Stephen Tall suggested that Nick Clegg’s motion on the economy, to be debated at party conference in Glasgow, marked the beginning of the 2015 general election campaign for the Liberal Democrats.
The road to 2015 began the day Nick took office as Deputy Prime Minister, the day the Coalition formed, in May 2010. I don’t mean this to say that our time in government should be seen as one long campaign to retain our place at the table – far from it. I say this because the perfection or otherwise of our conference motions from here onwards – and indeed the details in our manifesto – are not what the public will judge us on when they next go to the polls.
It will be our record in government – forged as a necessary compromise with the Tories – that will be foremost in their minds. Our task, therefore, between now and the next election, is to ensure that our conference motions and manifesto enunciate our values as Liberal Democrats. The challenge is to avoid both a denial of the need to compromise when governing, and a defence of every coalition measure as if they were our own, as if our liberal democratic philosophy denied that there is an alternative way to govern.
That task is not trivial, and it will involve social liberals in the party asking ourselves some very difficult questions. When it comes to reforms instituted by the coalition with our without Liberal Democrat support – not least to a number of public services – how much will simply promising to turn back the clock suffice? In many instances we might in fact be presented with an opportunity to rethink many central assumptions used by the current and previous administrations to drive through an agenda we have long been uncomfortable with, to institute genuinely community-based, transparent, accountable, evidence-based and social liberal solutions to the challenges the country faces.
Further, ensuring the party’s message remains true to its values will require us to question the party’s strategy right to its core. For too long and on too many issues, the party’s leadership has set out its stall as a function of what other parties might find acceptable – the ugliest example being secret courts, where conference was told explicitly that Liberal Democrats shouldn’t oppose the illiberal use of secret evidence, because both Tories and Labour support it. The dangers of hurtling towards the centre ground of politics, defined by other parties and in defiance of what we as a movement stand for, are plain to see – and there will be further discussion on this overall strategy on these pages.
The strategy we adopt, however, has to emerge from the narrative we weave from the values we hold, and how we apply them to questions facing the nation. On health and social care, equality and diversity, education, defence, environmental sustainability and above all on the continuing economic crisis, it is our values that must drive our policy, and the Social Liberal Forum will use the coming weeks and months to foster a healthy debate on those values, and the policies to be debated at Glasgow and beyond.
The coming weeks and months represent a crucial period in the history of our party and of our nation, as the choices we make today will shape society for decades to come. By setting out our reasoning on policy areas of real importance, we hope to ensure those choices as socially liberal as possible.