Lib Dem Activists Need to Start Growing Up

I spent this weekend at a rock festival in Butlins. Odd, I know, but probably less so than spending it in Gateshead at Lib Dem spring conference.

I spent this weekend at a rock festival in Butlins. Odd, I know, but probably less so than spending it in Gateshead at Lib Dem spring conference. Not that I don't usually enjoy a good Lib Dem conference, but this time it seemed that out of 50,000 Lib Dem members, the majority were also elsewhere. In fact, only a few hundred showed up. I wonder how many of the rest also watched conference from afar and felt as frustrated as I did. As Patrick Wintour put it in the Guardian, the party has hardly done its reputation for decisiveness (if it had one) much good.

Conference is a strange thing. It's expensive to attend, which explains in part why only a handful of members do it. But being the only party in the UK whose members get to decide our policy means that a lot of attention is paid to the tiny minority who do give up their weekend - and a considerable amount of cash - to do so. Troublesome headlines aside, conference often seems like a geeky, political stag party has invaded a city; a lot of drinking, a few arguments, and some unfathomable Lib Dem activities like Glee Club are often the order of the weekend. And for the unfortunate majority left watching, it can often leave the onlooker less than impressed.

I can't help but sympathise with Nick Clegg and his team. Last year activists told them what changes they wanted to see to the Health Bill. A motion was duly passed at spring conference in Sheffield: Nick Clegg paused the Bill in its tracks while the Coalition made the changes conference demanded, before Shirley Williams and her colleagues in the Lords put pressure on to keep the government to its word. Yet this weekend a minority of activists (let us not forget the majority who eschewed conference to continue campaigning hard on the doorstep, or *ahem* go to rock festivals) still decided to stamp their feet and refuse to give their full support to the bill.

Now I know that those activists are genuine in wanting the best for both the NHS and the party. But they seem yet to have realised that trying to have your cake and eat is not the best way to win votes. With conference doing its best impression of a spoilt child, it is hard to blame the leadership for treating it like one. Genuinely good, impressive policies like the tycoon tax have been lost amidst this weekend's infighting.

To give them their dues, the party leadership has shown its respect for the democratic processes by implementing what conference called for in Sheffield. So this isn't a question of respecting the party's cherished internal democracy, it is about the art of the politically possible. If Lib Dem activists insist on demanding the moon of their MPs, (who let's not forget are only 8% of the total number in the Commons), they are doomed to disappointment.

I for one am not inclined to have the party return to the 'good old days' of opposition and irrelevance. I truly believe that however unpopular it makes us, it is better to be in government and making a difference for the greater good of this country than to spend forever sniping, however well intentioned, from the sidelines. Nobody used to care what happened at Lib Dem conference, because nobody thought that anything we said would actually happen. How would returning to that situation make this country a fairer, more liberal place to be?


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