Not once did I hear about in the debate talk about social justice
My former colleague, Stephen Tall, thinks that this has been a good week for Nick Clegg and a good week for the Lib Dems. If this is a good week, I hate to think what a bad week will be like (though I suspect we'll find out when teh comrades gather in Manchester for Labour conference).
It is a tricky dilemma for the Lib Dems in the current political situation, but I think Labour supporters can be relieved by the decisions that they've taken. On tax, they've got one set of policies about taxing the rich, and another about eye-watering cuts to public spending. The detail of these seems actively embarrassing, like Vince Cable's idea of requiring senior public sector workers to re-apply for their jobs and, if successful, cut their pay and pension entitlement.
I think I remember Stephen in his days as finance supremo on Oxford City Council mocking a variant on this idea when it was suggested as a way of balancing the council's budget by the Independent Working Class Association. Apparently this kind of posturing is going to fund massive tax cuts. And everyone can also have a pony too, if they want.
As a set of workable policies, this fails any kind of credibility test, but it does reveal that the Lib Dems no longer want to be the party for people who think public services are important and that we should pay a bit more tax to make them better. That's important because there are quite a lot of people like that, many of whom are feeling a bit unloved and unsure about who to vote for at the moment.
In contrast, people who think the government wastes loads of money and that taxes should be cut, while greater in number, are also likely to be intensely sceptical about promises by politicians, particularly those who up until last year supported higher taxes, and also find that there are a whole range of parties already competing for their affections.
And while it is easy to dismiss these policies because they won't get enacted at a national level, there are abundant examples of what 'Cleggonomics', in which tax cuts supposedly are the route to delivering "social justice", means at a local level. In Oxford, it meant closing play areas and reducing housing advice for the most vulnerable, to save £2 per year in council tax. In Liverpool it meant closing care homes for elderly people, and in Camden it means cutting funding for youth clubs in deprived areas.
But it's not just their tax policy, or the fact that their leader didn't know how much the state pension was worth (he's lucky the follow up question wasn't about how many houses he owned). It's that this seems to have been part of a wider shift in policy and outlook.
Don't take my word for it. Patrick Murray, who is a Lib Dem councillor and parliamentary candidate, put it far better than I ever could. In a passionate and eloquent critique of their new housing policy, he wrote that,
"The Eco-Towns policy passed at the Liberal Democrat conference was flawed: in seeking to oppose centrally imposed Eco-Towns the policy centrally imposed a rigid policy across the country, with no regard for local circumstances...
...I know, from my personal experience, that a life on the streets is a life devoid of liberty, devoid of equality of opportunity and devoid of social justice. We have adopted a one-size-fits-all policy that does not fit Oxford. It may be right for many areas of the country, but it is simply not justifiable in the homeless shelters of my city or to the thousands of families trapped by Oxford’s housing crisis. The supporters of this motion claimed they were not NIMBYs or BANANAs. But not once did I hear anyone in the debate talk about housing need and social justice.
So I ask them simply this. Where do we put the houses when the brownfield sites have run out?"There are many decent Lib Dems, like Stephen and Patrick, and others who have consistently championed admirable causes, such as Evan Harris. But they aren't the ones who are 'making it happen' for the Lib Dems at the moment, and it would be a shame if the lack of attention that their conference has got masked the fact that the Lib Dems are becoming a very different kind of party from the one which many progressive voters supported in 2005.