Friday, 24 September 2010

All hail the hollowed out party.

This week’s Liberal Democrat conference was, you’d imagine, the moment leader Nick Clegg’s political career had been building towards from day one.

Taking to the platform in Liverpool on Tuesday as Deputy Prime Minister he said that since May his party had ‘changed British politics for good’ and promised that if the membership held their nerve and stuck out the full term the Liberal Democrats would have ‘changed Britain for good.’

Just look at what they’ve done in just a few short months, as Mr Clegg put it they had already ‘ended the injustice of the richest paying less tax on their investments than the poorest do on their wages’; the forthcoming Freedom Bill promised to ‘roll back a generation of illiberal and intrusive legislation’ and from April next year 900,000 of the lowest earning people will be freed from paying tax.

Joy it was to be a Liberal Democrat on that afternoon, despite being derided and dismissed by snippy op-ed writers the party that ‘had always been the face of change’ had now become the ‘agent of change.’ Being in power might have changed their status but their liberal ‘soul’ was and would forever remain intact.

He also took a swipe at the Labour government, likening their management of the economy to a family earning £26,000 and spending £32,000 whilst having a debt of £40,000 to service. This family, lets call them the Joneses, would have to set itself a new and tougher budget, which is what kindly Uncle Nick is helping us all to do. Along the way he was also recycling some of his favourite lines about losing the job that pays your mortgage or the services you depend on making for hard times, but not so hard at in the 1930’s; so we’re all going to be spared rickets at least.

At times it was hard to remember just who did win the election, the delivery was strikingly confident for the junior partner in a coalition government. When he spoke about Britain in 2015 being a very different country, a place that will be ‘strong, fair, free and full of hope again, a country we can be proud to hand on to our children. That is the prize.’, it was easy to forget that it was Nick Clegg, the man we all agreed with back in May, delivering the speech at all. He sounded like a different man; the man he sounded like was Tony Blair.

Many things about this year’s Liberal Democrat conference seemed like every other such event. Vince Cable had a foot in mouth moment, this time it involved making some sub student politics comments about the evils of capitalism, Lembit Opik made a fool of himself and the delegates gave the party hierarchy a bloody nose by refusing to support ‘free schools.’

Other things were very different though, like the rest of Britain the Liberal Democrats are going to be unrecognisable by 2015, and the changes are starting now. The conference seemed slicker and the media more engaged with what was going on, good news, I’m sure if you’re a long time Lib Dem supporter used to being treated with polite disdain, but there was no hiding the fact that the ‘soul’ Nick Clegg promised the party would never lose is definitely in peril.

The delegates who trooped up onto the platform to denounce the likely consequences of cutting public services too quickly should enjoy their freedom to do so; they won’t have it at the conference after next. It may not be apparent to the delegates making their way home from Liverpool this week end yet, but their party is slowly being hollowed out, turned into something quieter that is easier for the leadership to manage.

That is, perhaps, inevitable, once in government even the most determinedly flower strewing liberal become a little more conservative when given the job of looking after the garden. The trouble is though when a party jettisons too many of its principles it inevitable loses its way and, ultimately, much of its support. As happened to Labour under the man to whom Nick Clegg emerged this week as a rather surprising heir.

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