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Breaking out of the bubble?

August 30, 2017 1:08 PM
By Joe Otten in Liberal Democrat Voice

With the Liberal Democrat Federal Conference approaching (16-19 September), and less than a week away from the deadline for amendments (4 September), this is my highly partisan tirade on the agenda, here to provoke you into sending your views, either to us at Liberal Democrat Voice or to the good people at the Federal Conference Committee.

The first party conference after a General Election is an opportunity for the party to reflect on the results, good and bad. While it is good to move forward, many of us expected more progress in the face of such a gulf in the centre. It is as if Corbyn and May fed off each other's weakness, and we did not have the strength to stand out as an alternative.

Our conference, as usual, will make policy to demonstrate our values and soft virtues, to the neglect of other qualities: the toughness required to govern in coalition while under siege from all sides, and the fierce dedication to our communities that we show in local government.

Meanwhile the world keeps changing. That Corbyn might win an election and pursue a Venezuelan style calamity should terrify supporters of all parties. It is hard to understand how the country has responded with such stupor to this threat of socialism, starvation and tyranny. I guess somebody needs to show more leadership in offering a better and brighter alternative.

It's good that we are talking about the impact of Brexit on public services - why didn't we do that in the election? Beyond that we do seem to focus on important but small canvass issues, saying things that it is hard to believe wasn't kind of our policy already.

We have a debate on terrorism and civil liberties that doesn't mention Daesh, and mostly talks about things we aren't going to do to combat terrorism. It's all fine, but it is missing the more difficult question of what you do do to defeat terrorism, and that isn't good enough. It gives a false impression of softness and comfort blankets.

We have a debate on housing standards in response to Grenfell, a terrible tragedy that rightly demands our attention. But we are somewhat caught out: we support the inquiry into the causes of the fire and to make recommendations to prevent it happening again. But at the same time we pronounce what we think are the causes and the solutions, I suspect wrongly. My money is on a failure of regulation, both in theory and in enforcement, not a failure to invest. Huge investment went into cladding, in the belief that it was a great thing.

And we have motions on the natural environment and corporate governance that seem to be inspired by a vague sense that there isn't enough regulation in these areas, rather than by specific problems and how specific regulations might fix them. This is precisely the sort of thing that liberals should be against: the costs of regulation without the benefits; making other people do things just because we believe they sound worthy; demanding that the boxes all be ticked, in greater numbers, by more people, as the answer to everything.

So lets try to think outside the conference bubble. To seek out new answers to new problems, recognising the changing world. To find a better way to earn the public's trust as the voice of the moderate, liberal, tolerant centre ground that is under siege from the other parties.

* Joe Otten was the candidate for Sheffield Heeley in June 2017, is a councillor in Sheffield and is Tuesday editor of Liberal Democrat Voice.