Friday, March 07, 2008


The Lisbon Treaty, Murphy’s Law and Why Policy Matters

Many Lib Dems will today be on their way to Conference looking rather glum, and many more will be wondering why everything that could go wrong did seem to go wrong this week. Well, I’m not saying I never get crabby with other Lib Dems (whoops), but I reckon it’s more helpful to work out what to do next time than argue over the blame, still less for either ‘side’ to accuse the other of being liars and having no principles. Perhaps I’m just not Euro-nerdy enough to assume other Lib Dems are evil without trying to see their point.

Conferences and the Lib Dems’ Silliest ‘Split’

Next week I’ll have a think about whipping, but as I get ready for Conference it seems natural to think about what role Conference could or should have in all this. And it strikes me that, while there would have been arguments whatever happened – Europe does that more than any other issue, despite (ironically) us being more united than the other two parties on it – one of the main reasons this has exploded into such bad feeling in the party is that (again ironically, as it concerns a referendum) the party hasn’t had a say. And I think the party cares about that sort of thing.

The silliest ‘split’ inside the Liberal Democrats has always been the one people talk about between ‘campaigners’ and ‘policy wonks’. I’ve never been able to see how that makes sense. I joined the party twenty years ago because of the political ideas it stood for; I started campaigning with it because I wanted to see those political ideas put into practice. I was out delivering Focus when we were at 5% in the polls, long before I ever wrote an article or went to a Conference and found out that I was ‘supposed’ just to choose one or the other; the period of my life when the largest number of policy motions I’d written got through Conference was the period when out of about two dozen Parliamentary by-elections in a row, there were just two I didn’t manage to get to and help in, though in the last few years ill health has prevented me getting out so much. If I just wanted to do well in elections and be a policy vacuum, I’d join Labour or the Tories. If I just wanted to perfect my own individual policy rather than working with other people to do something with it, I’d join a debating society. Anyone who thinks the Liberal Democrats should be entirely about just one or the other is one Focus short of a delivery route.

Now, at Conferences is where you often see the ‘division’ between those two ‘types’ most at work; the caricature is that one set’s off at training sessions or comparing the length of each others’ leaflets, the other sitting through a load of tedious speeches in the main hall. Well, when things go wrong over ‘policy’ and we look rubbish all over the headlines, it’s no use for ‘campaigners’ to blame the ‘policy wonks’; they should have got stuck in. When Lib Dem leaflets say something dodgy that contradicts what we stand for and that looks rubbish all over the headlines, it’s no use for ‘policy wonks’ to blame the ‘campaigners’; they should have got stuck in. In our party, members make the policies and write the leaflets; neither are dictated from on high, and that’s what makes us us.

Some people occasionally argue that more should be decided from the centre, and that the MPs should be in charge. It doesn’t fit our bottom-up principles – but, more importantly, it’s a recipe for political catastrophe. The policy on European referendums was one of the very few that had no bottom-up involvement, and just look how well the MPs did on it. We’ve never had a chance to vote on it. Conference has sometimes made daft decisions, but this was all down to the MPs, so it’s no wonder several of them decided to go their own way last week. Campaigners don’t know which line to take or feel angry being told to put out a line they don’t agree with; policy wonks all want to have their own say. Both need to take responsibility, and to have the chance to. Either way, when an issue blows up in our faces like this, it’s the whole party that looks bad, not just one bit.

How did this happen? Well, it’s partly a mistaken attempt at top-down decision-making, but it’s mainly cock-up rather than conspiracy. Throughout much of last year, the party quite reasonably said it would wait to see if a referendum was necessary on the Lisbon Treaty until we could actually read the thing; the Tories followed their prejudices and announced they wanted to defeat it in the country before it was written, while Labour followed their fears and announced there’d be no choice for the people whatever it ended up saying. Meanwhile, the Liberal Democrats published a policy consultation paper and scheduled consultation sessions all about our Europe policy; bottom-up, evidence-led decision-making.

Then two things happened. The timescale got too short for the consultation to work properly, and Ming Campbell suddenly announced there’d be no referendum. Naturally, there was a hailstorm of criticism. Then he announced he backed a referendum on the whole issue of the European Union instead, to widespread praise. And when did all this happen? Just before our last Conference in September. Forgive me if ‘Leader in ruckus over top-down Europe decision that spoils the mood going into Conference’ gives me a sense of déjà vu.

If Ming had waited a few days, and said that there wasn’t time for a full debate over the policy but he’d listened to the consultation session and based his announcement on what he’d heard, even that would have defused the issue a bit. As it was, he announced the policy a couple of days before the consultation, and the only chance we had to express our views on it in the full Conference was choosing whether or not to applaud his speech (which was mostly a very good one).

