Bad old days vs Bright future
Liberal Democrat conferences used to be nice and simple. A couple of thousand freakishly zealous activists would schlep off to the seaside, engage in five days’ earnest debates ignored by the media – barring speculation about that year’s leadership crisis – and agree a load of policy that made us feel good, but which stood absolutely no chance of troubling the statute books. We’d then return home, probably a bit too piously pleased with ourselves, ready to burn some shoe leather pushing more Focus leaflets through letterboxes to convert the good folk of Localsville to our cause.
Then we did something that no political party with ambitions to grow its popularity should ever do: we entered government. Life is no longer as nice and simple as it was in opposition (Nigel Farage, take note.) Even worse, we entered into a coalition government. With the Tories. It’s one thing to take responsibility for your own mistakes (*cough* tuition fees), quite another to have to shoulder responsibility for theirs as well (*cough* bedroom tax).
My party is still suffering the hangover-from-hell that we woke up to on the morning of 7 May 2010. Until then, we’d been able to maintain the pretence, at least for our own benefit, that we would form a majority government and introduce our manifesto wholesale. And if that didn’t happen in one bound, we’d wangle it so that electoral reform guaranteed us our fair share of MPs the election after. The dousing of Cleggmania, followed by the crushing AV referendum defeat, was a double whammy. Our bright hope of changing the face of British politics has given way to the grim reality that 2015 will be what party president Tim Farron has termed a “survival election”.
It’s all much easier for the Tories. Sure, they’ve had to compromise in government: “Poor old David Cameron is governing with one hand tied behind his back,” laments Peter Bone, the comedy caricature Tory MP, but his party can credibly pitch to the voters at the next election what an unshackled Tory government would do. The Lib Dems, though, face the unappetising prospect of an election campaign dominated by journalists asking of each of our pledges, “But do you actually mean this one? Is it a red line or is it up for grabs?”
As the interminable hangover lingers, Lib Dems are getting grumpier with each other. Clegg accuses activists of “hankering for the comfort blanket of national opposition” – a pretty ungracious response to a party that has stuck by him and the coalition even as hundreds of our councillors are scythed away at successive local elections through no fault of their own. Yet Clegg and his team feel they get scant credit from activists for constantly battling to thwart Tory efforts to sneak through illiberal measures on civil liberties and immigration, within a coalition in which they’re out-numbered five to one.
In truth, both leadership and activists are coming to terms with having less power in government than they’d like. That feeling of impotence is turning into a destructive passive-aggressiveness directed at each other. It’s been on simmer for months, but we’re likely to see it bubbling over when the party meets in Glasgow this month. The big debate will focus on the economy, an issue the leadership craftily dodged discussing when the Lib Dem conference last met in March, when a triple-dip recession appeared possible. This time, however, with even the double-dip erased from the history books and the British economy picking up pace, the leadership – bolstered by the perennially popular Vince Cable – will be confident of victory for a motion that is broadly supportive of the government’s record. At least I assume they will be, because Clegg’s been lined up as the concluding speaker.
That doesn’t mean the leadership will emerge unscathed. Lib Dem members are, after all, a feisty, independent bunch: they’ll give Clegg at least one bloody nose, partly on the principle of the issue (whichever one it is) and partly to show they can. There’s plenty of potential for flare-ups. For example, there’s a proposal to drop the party’s opposition to tuition fees – yes, in spite of everything, the Lib Dems are still officially against them, though I don’t know anyone who thinks we can seriously put that to the voters again – or there’s the cautious welcome offered to well-regulated fracking. Emergency motions on the detention of David Miranda or British intervention in Syria, for instance, could also throw the leadership a curve ball.
The most likely defeat, however, will be over Danny Alexander’s half-hearted proposal to oppose both like-for-like Trident replacement and nuclear disarmament, and instead triangulate a middle way of “taking a couple of steps down the ‘nuclear ladder’ of capabilities,” as the party has excruciatingly explained it. Desperate to find a compromise that will please everyone, we’ve put forward a policy that pleases almost no one. But the plain fact is that, unless and until we can persuade either Labour or the Tories to adopt our approach, whatever conference decides won’t matter a jot. In fact, it’ll be just like the old days.