I’ve just got back from Liverpool, a little earlier than I should have, leaving the conference in full swing. It was a strange business. Police frogmen in the Mersey. Sniffer dogs in every boot. A lot of sharp-suited lobbyists.
The argument behind the scenes was about how, in practice, to manage the business of differentiating the party from the government. More about this one later.
I felt rather proud to be part of the party. The only bit I feel really frustrated about is the overwhelming rejection of the free schools idea.
I realise, of course, that I am in a minority on this one. So, for the sake of argument, this is why. Of course free schools should come under local authorities, anything else means sclerotic centralisation. But it seems to me that the great Liberal tradition would back free schools with major safeguards.
When I first joined the party in 1979, the key Liberal struggle in many councils was just to give people the right to ask questions. Labour and Conservative both opposed the idea.
It was ‘inefficient’. It just ‘benefited the articulate middle classes’. It ‘interfered with the smooth running of the administrative machine’. All those phrases you find in the motion the party passed to attack free schools.
When we first ran Liverpool in the 1970s, faced with a terrible shortage of public housing, we backed housing co-operatives and self build. It was a huge breath of fresh air. The pioneers of Weller Street and the Eldonians became a byword for the creativity of community politics.
They built their own streets and communities. We backed them against Militant and we backed them against the bureaucrats. It wasn’t called free housing, but it might as well have been.
There was huge opposition from Labour and Conservatives. Especially over the first self built public housing in London. It would only benefit the middle classes. It was ‘divisive’. ‘Inefficient’. If something was worth doing, then it was worth the council doing it for people.
True, it isn’t open to everyone to design and build their own estate. Though pretty much every age and race and corner of the class system took part in Liverpool. It tapped into the kind of energy that community politics can unleash at its very best.
So I’m suspicious when, in the name of Liberalism, we try to suppress the energy of ordinary people, who believe passionately in their neighbourhoods.
No, not outside the system. Letting corporates set up schools outside the democratic system. Or fundamentalists of any religion or none. Yes, that’s divisive. I’m not saying there should be no safeguards nor questions asked.
I didn’t join the party to let Rupert Murdoch open schools. But I didn’t join it to throttle the energy of people power either. If there is no energy for free schools, so be it. But if there is, it hardly seems right for the party of community politics to suppress them.
“Creating surplus places is prejudicial to the efficient use of resources in an age of austerity.” What kind of language is that?
I’ll tell you what. It’s the authentic sound of bureaucracy faced with inconvenient people. It’s the sound of New Labour ex-public schoolboys who want everybody else to be educated in precisely their approved way.
All the world over, I will back the masses against the classes, said Gladstone. Well, I’m a Liberal too, and as such it seems to me to be our role to back the people against the system. To back the people against the bureaucrats. To back diversity against uniformity, and energy against neatness.
What a pity we didn’t. Because I don’t believe those who voted for the motion against free schools are actually technocrats. But they sound like technocrats, and that is going to matter very much indeed.