Differentiation is necessary but not sufficient

There needs to be a fundamental political repositioning of the Lib Dems

One word that has been uttered time and again at this year's autumn Liberal Democrat conference is this: 'differentiation'. This is, in simple terms, the strategy that Liberal Democrats in government are now pursuing: highlighting much more openly the areas where the two coalition parties disagree. It's one of the reasons, incidentally, why this year's conference has been rather unexpectedly upbeat, because, for the first time in a while, there is a strategy in place to which both the party leadership and ordinary members subscribe.

But while differentiation - if done properly - is certainly necessary, it is by no means sufficient. After all, if disagreeing with the Conservatives was all we had to do for electoral success, the Liberal Democrats would have had parliamentary majorities since the party's formation.

Actually, what is now needed is something much more difficult than mere differentiation, tough though that in itself is to get right. What's needed is a deep and fundamental repositioning of the Liberal Democrats within British politics.

Such a process won't be easy, because it will involve accepting difficult truths - the most crucial of which is that many, if not most, of those who voted Liberal Democrat because they saw us as an uncompromised version of the Labour party will not be coming back to us any time soon. Many of them will go back to supporting a Labour party relishing the easy populism of opposition, while the ones that see any electoral compromise as a sin - the protest voters - will go and support smaller parties like the Greens.

Thankfully, though, the sort of strategising necessary to reposition the party seems already to be taking place. When I interviewed him on Sunday, Nick Clegg clearly had a vision about where he wants to take the party over the next few years, even if it is one that is not yet completely formed. He sums up how he wants the party to be seen quite pithily: more economically responsible than Labour and more socially just than the Conservatives.

This is an idea that has a lot of merit in my view, though it would be more effective if it wasn't expressed relative to the positions of the other parties. Developing the language necessary to clearly communicate this idea without borrowing the language of the other parties will take time, but fortunately that is something we have got.

Those political commentators who take a more intelligent approach to the Liberal Democrats are also beginning to see promise in the green shoots of this new strategy - take Mary Ann Sieghart in Monday's Independent, for example.

Much of the analysis of Nick Clegg's speech to conference today will focus on what he has to say about his coalition colleagues. What I will be listening out for, though, is not about what he says about the present, but hints about his vision for the future.

Nick Thornsby is a Liberal Democrat member and activist. His own blog can be found here.

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Cabinet audit: what does the appointment of Andrea Leadsom as Environment Secretary mean for policy?

The political and policy-based implications of the new Secretary of State for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs.

A little over a week into Andrea Leadsom’s new role as Secretary of State for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (Defra), and senior industry figures are already questioning her credentials. A growing list of campaigners have called for her resignation, and even the Cabinet Office implied that her department's responsibilities will be downgraded.

So far, so bad.

The appointment would appear to be something of a consolation prize, coming just days after Leadsom pulled out of the Conservative leadership race and allowed Theresa May to enter No 10 unopposed.

Yet while Leadsom may have been able to twist the truth on her CV in the City, no amount of tampering will improve the agriculture-related side to her record: one barely exists. In fact, recent statements made on the subject have only added to her reputation for vacuous opinion: “It would make so much more sense if those with the big fields do the sheep, and those with the hill farms do the butterflies,” she told an audience assembled for a referendum debate. No matter the livelihoods of thousands of the UK’s hilltop sheep farmers, then? No need for butterflies outside of national parks?

Normally such a lack of experience is unsurprising. The department has gained a reputation as something of a ministerial backwater; a useful place to send problematic colleagues for some sobering time-out.

But these are not normal times.

As Brexit negotiations unfold, Defra will be central to establishing new, domestic policies for UK food and farming; sectors worth around £108bn to the economy and responsible for employing one in eight of the population.

In this context, Leadsom’s appointment seems, at best, a misguided attempt to make the architects of Brexit either live up to their promises or be seen to fail in the attempt.

At worst, May might actually think she is a good fit for the job. Leadsom’s one, water-tight credential – her commitment to opposing restraints on industry – certainly has its upsides for a Prime Minister in need of an alternative to the EU’s Common Agricultural Policy (CAP); a policy responsible for around 40 per cent the entire EU budget.

Why not leave such a daunting task in the hands of someone with an instinct for “abolishing” subsidies  thus freeing up money to spend elsewhere?

As with most things to do with the EU, CAP has some major cons and some equally compelling pros. Take the fact that 80 per cent of CAP aid is paid out to the richest 25 per cent of farmers (most of whom are either landed gentry or vast, industrialised, mega-farmers). But then offset this against the provision of vital lifelines for some of the UK’s most conscientious, local and insecure of food producers.

The NFU told the New Statesman that there are many issues in need of urgent attention; from an improved Basic Payment Scheme, to guarantees for agri-environment funding, and a commitment to the 25-year TB eradication strategy. But that they also hope, above all, “that Mrs Leadsom will champion British food and farming. Our industry has a great story to tell”.

The construction of a new domestic agricultural policy is a once-in-a-generation opportunity for Britain to truly decide where its priorities for food and environment lie, as well as to which kind of farmers (as well as which countries) it wants to delegate their delivery.

In the context of so much uncertainty and such great opportunity, Leadsom has a tough job ahead of her. And no amount of “speaking as a mother” will change that.

India Bourke is the New Statesman's editorial assistant.