In 2010, Cleggmania swept the country. Following the familiar refrain of ‘I agree with Nick’ throughout the televised debates, uttered by both former Prime Minister Gordon Brown and his successor-to-be, David Cameron, the Liberal Democrats won 23 per cent of the popular vote. This resulted in a haul of 57 seats and a role as a minor partner in coalition Government. It had been so long since the party had tasted power (when they were still the Liberal Party), and 2010 seemed to usher in an era where the Lib Dems were no longer a vote of protest, or a party only for liberal true believers, but a party of Government.
In 2015, things look pretty different. The UK Polling Report average puts the Party on 7 per cent, below UKIP and just above the Greens. Coalition with the ‘nasty party’, as the Conservatives are often known, has damaged the Lib Dems.
So you would be forgiven for thinking the Party would be in low spirits, with an upcoming election in which they are predicted to lose over half their seats. But they are not. Spring Conference was notable for its positive, upbeat atmosphere. They know coalition has hurt them, but truly believe that they had to do it. The economy has recovered and the Lib Dems have been able to implement so many of the things they’ve wanted to do for so long. Not only that, they’ve been able to launch policy reviews and feasibility studies, carry out new initiatives and write new laws, and most of all, to govern.
The Conference started with a rally. Party President Sal Brinton spoke articulately on the Party’s values pledging that under the Liberal Democrats no one “should be enslaved by poverty, ignorance or conformity.” Campaign leader Paddy Ashdown gave a rousing speech, quoting T.S. Elliott and paraphrasing Keats, calling on members to hit the doorsteps because the Lib Dems have something to fight for. The musical numbers might have been a touch too much, at least for those fully adverse to musical theatre (a nod to Stephen Stills by Lib Dem Chief Whip Don Foster later that evening may have put them at ease).
Fringe events were populated by interested and active observers, offering their views on political history, energy and environmental policy, education, and science. Members were not downtrodden or disinterested; in fact they were as enthused as ever. Ed Davey, Energy Secretary and potential leadership candidate, fielded questions on the minutiae of community energy and SMART meters. He was not surprised to be met with fierce, but respectful, debate alongside applause and smiles.
When Danny Alexander spoke in the main hall, you would have been forgiven for forgetting this was once a man seen too close to George Osborne, the Conservative Chancellor. He, like the rest of the Party, was keen to put distance between him and his right-wing colleagues. He said he did not find the election daunting because he knows “who we are fighting for, and what we are fighting for”. He even wielded a yellow briefcase (a mock Lib Dem Budget), accompanied by manifesto commitments on fiscal policy and the economy. Alexander closed in Terminator-mode, saying “I’ll be back. We’ll be back. And because of us, Britain will be back too”. In the hall, it did the trick.
Alexander’s grown into his role as a Party heavyweight (and another leadership contender), and yet, no one (bar Clegg) gets Lib Dems in the hall quite like Business Secretary Vince Cable. He spoke against the divisiveness of the SNP and UKIP, the “short-term economic catastrophe” of Labour and the contradictory free-market economics and nationalism of the Conservatives. He even offered the “many sensible, moderate Conservatives” a home “as we can to social democrats increasingly disillusioned with Labour.”
Jo Swinson, the Business Minister, deserves a mention for her speech. She may not be as big a name and she may not speak to as large audiences as Cable, but she is becoming a powerful voice in the Party. Swinson speaks to some of the Party’s proudest achievements – what they have achieved for women and on equalities. When she finished speaking, the hall gave her a standing ovation, but this was not out of politeness. The applause held for much longer than could reasonably be expected. If Alexander speaks to members’ minds and Cable to their instincts, Swinson speaks to their hearts. Another leadership contender? If she can hold her seat against the SNP, she shouldn’t be ruled out.
Though this gives a sense that Leader Nick Clegg’s position is weak; that the Party is calling for his head. Not so. He may, like Alexander, have been criticised by the Party’s left for getting too close to the Conservatives, but his position couldn’t be stronger. Both members and Ministers offered him their support and admiration. As the Lib Dems reflect on their achievements, they credit Clegg for being productive in coalition and securing more, perhaps, than the Party should have. However, it should also be mentioned that praise was not just given for what the Lib Dems had done. Many of the Conservatives’ policies on human rights, employment law and surveillance rankle with Lib Dems. Clegg is credited for stopping them.
In his traditional Q&A with members and in his closing speech, he advocated openness, internationalism and liberty. He continued a strong vein of Lib Dem messaging, placing them in between the Conservatives who want to cut too much and an irresponsible Labour Party would want to spend in excess. He said “If you think a vote for UKIP, or the Greens, or the SNP is harmless – it isn’t” and positioned the Lib Dems against the politics of “division and blame”. He closed Conference saying the Lib Dems represented the “decent values of our country”, offering voters “a stable government that won’t lurch to the extremes of left or right”.
Will it matter on polling day in May? Probably not. There are many parties fighting for airtime and votes; and they are good at it. UKIP, SNP and the Greens offer drastic change, if it is the change you want. Labour and the Conservatives offer influence, a history in Government and the power to make real change. The Liberal Democrats offer a quieter form of politics; one based on the values of the middle ground.
This Coalition has been radical but the Lib Dems won’t get the credit they so desperately need to be as popular as they were when they had achieved much less. Yet, coalition is still a possibility. Labour and the Conservatives will struggle to win an outright majority. Even a diminished band of Lib Dems could still be the power brokers. Remember, only this weekend, Osborne and Shadow Chancellor Ed Balls all-but ruled out deals with UKIP and the SNP respectively. The Lib Dems may have less influence than they did in 2010, but they could still have a big role to play come May.
Image Source: Liberal Democrats Flickr