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Mid-term blues in Brighton: a double report from the Lib Dem conference

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If the bell is tolling for the Liberal Democrats, they built sound-proof walls for this year's party conference. Two reports from inside tell of the marked absence of a debate on leadership, despite Clegg's appalling unpopularity, and a religious cleaving to the creed of coalition.

Andy May Stuart Weir
25 September 2012

No coup as yet, but Clegg will struggle to keep his crown

A report by Andy May, a Lib Dem member for the past decade and a former member of staff for the party (2006-08).

My eighth Lib Dem conference – and my, how things have changed. In years past, when being in government was still unimaginable for the party, many news outlets didn’t even bother to send political correspondents down. Now the place is full of lobby hacks and the press cuttings file is inches thick. Harried staff ferry ministers and MPs to interview after interview. The beard and sandals brigade has been replaced by suits and ties (well, there are still a few beards if you look hard enough, but sandals are definitely out).

There has already been a raft of policy announcements – wealth taxes and a state owned business bank announced by Nick Clegg and Vince Cable. Today there will be more on public sector pay and justice and security, as well as a keynote on a ‘tax crackdown’ from Treasury chief secretary Danny Alexander. And for those that haven’t heard of Sharon Bowles, pay attention to her speech at 3pm today (you can follow the live blog here). She sits on the EU economic committee of monetary affairs, a financial services regulator. Which means she is more influential than a fair number of Government ministers.

One thing that is missing is any intrigue around the leadership. Despite the first real signs of grassroots dissatisfaction emerging over Nick Clegg’s dismal poll ratings, no MPs or influential party members are showing any real intent to stage a coup, for the moment at least. Even those most unhappy with the current regime don’t yet see an obvious successor. The two future prospects - business secretary Vince Cable (too old?) and party president Tim Farron (a little lightweight?) - are not yet a serious threat to Cleggites. The press will have to wait another year or two before things get really interesting on that front and dissent is likely to be limited to a couple of peers and isolated backbench MPs.

Could Tim Farron be the next Lib Dem leader?

However there are also the notable signs of a party in government suffering mid-term blues. One staffer muttered to me that there were considerably less delegates this year; perhaps after fraught votes on NHS reforms last year, some have had enough of the leadership trampling on them. And, of course, the party membership has fallen 25% since the start of the coalition so there are bound to be less actual members in the conference centre.

The impact of this fraught coalition government on the party's morale and electoral prospects cannot be underestimated. So, however much in the way of good press and populist policy announcements the party gets at conference, there are two things Nick Clegg needs to do to retain his crown beyond 2015. Firstly, reverse the party’s slide in poll ratings, members and councillors. Secondly, persuade his coalition partners to actually enact some of the policy, or failing that really ramp up the differentiation strategy so that he can counter the perception amongst voters and members that the Lib Dems are being hoodwinked by their coalition partners.

Do that – and Clegg might survive as leader beyond 2015.

Exit isn't an option: the buzz word is 'differentiation'

A report by Stuart Weir, a self-described "inconstant member of the Labour Party".

With so much lost, delegates at the Liberal Democrat conference have reaffirmed their faith in the coalition government, agreeing to stick to the deficit reduction policy and to stay the course in the government to the bitter end.  Clearly, not enough of them came to the Social Liberal Forum ‘fringe’ meeting where I warned that all coalitions unravel before their end date and they were at risk of being out-smarted by a tactical Tory exit; and Green MP Caroline Lucas pointed out that there are both ‘good’ and ‘bad’ coalitions – and they were in a  very bad one. 

Not that being at our fringe – subject, ‘disengaging from the Tories’ - would have made much difference to the majority at the conference.  From the views of those there it was clear to both Caroline Lucas and I – and to Neal Lawson, the other outsider on the panel – that Coalition has become a holy enterprise, like the Ark of the Covenant, as the Lib Dems wander through British politics in dismal search of a homeland. I had expected a smallish gathering of the Lib Dems’ social democrats, but instead several hundred mainstream Lib Dems turned up and packed out the room. 

So I was given the opportunity to see the world as active Lib Dems see it.  I suspect that their faith in coalition is a form of denial, mixed with satisfaction that they are at last in government, albeit ingloriously.  Caroline Lucas and I both urged the audience that they should ‘disengage’ from the coalition.  She gave a graceful speech in which she showed how far their leaders are acting in support of a Tory majority that is trashing Lib Dem commitments to fairness, a green economy, civil liberties and – I could go on.  She did get one astonishing reaction, an outburst of noisy loathing when she cited the Guardian’s Polly Toynbee. Apparently Lib Dems believe that she is unfair to them.

As an inconstant member of the Labour party, notorious for its tribal instincts, I was struck by the very strong tribalism that the audience displayed in their comments and questions.  These Lib Dems were not pluralist creatures!   Caroline, Neal and I spent a great deal of our time trying to encourage them to open up politically to Labour in particular.  Neal, who had opened up with a fine speech about the power of global corporatism and the diminution of domestic politics, urged delegates to recognise that being “at loggerheads” with other parties damaged not just their party, but the causes which they shared.   One delegate objected that the Labour shadow front bench was packed with New Labour figures. Caroline replied that if the Lib Dems were prepared to co-operate, it would strengthen the community-minded and green elements in Labour.  

‘Differentiation’, not ‘disengagement’, was the name of the game.  Tim Farron, the Lib Dem president, gave a  banal, loyalist and self-serving speech. Lord (Chris) Rennard, the party’s by-election mastermind, gave a far more nuanced speech advocating ‘engaging’ with the Tories, not ‘disengaging’, by which he meant a more aggressive form of differentiation.  Later on, he seemed to take this position further by suggesting that the Lib Dems could vote in Parliament against policies that the Tory majority in government was pressing ahead with.  I hope that I have interpreted him right – it could make a huge difference to our lives and liberties.

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