The decision by the Lib Dem conference to vote against the government’s obscene and deeply authoritarian plans for secret courts is naturally entirely welcome.
However considering some of the other things they have voted through this week it hardly demonstrates a sudden collective discovery of backbone or social democratic conscience. And I’m quite sure some of the smarter members would have been aware that unless they had some distinctive policies on civil liberties they will have no distinct policies on, well, anything, and therefore it was necessary to stake out some clear yellow territory on an issue. Plus they can expect some support from within the Tory Party over this. It’s a win-win.
Much is being made of the fact that Nick Clegg will now have to demand further concessions or be compelled to come out against his government’s proposals. I’m sure that he will be under some pressure, but I’m also sure that if he can weasel out of it he will. We all know what he’s like. And experience in the Labour Party shows that conference votes get ignored as a matter of routine in British politics. Votes like this, if and when they do happen, usually act as a safety valve to control and manage party dissidents.
Party conferences are a deeply unedifying spectacle in the 2000s. The few members that are there often just sit there clapping politely, nodding along furiously while they are told what to think and laughing insincerely uncontrollably at the awful jokes being told by their leaders.
The Lib Dem conference is supposedly the most democratic, but if there was any real democracy in the party it wouldn’t be a case of Nick Clegg coming under pressure to oppose the government’s plans. He would be compelled by his party to do so on pain of losing his position. No negotiation. No compromises. No weaselling out. His party members, his electors, have voted that way and that is the line he should be taking.
It is often asked why people don’t join parties. Well a good start to remedying that problem would be in giving individual members proper, constitutionally guaranteed control over what their party does and agrees to. It’s called democracy and the collective failure of party members to assert their existing rights and demand more is why all the parties are so managerial, monotone, singularly unresponsive to popular pressure and easily bought and captured by corporate interests. And it’s why people don’t join them in anything like the numbers they used to.
The Labour Party’s historic collapse in membership provides a case in point. Much of the hard-won space for lay control over the party has been lost in the name of ‘realism’. And more often than not the changes to the internal structures in the 80s and 90s were done with the full acquiescence of the membership, some of whom seem to revel in their role as mere cheerleaders.
Aren’t you glad that the Mambo is here to sort out the problems of our politics with such ease?