The Liberal Democrats have had a good year in opposition – including a memorable, close count victory for their sole MP, Jo Swinson. But a lot of that momentum has been driven by a new industrial strategy championed by former Prime Minister David Cameron (currently gone in disgrace). And Mr Cameron might have learnt the hard way that good ideas don’t automatically translate into good results.
Thanks to him, we now have six new, forward-looking special commissions – which aim to finally bring some humanity to regulation of our major providers of media and communication – but the government has yet to have the courage to follow through on any of the policies or speech it has made.
This fundamental failure demonstrates yet again the importance of a strong opposition. The Tories, especially under Mr Cameron, were bold enough to stand up to the Lib Dems – and step up to the plate when the principles in their economic agenda needed challenging. When leadership positions in UK tech companies inevitably boil down to a single man, it’s only right that the opposition is strengthened.
A new generation of MPs should hope to gain prominence through pursuit of this agenda – and for now, the Liberal Democrats can’t just shrug its shoulders and write-off the idea of an effective opposition. Because it’s when opposition leaders fail that history comes back to haunt them.
At Conservative conferences last week, former Home Secretary Theresa May rightly underlined the risks of a general election without a functioning opposition: “The main issues that the Liberal Democrats should be raising are on the kind of country we want to live in – not just for today, but for the long term.”
The Liberal Democrats need to invest heavily in a proper opposition. We need to make sure that Labour and the Conservatives come together and agree on some common ground – including on regulation of tech companies. And we also need to ensure that we constructively engage with our coalition partners to influence policy – and to clarify their priorities, and our own.
Our new special commission on digital and social policy, announced last week, is a good start. It will provide meaningful input into the Digital, Culture, Media and Sport Bill, currently being written, to establish more effective and balanced regulation of those tech companies – but which are currently solely reliant on the guidance of the Conservative-Liberal Democrat coalition.
On the centre-right side of our ideological divide, the Conservatives are still mostly silent on such areas as encryption, disinformation and privacy – which offers the Liberals the chance to deliver the large-scale digital transformation in society and policy that we have staked our name on.
They need to choose an approach that reflects the platforms they all depend on to spread their power – and they will be encouraged to do so by a Tory government that actually wants to rein in these firms. On the other side of the spectrum, Labour can also be encouraged to build support for a version of the Liberal Democrats’ industrial strategy. Already, there is much more to do to fix the digital problems that are already already exist, including increasing access to local newspapers, helping coders be more employable, creating a requirement for technology graduates to incorporate software into their degree, and curbing the malicious consequences of algorithms.
Progress on these issues, including the introduction of a high-level regulator to keep an eye on the medium, would go a long way towards acting as a catalyst for a “Tech Party” of technocrats and digital executives and technologists – and offering much-needed competition to our political system, and far-reaching policy changes.
The Liberal Democrats are not the only ones attempting to fix the British political system. But we are able to be more effective in the pursuit of this agenda because of the irrelevance of Theresa May. Because we have at least some kind of momentum to drag up these themes, and because we are able to put all the ideas into a stronger position by parliament being heard.
In its current form, our party is too often sidelined by our coalition partners, but there’s no better opportunity to keep hold of this momentum than the next few weeks. Which way the Liberal Democrats take this opportunity may determine how much power we’ve got in the future. It is always possible to change and improve – but not when you don’t have to.