23 September 2009

LibDem Conference: Terrible or Groznyy?

Well, that was the LibDem Conference. Certainly the press had their view of it, and it's a negative one. The activists, I daresay, will think differently.

For the Scottish arm of the Liberal Democrats, this week truly was a massive bowl of ugly: the Leadership's stated policy on independence ripped apart, PPCs in target seats slapped down, MSPs muttering anonymously to the press, Mike Rumbles insisting that all MSPs discuss conversations with the press with him first, if the referendum is to come up. They could have done without all that, especially as the uncertainty they all hope to avoid by opposing a referendum only increased with these internal squabbles. Remember: if the LibDems vote in favour of a Bill, then there is majority Parliamentary support for it - 47 SNP MSPs, 16 LibDems and the two Greens - 65 in favour, no more than 63 against.

So this has been an uncertain week for them.

And in many ways, it has been uncertain for many in the Party. The Leadership - without consulting, well, anyone - has gone from tax-and-spend to slash-and-burn. And while such sacred cows as tuition fees may not have necessarily been slaughtered, they have certainly been locked away in a very remote barn. This has perturbed some supporters; it has perturbed some MPs; even some frontbenchers appear unhappy at how things have unfolded this week.

Now, this is the last Conference before the General Election; and there have been some radical shifts in policy. For major changes in direction to be undertaken, especially with such apparent reluctance, at such a time, has an almost kamikaze feel to it. So the pundits, therefore, see this as a Terrible Conference.

But there's a reason why I chose that adjective. It's the name English Speakers give to Tsar Ivan IV - Ivan the Terrible. The Russians themselves refer to him as Ivan Groznyy. Now, I know what you're wondering: firstly, you're wondering why the Russians decided to call the capital of Chechnya 'Terrible'; and secondly. you're baffled as to what this has to do with anything.

Let me tackle the first of those: 'Groznyy' doesn't quite mean terrible as we would understand it: rather it has a menacing quality, and it describes storms. 'Cleansing storm' is how it was translated for me.

This brings me to your second question. This may not have been Terrible for LibDems at all: it may simply have been Groznyy - the party's very own cleansing storm, when they (as Russia did under Ivan IV) really get their act together and start behaving like a serious, credible player. It's all to tempting right now to see the LibDems as a sort of social club for ideological fellow-travellers, or a glorified pressure group. Clegg took tough, yet in a way realistic, decisions and has potentially started a chain reaction which may well generate much internal strife for the LibDems but maybe leave them stronger at the end of it.

Why do I say that? Look at the historical evidence. Labour's Groznyy took place from roughly the Winter of Discontent to the rewriting of Clause IV, with Derek Hatton's walkout from Conference after a more-effective-than-usual tongue-lashing from Neil Kinnock marking the turning point.

For the Tories, it started with the fall of Thatcher and the row over Maastricht, and ended in the election of David Cameron, with the defenestration of Iain Duncan Smith as the key point.

For the SNP, it started with the 1999 Election confirming the party as Scotland's Official Opposition, and was completed by the Glasgow Spring Conference in 2007 when the SNP really started to appear to be a Government-in-waiting. The turning point, of course, being Alex Salmond's entry into the 2004 Leadership Contest, declaring his candidacy not only for that post, but also for the First Minister-ship. That's the turning point because he won both.

So you can see that these things can have profound effects for the parties that experience them. And with the possibility of a Hung Parliament, the LibDems may well have an impact and so need to be taken seriously. But for that, they need to act seriously and this Conference heralded that very behaviour. This Terrible Conference might be the best thing to ever happen to the LibDems at the UK Level.

There is, of course, a downside. The timing is far from perfect: if the party looks divided, or half-hearted, or uncertain going into the Election, they are absolutely 100% screwed, and the aftermath of what would surely be an electoral disaster were that the case would be grim. Quite simply, if this backfires, the Party find itself mired in ridiculously ugly infighting (see the Tories after 1997 and 2001, and the SNP after 2003).

Similarly, there's no guarantee that this one will end happily for the party, as the other examples did: the modernists could find their wings clipped and the pressure group mentality could kick in again. In which case, the LibDems could find themselves completely shorn of credibility by allowing a 180 to turn into a 360.

The one sign that that might not happen, however, is this: there's no organisation or prominent, charismatic figure on the 'anti' side. Nor are there other parties snapping at their heels, as the Alliance were out to get Labour in 1983. The internal challenge is weak, and so is the external challenge.

So this wasn't a Terrible Conference for the LibDems at all, but a Groznyy Conference. The question is, what state will the Party be in when the winds die down?


Anonymous said...

Terrible, they are more lost than I had thought.

It'll be interesting to see their support melt into SNP, Green & a few Tory votes.

Bye Bye Tavish

Ted Harvey said...

For me the outstanding event was right at the outset when Clegg greatly disappointed with his nonsensical but dangerous 'savage' cuts on the public sector.

That our public sector will be under strain becuase of the Blair/Brown legacy is undeniable; but there is a dangerous band wagon that politicians are jumping on in the mistaken belief that it is a vote winner.

This is the band wagon of looking away from the culpability of the private (mostly financial services) sector and putting all the pain and focus onto the public sector.

I'm really hoping that the electorate are capable of seeing that our amoral, and a few immoral, politicians do not have the courage to 'deal with' the banks etc. and will instead find it easier to 'blame' the public sector. - Not least because presumably some Labour Government members will be looking for a post-general election career in the boardrooms of the financial services sector.

The Tories just seem incapable of not hating the public sector, and will happily expliot the crisis to cut it back. Labour has lost it's "moral compass" on public service - but for the Lib Dems to take this savage cutbacks route would be just inexcusable; at least their broad membership seemed to revolt on this.

Anonymous said...

The emergence of the SNP was a sea change in Scottish politics, in that the unionist parties, while trying to respond to it, have exposed themselves for what they have been (in Scotland all along and for generations)namely shallow, hollow, straw men,bereft of any redeeming features-and merely puppets to the whims of their London masters!

Our politicos have been exposed as folks who have the good governance of Scotland as the LAST priority on their unionist agenda!

The SNP have been instrumental in exposing this sheer hypocricy and, as far as the good folks of Scotland are concerned, the genie is now well and truly out of the bottle and will NEVER go back!