What is the point of the Liberal Democrats?

Angels on the head of a pin.

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One of the oddest things about the Liberal Democrat conference – and goodness me, there are a lot of odd things to choose from; I mean, have you heard of Glee Club? – is the complete disconnect between the passion of the party’s policy debates and its actual political prospects.

The party has 12 MPs, few immediate expectations of getting many more, and its leader Vince Cable has just ruled out joining another coalition government any time soon. Yet the party’s hyper-democratic constitution means that a significant chunk of its bi-annual jamboree is dedicated to furious arguments about very slight changes to wording of the party’s policy positions, even though there is no plausible mechanism through which it might ever actually implement any actual policy. Medieval scholars spent their days arguing over how many angels can dance on the head of a pin; Lib Dem councillors implore the hall to support amendment 3 to line 69 of the motion on land value tax.

I spent two days at Lib Dem conference, for some reason – and, curious about this disjunction of passion and prospects, I spent them asking delegates, in not so many words, why they thought they were bothering. What, exactly, is the point of the exercise?

Here are some possible answers.

1. Party policy feeds into the manifesto, which will be the blueprint for the next Lib Dem government.

I don’t think even the most optimistic of Lib Dems actually believes this – nobody tried to persuade me they did, which is a shame, because that conversation would have been brilliant. But since that’s officially what happens, and since everyone in the hall argues with a sincerity that suggests they think Lib Dem policy really, actually matters, it seemed at least worth noting, before we move on to explanations from outside the realm of science fiction.

2. Party policy feeds into the manifesto, which will guide the leadership’s position in coalition negotiations. 

Two problems with this explanation. One is that Cable, like Tim Farron before him, has ruled out another coalition, on the grounds that the last one immolated the party’s poll ratings. The other is that – since, the last time the Lib Dems were in government, they not only ignored their best-known manifesto commitment but helped the Tories to implement its exact opposite – the party’s commitment to its own manifesto is questionable, at best.

That said: it’s possible that the party’s aversion to coalition will one day go the way of Vince Cable’s authority and fade. And a number of policies that conference got into the 2015 manifesto were implemented by the coalition, even if scrapping tuition fees wasn’t among them. So this isn’t actually completely stupid.

3. Party policy guides MPs’ voting behaviour.

More plausible. It doesn’t make the passion of those conference debates any more proportionate – the party has, let’s recall, just 12 MPs – but nonetheless, they still get to vote and it’s presumably the preference of the party that they vote as a bloc in a way that reflects their members’ priorities. So, I can sort of buy this one.

4. The Commons isn’t everything.

The party still has a sizeable presence in local government and in the Lords: perhaps policy is for them.

I’m not sure the four councillors that make up the official opposition on Buckinghamshire county council necessarily need their policy stance dictated from a conference hall in Brighton, but again I suppose it’s better to have policy than not.

5. The party is now an “ideas factory”, and conference is the factory floor.

This is the line Cable has been pushing in interviews: that the Lib Dems are generating ideas on housing, regional inequality, technological change and so on, that the bigger parties are not radical enough to come up with themselves.

This sort of makes sense – stealing ideas from the Lib Dems is hardly unheard of – but the party probably needs to be polling at a fair bit more than ten per cent for its ideas to be thought worth stealing. What’s more, it repositions the Lib Dems from political party to glorified think tank, which is hardly ideal.

6. The party’s job is to save Britain from illiberalism.

In some ways, the most successful British political party of our era is Ukip. It may be an unleadable clown car of a party, which has only ever won two Westminster seats – but it still managed to covert its main goal into an over-riding national priority, as well as pulling the big two towards more reactionary ideas more generally. The Lib Dems could, theoretically, invert this, forcing the other parties to shift towards liberal positions for fear of being left behind. 

This is actually a fairly compelling idea – god knows I’d like someone to pull British politics away from reactionary dipshittery and back towards social liberalism. Again, though: 10 per cent in the polls. Probably need to do a bit better than that if this is going to work, lads.

7. The Core Vote strategy.

Mark Pack and Davd Howarth have been pushing the idea of a “core vote” strategy: growing the number of people who see themselves as Lib Dem voters, and so improving the party’s electoral performance, influence and so on. 

I can see why this is a compelling prospect: there are far more people who see themselves, however reluctantly, as Labour or Tory voters. But I’m not sure it stacks up: there are far more people who identify vaguely as left or right than as centrist or liberal. What’s more, a lot of Labour voters are actually anti-Tory ones: I’m not sure there’s a policy platform in the world that’s compelling enough to make people forget how First-Past-the-Post works.

8. The survival strategy.

More than one person I spoke to at conference said they expected it would take years before the party was forgiven for coalition. Its main priority at the moment is to keep its membership engaged so that it can survive as an institution until then, and putting everyone in a conference hall so they can shout at each other twice a year is a key part of doing that.

As is:

9. The cargo cult strategy.

“It’s basically just a drinking society for people who like politics,” someone told me. Like the Sealed Knot re-enacting battles without the danger of bloodshed, the Lib Dems re-enact politics without the danger of power.

This is clearly a source of some frustration, if you’re one of the Lib Dems that does actually want to change things. But it keeps them off the streets, and they all seemed to be having a very good time, so why not? Some people get their kicks touring the country going to football matches. Others prefer two hour arguments about business rates. Who are we to judge?

This does not excuse Glee Club, mind.

Jonn Elledge edits the New Statesman's sister site CityMetric, and writes for the NS about subjects including politics, history and Brexit. You can find him on Twitter or Facebook.