There was a good article by Martin Kettle in the Guardian 17 December on the dilemmas facing the Lib Dems. I don't always agree with Kettle but he is generally worth reading, because he refuses to indulge in leftist wishful-thinking. He pointed out that the Lib Dems now have to decide whether they want to be'an aggregation of individual constituency MPs' or 'a party with pretensions to a role in government'. If the latter, then we must have some goals that we wish to achieve in government.
I am often struck by the contrast between the bold and innovative approach that Liberal Democrats have taken in local government towards reform of public services, and the caution and old-fashioned sentimentalism that party conference shows towards the sacred cows of the welfare state.
Where the Liberal Democrats have replaced tired Labour town hall administrations, as they have done in Liverpool, Islington, Southwark etc., they have been notably robust in cutting out waste, reducing unnecessary spending and tackling public sector vested interests. They have been been pragmatic on 'outsourcing' of service delivery. Indeed Liverpool Liberal Democrats made the continued use of private contractors to collect refuse one of the key elements of their election campaign when they took control of the council. This approach – caring about services, caring about costs, to revive an old slogan seems popular with the electorate. It has worked for us in Watford.
Yet whenever there is a hint that national policy on public services might deviate from a mantra of demanding higher spending or might include partnership with the private sector there is an outcry from certain sections of the party who regard this as an attempted Thatcherite coup.
Even those who are involved in local government seem unwilling to draw any lessons for national policy from their local experiences. It was noticeable at conference that in each of the controversial debates - on capping EU spending and the future of the post office - senior Liverpool councillors spoke passionately against the motions.
Through its more successful local government administrations, the Liberal Democrats have developed an approach to reform of public services that is both distinctive and effective. It involves, among other things, commitment to effective service delivery, willingness to be flexible about who delivers the service, recognition that high costs don't automatically equal high quality and willingness to listen to the views of the users of public services.
While the Liberal Democrats seem quite comfortable with this as a recipe for effective local government, there is no appetite for applying its lessons more widely.