This week the Liberal Democrats held their conference in Bournemouth, traditionally this is the point at which the rest of the country asks itself just what the party stands for before deciding that is doesn’t matter all that much after all.
Nothing much happened this week to change the general indifference felt by most Britons towards the perennial bridesmaids of the parliamentary system. Party leader Nick Clegg got tangled up over how to justify the calls be made for ‘savage’ cuts to public spending on the eve of the conference with the calls for ‘tax cuts for ordinary people’ paid for by ‘closing tax loopholes for the very rich’ he made from the conference platform.
Treasury spokesman Vince Cable, aka the most trusted man in politics, laid another egg when he announced a ‘mansion tax’ to be imposed on anyone owning a property worth more than £1million, no sooner had the announcement been made than the wheels fell of the whole policy as it was pointed out by the media, conference delegates and pretty much everyone else that the tax would trap countless people of modest means unlucky enough to live in a home that had seen its value rise during the property boom.
The whole conference had hanging over it the distinct air of a party trying desperately hard to appear relevant and dynamic only to be continually tripped up by its inherent amateurishness. All the faults that have been evident in the Liberal Democrat brand for years were again exposed by the cruel light of media scrutiny, lets just tick a few of them off.
Nick Clegg still resembles nothing so much as a man recovering from a successful charisma bypass, there is no coherent vision of what, in the unlikely event of one ever being elected a Lib Dem government would actually do in office apart from trying very hard to be nice to everyone, and as a whole the party seems to lack the confidence and the hunger necessary for a concerted push to improve its standing with a jaded electorate that shows every sign of genuinely being on the lookout for something different after the sleaze and scandals of the past year.
All told the conference could be written off as one big missed opportunity, but to do so would be to miss an important point. The Liberal Democrat conference was, and this may make party managers at the heart of the Labour and Tory party machines throw their hands up in horror like a party of Edwardian spinsters who have had their tea party gate crashed by Piltdown man, was a genuinely democratic event.
The party leadership may have fumbled the ball over cuts in public spending, student loans and the ‘mansion tax’, but unlike their contemporaries in the other two parties the grassroots membership were able to express their opposition through motions moved on the conference floor. That would never, of course, be allowed to happen at a carefully stage managed Labour or Tory conference, something that does both parties a grave disservice.
In his speech from the conference platform Nick Clegg noted the value his party still places on that quaint old thing called democracy, telling a national audience that would mostly never think of voting for his party that through their vote ‘power’ was theirs to ‘give away to whoever you choose’, refreshing sentiments in an age when too often politicians treat the voting public like naughty children rather than equal partners in the democratic process.
The ‘liberal moment’ some commentators predicted might be upon us as voters desert a moribund Labour Party and fail to warm to David Cameron’s Conservatives looks unlikely to arrive any time soon, the party needs a new leader and a lot more grit before it can win the battle to be an effective opposition let alone a government in waiting, and yet it is hard not to warm to Nick Clegg when he promises ‘hope for a different future, a different way of doing things, if we are brave enough to make a fresh start.’
However angry they are over MP’s expenses, the troubles besetting the economy and the general feeling the political class has lost touch with ordinary Britons and the challenges they face the electorate may not yet be ready to turn to the Lib Dems to show them how to make a ‘fresh start’, but they may be by the time of the election after next. The question is will the Liberal Democrats themselves be ready to meet the challenge.