Nick had more reason to claim support for the policy: he stood on it, and several of us criticised him for it, when he ran for Leader. So anyone calling for his head on a spike now rather than the moment he was elected is simply an opportunist; we knew what we were getting. Unfortunately, not only is Leadership far more than a referendum on any one policy, but the other candidate backed exactly the same policy – though even if Chris had taken the opposite view (and I challenged him on it in person), I doubt more than a few Euro-nerds would have changed their vote either way.

We’re sometimes willing to take a Leader on trust, of course, but we prefer to make up our own minds than defer to ‘authority’ or ‘seniority’. In the Liberal Democrats, whether you win a policy debate isn’t down to a badge boasting how many streets you’ve tramped or how many speeches you’ve given, but whether people think you’re right on that issue. And that’s as it should be.

The biggest problem with this is not anyone’s judgement, though, but that the timing simply meant we didn’t have the chance to have a say. I think Nick should have announced he was bringing this major policy shift to our Spring Conference for us to decide. But if he had, the Labour Government would still have had the vote this week, and the MPs would still have ended up deciding. So one lesson is that Leaders shouldn’t make policy on the hoof, and that if you want the party to stand up for a policy it has to be involved. If that had happened, I don’t believe for a moment we’d have had such a dramatic split among the MPs or the wider party. But the other lesson is that, in real life, sometimes that’s not possible and you have to grit your teeth and hope the Leader gets it right, and hold him or her to account when they don’t, and that sometimes with the best will in the world the party’s just going to have really bad luck. We did.

The Split Among the MPs

Liberals are full of paradoxes. We’re free-thinkers, but we’re also usually united, because we generally believe in much the same things rather than being just a loose alliances of warring tribes. And of course it’s because we’re united, and historically have been the only people united on Europe, that our ‘rebellion’ on Europe got masses of press coverage while the Tory MPs’ big rebellion against Mr Cameron’s position got none. Of course it’s unfair, but if I’d been a news editor I’d have made the same call: the Tories have been at war over Europe for decades; a Lib Dem split over Europe is a ‘man bites dog’ story. On the other hand, if I’d been a news editor I’d have paid a lot more attention to an obvious Tory front organisation caught out in an obvious deceit by targeting David Heath when he, er, agrees with their demands. And of course many of our problems are down to Labour and the Tories ganging up to oppose a referendum on the whole of the European Union, which is what most people are much more interested in and a vote on which would show us both united and popular; but, hey, who ever thought they wished us well? And for what it’s worth, I think last week’s walkout was very good judgement.

I’ve read diatribes against David Heath and spleen against Nick Clegg; I prefer to think both were doing what they believed in and thought was right, and I don’t think ‘the one I agree with is good so the other must be evil’ is a sufficiently thought-through justification for calling for the head of either of them. Who does that help? I’m not sure what I’d have done in either of their places. I think both made misjudgements, I think Nick made rather more – but then, on this issue, I agree with David’s policy rather than Nick’s, so perhaps I would say that. Yet in ‘ordinary’ circumstances, I’ve been impressed by Nick for years, and I’ve never been a fan of David. So I don’t feel the urge to clobber either ‘side’ (just wince). Besides, I might be a bit full of myself on occasion but I don’t have the truly Herculean ego required to claim that I’m the only person with any principles.

As it happens, I don’t agree that the Lisbon treaty is the same as the draft constitution. I think anyone who argues that a constitution replacing a whole half-a-century’s worth of treaties is exactly the same as an amending treaty that makes far fewer changes than Maastricht or the Single European Act has been blinded by Euro-nerdery… But I still thought a referendum on Lisbon was a good idea, because the changes may not have been huge but they were still significant, and I generally presume in favour of people having a say, even if the issues are as arcane, nerdy and tedious as arguments over taking a motion in parts at a Lib Dem Conference. As well as the principle, I’d have backed a Lisbon referendum in part for political reasons: I don’t think most people in the country care about all this, though those who do care go crazy ape-bonkers over it, but people are fed up with not having a say on anything, so it’s no wonder that they’ll grab any referendum to hand if asked. I think Nick made the wrong call, but I can appreciate how his principles came down on the side they did. I don’t question his integrity, and I don’t see why any party member has cause to. On this particular issue the politics wasn’t up to much, though; the party made a complete mess of communicating its point here. The issue for next time we have a potentially splitting issue isn’t that Nick shouldn’t trust his principles, but that he needs to have his explanation ready in a nutshell, both for the public and the party. I think most of us are happy to have our Leader make the case to us, but get shirty when taken for granted.

Three Choice Blog Posts

I’ve got a bit of a headache this morning, having cleverly gashed my scalp on a cupboard door last night. I’d just like to assure any readers who might notice any crusted blood in my hair this weekend that it was an accident due to my usual astounding lack of physical co-ordination rather than through anyone trying to murder me, or though banging my head against the wall. If there are any Lib Dem frontbenchers (or ex-frontbenchers) spotted with bruised foreheads, though…

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This is the biggest load of common sense I've read on the L/D blogosphere since the vote!
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