Monday, May 16, 2005
A Big Lie
Shortly after polling day, Charles Kennedy announced (also here) that he would be organising a 'policy review', a root-and-branch re-assessment of Liberal Democrat policy to knock it into shape for the new parliament. (This review was originally announced in January).
Unfortunately, Kennedy also saw fit to travesty his party's conference by claiming that the party's 'embarrassing' policies (i.e. the ones the party's opponents used against it in the election campaign) were the products of ambushes on the conference floor by small groups of activists.
In his statement issued on 9 May, Kennedy said,
"We must consider whether it should be possible to commit the party to specific and controversial policies on the basis of a brief, desultory debate in a largely empty hall."The Guardian (10 May) reported,
"... the review will also allow the party to ditch embarrassing policies introduced by grassroots activists."In a Glasgow Herald story (10 May), headlined Kennedy pledges to curb party radicals in power bid, it was reported that,
Charles Kennedy promised to turn the Liberal Democrats into a party ready for power as he sought to shut down its "loony" element.The Financial Times (9 May) stated that,
In a speech to new MPs yesterday , the LibDem leader said he would introduce moves to stop radical factions from embarrassing the party with proposals such as giving prisoners the vote, legalising cannabis and relaxing the laws on hard-core pornography.
Charles Kennedy has called for a complete rethink of Liberal Democrat tax plans and policies as well as a change to the rules to stop activists saddling the party with controversial proposals.And ePolitix.com (11 May) informed us that,
Kennedy also wants to stop the party conference passing embarrassing fringe motions, which in the past have included rights for goldfish and cannabis decriminalisation.Are you starting to notice a pattern?
The facts are somewhat different. Let's examine where all these 'embarrassing policies' actually came from.
- 'Soft on drugs' - from a policy paper, debated and drafted by one of the party's policy working groups, approved by the Federal Party Committee (Chair: Charles Kennedy) and only then presented to conference for debate.
- 'Giving prisoners the vote' - also from a policy paper approved under the same process.
- 'Allowing 16-year-olds to buy pornography' - not a policy as such but an implication of the party's policy of lowering the age of majority to 16. This policy also came from an approved policy paper.
- 'Soft on crime' - a variety of Lib Dem policies bundled together by both the Tories and Labour, from approved policy papers.
- 'Ban on 4X4 vehicles' - exceptionally, not a party policy at all, but the personal initiative of the party's environment spokesman, Norman Baker MP.
- Other policies - take a look at the Lib Dem Policy website set up by the Tories. The Tories helpfully cross-reference each of the Liberal Democrat policies they attack. In nearly every case, the policies quoted come from approved policy papers, manifestos or press statements. In only one case does a policy come from an ordinary conference motion; a proposal for a tax on speeding fines, hardly the stuff of revolutionary grassroots ferment.
If Kennedy now thinks that party policy is a liability, he has only himself to blame. And if the party had operated a rapid rebuttal unit, some of these issues might have been dealt with during the election campaign, instead of being used as the source of recriminations now.
The conference delegates, the 'grassroots activists' and the 'radical factions' would appear to be blameless. Indeed, the conference has never once voted down a policy paper since the Liberal Democrats were founded in 1988 - it is effectively little more than a rubber stamp for the decisions of working groups and the FPC.
Attacks by the leadership on the conference are nothing new. Some of us are old enough to recall the Liberal Assembly in Eastbourne in 1986. Following a defeat for the leadership on a defence motion, the then Chief Whip David Alton infamously lied to the press about "people walking in off the street to vote". Though untrue, it did lasting damage to the party's reputation and is still quoted as fact by the media to this day.
Will Kennedy's quip about "desultory" debates in an "empty" hall likewise come to haunt the party?
Meanwhile, the question remains as to why Kennedy has launched this unfounded attack. Why tell lies and blame the conference when none of the 'embarrassing policies' originated on the conference floor? There can be only one logical explanation for this shabby and dishonest spinning: a desire to soften up opinion in preparation for an attack on the conference's already limited powers.
This theory is confirmed by a report in the Scotsman (10 May):
He [Kennedy] also signalled that the party conference would be stripped of some of its powers to enforce policy on the parliamentary party - a rule which has left Lib Dem MPs having to defend awkward policies such as "votes for prisoners".Fact: the conference has never had the power to mandate MPs. The manifesto is drafted by the FPC (Chair: Charles Kennedy), not the conference.
You can take the man out of the SDP but you can't take the SDP out of the man. The SDP was founded by a group of people scarred by the internal battles of the Labour Party in the 1970s and early 1980s. Their governing principle was paranoia about their own membership. It appears that, almost twenty years on, Kennedy cannot shake off these habits.
Elements on the right-wing of the Liberal Democrats have made little secret of their desire to abolish the conference entirely. Is this where we're heading?
Whatever the true motives, it is safe to say that Charles Kennedy is a liar. He is making claims about party policy that he must know are untrue, and which can be proved to be untrue. He owes his party - and in particular, the innocent conference representatives - an apology.
PS: "If you tell a lie big enough and keep repeating it, people will eventually come to believe it." - Joseph Goebbels, Nazi Minister of Propaganda under Adolf Hitler.
Weakening the powers of Conference will take us on a path similar to New Labour, showing a contempt for party democracy and proving that Kennedy is not a liberal after all.
We are a party, unlike the Tories or Labour, that genuinely belongs to its members and the Federal Conference is its representative body. We make poor policy decisions occasionally, but so would the control freaks if given absolute power: we would have entered the 1997 election opposed to the Minimum Wage if they had had their way. Party democracy should not be given up without a fight, as Joni Mitchell observed: "You don't know what you've lost till it's gone".
There are issues with both the 'deliberative' and the conference part of policy-making in that both are dominated by people with a particular interest in a subject or a policy they wish to promote.
Therefore we have policy-making by zealot and enthusiast with not enough sceptical voices. Also not enough quality control to make sure policies have a consistently liberal theme.
When we debate, say, animal rights, the policy working party will be dominated by people with an enthusiasm about or expertise in animal rights issues. The same will be true when the policy paper is debated at conference.
So we agree to compulsory microchipping of dogs and banning giving goldfish as prizes. People who are keen on such things will have attended the debate. People who don't care much won't have bothered.
This needs rather more thought than an ill-thought-out attack on conference or an uncritical defence of it.
Kennedy is reacting this way because he was convinced that the Liberal Democrats would win 80 to 100 seats in this election, and led his MPs to believe that anything less would be regarded as a huge failure. Because such unfounded optimism was the prevailing mentality in the bunker, it led to a panic once the results became known. Kennedy acted swiftly to get his retaliation in first, before anyone had a chance to criticise his leadership.
The conference and Ed Davey are being made the scapegoats for a perceived 'failure'. In other words, a faulty analysis of the election is leading to faulty response.
Isn't it ironic that the people who demanded the party's current system of policy-making at the time of the merger are the very same people now attacking that system?
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