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19 September 2010

Going through the motions? Far from it

Strange question to ask at a Lib Dem conference, but do votes count?

By Olly Grender

I am not talking about AV or STV or FPTP, but about those votes at the conference on policy motions. As the leadership steels itself for votes and possible defeat on free schools and the less controversial issues of Trident and gay marriage, will any of these votes affect the part of the party in government?

On canvassing opinion, a surprising response – a special adviser thought “yes”, the votes were important, in contrast to a typical regular rebel who thought “no”, it would make no difference. But what will it mean if tomorrow conference votes for the Lib Dems to discourage free schools from opening? My overwhelming and pragmatic view is, why bother? This is never going happen. Setting up a school is a huge undertaking and if there were betting odds on how many will actually happen by 2015, the numbers would be too small to worry about.

The second is that this flexing of muscle will in the end be a strength, not a weakness. Take the example of the “triple-lock” process at the time of the coalition negotiations. I confess that I was critical of it, but proved wrong. The democratic process that tied in the negotiating team to the Federal Executive, Parliamentary Party and ultimately the party as a whole gave them greater power to negotiate, unlike the other parties.

So Roy Jenkins was wrong when he predicted that something like this would “twuss up our leader like a chicken” (please read in appropriate Jenkins style). Instead, it gave Clegg a stronger policy platform.

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So Nick Clegg said in his Q&A today that he would make no attempt to gag internal debate; instead, he sees it as part of the democratic process for building a future policy platform. These were not warm words for the party. He is ready for those votes and will not be attempting to change the debate.

I think most conference delegates get that. What the media, Conservative backbenchers and the wider public make of it is another matter.

Olly Grender is a political consultant. She was director of communications for the Liberal Democrats between 1990 and 1995.