Conference Preview: Liberal Democrats

It’s been a strange parliamentary timetable this year. David Cameron decided to haul MPs back to the House of Commons after their twice-interrupted summer holidays, presumably to give off the impression that the MPs he is presiding over are more hard-working than ever before. I’m not sure the public have even noticed. It’ll be interesting to see if he reverts back to tradition next year, but leaving those kind of agonising decisions to one side, conference season is upon us.

Equally strange were the circumstances for all three party leaders last year. Neither of them had a resounding victory to speak of. Cameron couldn’t secure a majority government. Clegg got his party into government; but only through sacrificing a lot of their policies, electoral reform, many of their principles along with a large chunk of their party membership and their popular standing. Ed Miliband managed to get elected leader of the Labour Party, but without the support of the members and MPs of the party he leads. All three enjoyed brief honeymoon periods after their compromised victories but all three enter conference season with a murmuring of disgruntled MPs and a disillusioned public. In many ways, all three leaders have a lot to prove. The parties themselves seem to also be in a halfway house between sceptical public support and outright public mistrust. With no party big gun gripping the public imagination with policy, and the future of their leaders in doubt, the opportunity is there for some new blood to make some waves. Or, for the establishment to hit back and reassure their parties and the public of the direction they are travelling in. And hanging over both coalition parties are the effects of the boundary changes. Whichever way you look at it, we could be in for a fascinating conference season.

Liberal Democrats

The Lib Dems are up first in Birmingham and have a number of issues hanging over them. A year into the coalition and the party strategists will be looking hard at where they are and where they need to be going. They are in a precarious position. They’ve found all of the public anger towards high profile policy decisions directed at them. With tuition fees it was understandable, the Lib Dems have support in many student populated towns and cities, and went on a public crusade to abolish tuition fees only to raise them as soon as they were in government. With the NHS however, things are not as clear cut. They have caught a lot of flack over the proposals as if they were meant to be the guardians of the NHS against the evils of the Tories. It is worth remembering, that the Lib Dems actually secured one of their manifesto pledges in the Health and Social Care Bill in GP Commissioners. Nick Clegg signed off the initial proposals, then sought to position his party as the saviours of the bill in opposing the reforms in the face of a public backlash. This may have been misguided. The core principles of the bill remain unchanged, the same medical associations are yet to support it, the public remain deeply sceptical of the bill and popular Lib Dem Baroness Shirley Williams continues to vow to block the bill in the Lords. This has left the Lib Dems in another position of failure. Hindsight is a wonderful thing, but they would have been better placed had they not attempted to act as the saviours of the bill in the first place. They were happy to secure GP Commissioning as part of the bill but then seemed keen to ditch the bill in favour of short term popularity. This is a worrying sign, and one that carries with it a hint of desperation. Their strategy seems confused, what is the message they are trying to convey to the public? Is it to secure their own manifesto pledges? Or is it to dilute Conservative policies? Initially, they went with the former. Now they find themselves as the scapegoats for any unpopular government decision, they are trying to go with the latter by putting distance between themselves and the Tories, as well as highlighting the differences between them in policy areas.

One area that Nick Clegg does not want to do this in however is economic policy, which is why Vince Cable has been left as a rogue member speaking out against Osborne’s policies. Now Clegg himself has come out against any abolition in the 50p rate of tax. To confuse a couple of metaphors, it seems like he is jumping on this bandwagon after the horse has already bolted; this proposal seems a dead duck already. It also carries with it a sense of deja vu of the NHS saga. There is a question to be asked here though. The Lib Dem strategy of making a song and dance of either their policies being implemented, or diluting Tory policy has had one chief objective. It is to appeal to their supporters. It is to remind them why they are in government, what they get with for voting Liberal Democrat, what they stand for and why they sacrificed so much for the coalition. It is to reassure them that they are doing things in government and there is a Liberal Democrat voice in the coalition.

But what does that mean now? They were often seen as an anti-establishment vote. A large chunk of their supporters deserted them after joining forces with the Conservatives. Now, they have lost both the anti-establishment and anti-Tory vote. However, by speaking out against the Tories and trying to halt various Tory policies, their new short term strategy is still trying to appeal to those same lost voters.

Nick Clegg at conference
Nick Clegg enters his Party Conference at the crossroads. Source:PA

Will they try and go on a mission to reclaim these old voters? If completely successful that would only get them back to square one, at best, and with a whole lot of pain and long term damage along the way. They would have gained nothing, and proven nothing. By distancing themselves from the Tories they will not be appealing to those voters either. They are married to the Tory economic policy but aren’t willing to appeal to the beneficiaries of Tory economic policy. At the moment, they are torn. The party conference will give them the opportunity to carve out a vision to change this. They need to ask themselves what it means in the here and now to be a Liberal Democrat, and what they want it to mean in the future. They need to set out a direction for themselves. But they can’t shy away from asking themselves the essential questions. What do they stand for and who do they want to appeal to?

The opportunity is there for them to articulate a new vision to take the party forward. At their conference they will be surrounded by remaining supporters who have stuck with them through this difficult period. These supporters will still hold core Liberal Democrat principles at heart. They will be looking for reassurances that as a party they still have a future and can stay relevant, and can go places. They will be looking for leadership. The scandals of the summer – the riots and phone hacking – provide a backdrop to which the Lib Dems can articulate this vision against. All three parties will offer their take on these incidents, but the Lib Dems can do what they once managed to do, and offer something different. With no policy attachment required, the Lib Dems need not measure their response against that of their coalition partners. They can place themselves in a different light and speak to the voters who they wish to represent. They must first identify these voters, but one would hope this has already been done. If so, this is a chance for them to reinvigorate themselves and give fresh impetus to their cause.

It would be an easy trap to fall in for the Lib Dems to try and speak to the rest of the country through their party conference. They must avoid this. Public opinion on them is at record lows. They are all over the place in terms of policy and appeal. They have seen their voting blocks crumble. This will probably make it even more appealing for them to fight back and try to reclaim some of these areas in which they have lost. However, they need to consolidate. They need to be introspective. They need to find their core, their soul, and move forward with that. It may not seem so, but the election is still a long way away. If, a year before the election in 2014, the Lib Dems have a core base of support which they have managed to keep, along with a new base which they have strategically identified and sought to appeal to, then they will be in a healthy position. They can then start to capitalise on anti-Tory sentiment and appeal to smaller pockets of swing voters. In the past they have been able to say one thing to one part of the country and another thing to another part; now they have been in government they have been exposed and can no longer do this. This poses a fundamental change to their election strategy, and they should treat it as such. This conference should be looked back upon as the moment when the Lib Dems went back to the drawing board, and re-found their identity. They must offer a future which their party can embrace. They must show a willingness to evolve. It is the only way they can survive. Clegg can either unite his party as new, Liberal Democrats, or go down as coalition partners.

Expected Highlights

Expect Cameron to have thrown the Lib Dems a policy nugget for someone to announce, to raise spirits. The economy is in bad shape so expect Vince Cable to ruffle a lot of feathers with his speech. Also worth looking out for is which way Danny Alexander will go with his speech, and the difference between the two people at the forefront of economic leadership in the party. Charles Kennedy is bound to cause a stir, and expect fireworks at the Q&A sessions.

Any up and coming Lib Dem MP will make a name for themselves by rebelling against the Lib Dem establishment and trying to appeal to the traditional Lib Dem voter, however many of them remain. Not quite up and coming, but Tim Farron fits this bill. The NHS will also be a major talking point.


Posted on September 17, 2011, in Liberal Democrat Party, Looking Forward, Party Politics and tagged , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink. Leave a comment.

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