The media tends to make a lot less of the Liberal Democrat Party Conference than it does of its Labour and Conservative counterparts. The reasons why are obvious: they are the third party of British politics; they are not a ‘credible’ Government. Some would even argue that they are a protest party of sorts. But ever since they arrived in Government, what they’ve had to say has been greeted with a little less sunny dismissal, and a little more ear-bent analysis.
This year, however, the Lib Dems seem to have used their Conference as the platform on which to begin fighting the coming election. Nick Clegg’s Saturday speech argued about how they were the party that created 1 million jobs, that they were the party that supported public sector workers and the lower paid -took thousands of people out of paying tax, no less, by raising the tax threshold to £9,205, which will become £10,000 in 2014. He even wants to save the environment by making us all pay 5 pence each for a plastic bag, and asks businesses to kindly donate that extra revenue to charity. His flagship speech on Thursday pledged to be more ‘personal’, a buzz word for telling us about his life, and attempting to mitigate his privileged image.
Nick Clegg, along with half of his Cabinet Ministers, has committed the ultimate sin -he has begun to believe his own rhetoric. What the party has done in Government, particularly to blunt Cameron and Osborne’s assault on some of the most vulnerable in society, is commendable -what they could have done outside of Government, however, sat with Labour on the opposition benches vetoing much of what they let through, is arguably much greater. The Coalition may have created 1 million jobs, but many of these are low-paid or part-time; in other words, not jobs on which families can sustain themselves. Many are currently on zero-hour contracts, meaning they may be in work, but will actually be getting paid nothing. Meanwhile, Nick wants to follow up one of the most progressive tax changes in history with choosing not to reinstate the 50p tax rate, which despite protesting economists would be as much a symbolic move as anything, because inevitably businesses will dodge whatever rate of tax they should be paying, be it 50%, 45%, or 5%. And good luck getting those companies to save the environment when you’re paying them an extra 5 pence not to.
Cue Vince Cable, who spoke out at the Conference about the Liberal Democrats being supporters of organised labour, only a couple of years after he warned Trade Unions that if they didn’t calm down about pay freezes and job losses, he would consider enacting laws which would further restrict their movement. Danny Alexander, on the front row, nodded like a bulldog chewing a wasp, no doubt longing to return to his position ensconced in the Chancellor’s arms.
But joking aside, the party seems not to have realised that, when it comes to wide-scale deception and backstabbing, the public has a very long memory. The u-turn on tuition fees still burns in the nation’s consciousness; covering in a thick smog any good that they might have done thereafter. The argument that the last four years were ‘for the good of the country’ could have been made if they had been louder faster, but now it sounds like a promise made long ago, in another age which no longer translates in the here and now.
In short, the Liberal Democrats have made too many mistakes to remain ‘credible’, and the Conservatives, appearing more credible all the time, have capitalised on all of them. To believe that the next election will be a three-way battle is nonsense; the public will not vote for the Lib Dems outside of bastions like Eastleigh, or except in seats like Fife North East where the untainted figures like Menzies Campbell still sit. They will see it as as Labour vs. Tories, just as they always have, and this time potentially more so. By going into government, the Lib Dems have lost even their edge of protest. This mantle has been picked up by UKIP and the Green Party, forging ahead (though not always in a good way) on more current issues like immigration and the environment.
Nick Clegg tried his best, as he always does, to appear to be the man-in-the-middle, doing what he can to keep the ‘baddie’ parties at bay. He doesn’t realise he’s one of them now, and no amount of talking will alleviate that image. When the Lib Dems go into the next election, it will not be a fight for Government, it will be a fight for survival -and maybe this big talk is because he knows that’s the case, and that the knives should have been drawn long ago.
Image Credit: David Spender