As David Heath alluded to, the media are studiously ignoring any discussion of democracy at this conference, so it’s incumbent on those of us who happen to think it is important to report what has been decided. Much as I agree with the motion on packaging, the fact that it has been prioritised (by whom? the media? the press office?) over and above proposals to fundamentally change our constitution is appalling.
I’m pleased that For the People, By the People was passed overwhelmingly and unamended. And while I only got to make a one-minute intervention, I’m pleased that there were two speakers who explicitly rejected the idea of an English Parliament to only one who spoke for (using the usual tired threats about “sleeping giants” – even Don Liberali would baulk at the disgraceful tone of English Nationalists – “nice country you’ve got there – it’d be a shame if something were to happen to it”).
Debates about democratic renewal are always an opportunity for certain people to make bonkers speeches, and we were not disappointed. Sandy Walkington did the rhetorical equivalent of a dad deciding to dance at the school disco by informing us that apparently there’s these things called the internet and text messaging that young people use a lot, and that because the paper wasn’t all about the internet and text messaging, it missed the point and that the members of the working group were thus all face slapping morons fit only to rearrange the deckchairs on the Titanic.
It all sounded remarkably similar to the sort of speech New Labour ministers would make in the early noughties. Never mind all this bollocks about having a constitution; if we want to engage young people we need to embrace text messaging! Despite Sandy’s exhortation, I don’t think Twitter is about to take the political world by storm just yet. He failed to appreciate two fundamental aspects about MoveOn. Firstly, in the broad scheme of things, despite huge numbers of supporters it hasn’t actually been terribly effective. Since its creation, every single presidential and mid-term election apart from the last one has gone Republican not Democrat. The Democrats’ victory in 2006 was more due to Bush’s incompetence than net activism; indeed the net’s most high profile intervention in 2006 – the attempt to oust Lieberman – was a crushing failure. That isn’t to say net activism hasn’t had an impact in softer, more subtle ways, but it hasn’t changed anything fundamental about American democracy.
Secondly, the model has not exported well in the UK. OurWorldOurSay failed to fly. Avaaz is going well, but that’s because it is a global movement, not just a UK one. The model hasn’t worked here mainly because we have neither the political culture associated with aggressive political advertising on TV, nor the philanthropic culture of giving to political causes. The tectonic plates may well be shifting, but there is no evidence to suggest we are sitting on the political equivalent of the San Andreas fault.
Fundamentally though, these developments only make the case for an entrenched constitution and Bill of Rights even more pressing. I’m all for an initiative and referendum system for example, but without a written constitution I fully accept we would need to be extraordinarily careful to prevent it being abused. Without these safeguards, the changes in culture that Walkington alludes to could lead to chaos. Far from rearranging the deckchairs, the working group has made a strong case for the need for the Titanic to change course.
And then there was the ironically named Paul Baron, who managed to combine a Marxist view of capitalism with a paean to the hereditary principle. His argument was that hereditary peers would be less corruptable than elected politicians – you could audibly hear the spirit of David Lloyd George groaning as he spoke. Presumably the argument goes along the lines that if you are already utterly corrupt, your price will be much higher. I could go on, but it is cruel to mock the afflicted.
So. We’ve renewed our policy on democratic renewal. In manifesto terms, the main points in it are the commitment to STV and the establishment of a constitutional convention. I have no doubt that both of these will appear in the manifesto, but have less confidence they will end up listed as a top priority. This will be a missed opportunity: the Lib Dems’ critique of the political system is one of our USPs. If we run away from it instead of building it into our overall narrative, we will simply end up with another 10 disparate bullet points that only appeal to people’s basest self-interest. That may make sense for fighting target seats where the swing voters are the only people who matter, but it fails to sell us as a party of government to either the public or the media.
If the Lib Dems are about anything, it is bringing power to the powerless. That applies whether we are talking about health, education, poverty, local government or democratic renewal. That connects with the widespread sense of alienation within the public. That challenges the other two parties who are nakedly only concerned with feathering their own nests. It is high time we started to shout about it.