform: in recent years both coalition parties promised to end large scale top-down reorganisations; moreover, the failures they attack in the current system are a direct consequence of the internal market created by Thatcherite reforms in the late 1980s – in particular the middle management bureaucracy imported from the private sector.
Ramm commended the amendments tabled by social liberal delegates but warned Lib Dems not to overestimate their influence, either on their coalition partners or on the ‘Orange Book’ Lib Dems influential in cabinet, who have long advocated marketisation.
As the party dips below 10% in opinion polls, and activists mull over the failure to influence decisions on BSkyB and banking regulation – on top of the u-turns over VAT and tuition fees – the AV referendum has taken on major symbolic importance. If the party does not succeed in gaining even this “miserable little compromise”, many Lib Dems will ask whether the price of coalition has been too high.
In addition, it is likely that the party will lose a large number of seats on May 5th in metropolitan boroughs, where their main opposition is Labour, as well a significant number of elected representatives from the Scottish parliament and Welsh assembly.
Less than a year ago the Lib Dems were regarded as a voice of reason on economic affairs, with Vince Cable the nation’s most trusted politician. The party offered a credible economic plan prior to the election, based on an informed critique of Tory proposals to cut “too far, too fast”. Now that the party has abandoned this platform in favour of Osborne’s approach, do they agree with the Chancellor that “there is no plan B”? If a double-dip does occur, and the Chancellor resolves to cut with the speed and depth outlined in the Spending Review, will the Lib Dems have the courage to demand a change of course?
Despite the coalition’s rhetoric, in both health and education the government’s proposals represent an attack on local autonomy and democratic accountability. The dissolution of Primary Care Trusts in favour of GP consortia is echoed in the move to neuter the power of Local Education Authorities in favour of Academy ‘partnerships’ and Free Schools initiatives. Lib Dem disquiet over this issue was expressed last month in ‘The Abolition of State Education’, a powerful critique of the Academy programme by Simon Kovar, a teacher and contributing editor of The Liberal.
For further comment, or to speak with the editor, call (020) 8444 1944 or 07812 650 399.
The Liberal is an independent publication dedicated to the revival of liberalism. It has no affiliation with the Liberal Democrats, although previous contributors include Nick Clegg, Vince Cable, Chris Huhne, Simon Hughes, Menzies Campbell, Shirley Williams and Paddy Ashdown.