The time was when the Liberal Democrat conference was the political equivalent of the band of the Salvation Army playing before the FA Cup final, an amusing anachronism designed to entertain people as they took their seats for the real contest. This year though it really means something; what it means is that this is the year when the Liberal Democrats have to decide what the want to fight for and how much of a price they are willing to pay to win.
What leader Nick Clegg wants to fight for, despite the best efforts of the Chancellor and his friends in the city to persuade the voting public that it doesn’t work, is retention of the fifty pence tax rate for higher earners. A tax cut for the ‘very, very, rich’, he said in an interview given to the Independent on the eve of the party conference in Birmingham this week wouldn’t happen ‘until there is significant progress on giving tax breaks to those on lower and middle incomes.’
The progress in question means in practice replacing the fifty pence tax rate with something like the ‘mansion tax’ that got the Lib Dems into so much trouble at their last conference but one. It’s a nice idea and one that plays well with the public, at least it does if the technicalities are worked out more convincingly this time round; but it will surely founder on the rocks of a Treasury that quivers with terror whenever the financial big beasts roar that they’re going to take their businesses elsewhere if they don’t get their way.
Nick Clegg also commented with disarming understatement on the fortunes of his party over the past year, saying things had been ‘really tough’ and that ‘some people who used to support us don’t now.’ You can say that again, in the May local elections the Liberal Democrats lost 747 seats in councils across the country and implication in the party’s handbrake turn over university tuition fees and the disastrous campaign in support of AV mean that these days NOBODY agrees with Nick.
He went on to say that the Liberal Democrats had come into government under ‘obviously controversial circumstances because we were governing with our sworn enemies the Conservative Party and, even more controversially having to make very, very difficult and in some cases unpopular decisions.’ It would be naive on the party supporters to have expected a seat at the top table not to have come with a number of compromises attached, but the Lib Dems seem to have been peculiarly adept over the past year or so at shooting themselves in both feet.
Given the turn taken by their fortunes it is something of an achievement that the Liberal Democrats are having a conference at all, and heartening that delegates will get to debate motions on issues such as reforming the House of Lords, the phone hacking scandal and welfare policy. In the lexicon of modern politics letting party members debate an issue doesn’t mean the same thing as letting the result influence party policy, but it certainly sounds a lot more lively than the decaffeinated trade fair the Labour Party are planning to hold in a couple of weeks time.
The economy is stumbling, unemployment is rising and the public sector is about to be hacked to ribbons; most worryingly of all the government in which they are a junior partner has no Plan B and is led by a man who seems to think this is a virtue not a sign of impending disaster. What, delegates should be asking themselves, is Nick Clegg going to do about that? As Deputy Prime Minister he should surely have some input into whether or not we find an alternative course or simply sail blithely on towards the rocks.
The Liberal Democrats also need to consider the deeper problems affecting British society, problems that will not go away if and when the economy picks up. This week a UNESCO report listed children in the UK being amongst the least happy in the developed world, supplied with expensive gadgets by their harassed parents but starved of the ‘family time’ that is key to maintaining their wellbeing.
For the Tories things have always been simple, their ideology can be written on the back of a postage stamp because it amounts to helping rich people keep hold of more of their money and encouraging ambitious ones to make as much money as they can and damn the consequences for wider society. Things can never be that simple for the Lib Dems, as their name suggests they are a party that exists to fight for values that aren’t linked to protecting capital and realising short term profits.
To date they haven’t done any too well at using the opportunity presented by being part of a coalition to fight for those values, letting themselves instead become a punch bag for a public that is angry about a deficit reduction agenda that is far more ideologically driven than anything bellowed from the platform at the TUC conference last week.
Speaking to the BBC on the eve of the conference Simon Hughes, the deputy leader of the party, said along with the by now ritual denial that the has any ambitions to be party leader one day (he does and you can see it shining from him like the halo of a saint in a medieval icon) that the difference between the Liberal Democrats and their Tory partners was ‘we concentrate on people at the bottom of the economic scale and spend less time looking after people who have done very well, thank you.’
Once upon a time the Liberal Democrats were an eccentric sideshow to the political circus, understandably when the opportunity came to step up into the major league they took it. Where once we indulged the sometimes silly things they said because they had little influence we now judge them on their actions because they do.
If the Liberal Democrats are to survive as a distinct political party and use their position to make real changes to the way our society operates then the most important thing Nick Clegg is going to have to do once the conference season is over and the business of government starts again is learn to say ‘no’ more often and more forcefully to the Tories than he has up to now.