Are we having a good conference?

So, our conference is properly underway and for once you don’t exactly have to dig deep for Liberal Democrat stories in the mainstream media. It is far from all good news though; credit where it is due, Vince Cable has been the star of the show so far, making a clear and convincing case why disaffected Labour voters should switch to us. Cable can do something that Clegg has demonstrated he actually clearly can’t this conference, talk in a way which is culturally appealing to core Labour voters but also cross the divide and reach out to those in higher social brackets and build an electorally progressive coalition. Clegg is far more comfortable answering the ‘love-bombs’ of David Cameron but sadly for him that is not where the main fight is and therefore this skill is limited in its usefulness.

Although Liberal Democrat MP’s have apparently ‘savaged’ Cable’s ‘mansion tax’ proposals I have no doubt they speak from mere self-interested, wondering how it will play in their own vulnerable constituencies. This ‘savagery’ points to one of the themes of this conference being complete and utter muddle; Clegg says potato and Steve Webb says tomato.  Divisions within our party are clear and in full view and it is not unfair of Rachel Sylvester to say in The Times (notice how following Vince’s speech there are a few nasty pieces about us in the right-wing press this morning, in both the Daily Mail and Telegraph) that;

“They have lost the policies with which they were identified at the last election — opposition to the Iraq war and a pledge to scrap tuition fees — and replaced them with a series of mixed messages.”

This is defiantly true of Clegg who, frankly, has had an appalling conference; firstly, getting in a twist over savage cuts and then has been flatly contradicted by Webb and Evan Harris MP. Using language like that it is not very hard indeed to see why he is branded ‘Cameron-Lite’; it is not even a policy question so much as a cultural question about how he has no clue about how to address the constituency he claims to want to represent. This is not just true of the voters he wants to reach but also increasingly his own party and that is a very major problem indeed.

Charles Kennedy has shone through, regardless of the issues around him; he remains a better person (like Cable) to take us to the destination that Clegg claims he wants to reach. If Clegg can’t be removed from the leadership before the election and he realistically can’t then party strategists simply have to realise that he is not the right person to reach across to the core demographic. Clegg also has to deal with the simple fact he doesn’t make policy by fiat and it is the thinking he can (and clearly wishing he could) that has alienated so many people. He is becoming directly responsible for something that Steve Richards notes in The Independent;

“Their tax and spend plans are subject to frequent revision, the single advantage of the lack of media attention. They can make changes without any one noticing.”

You could also add the emphasis slides and slips it is genuinely hard to detect a genuine modus operandi to our policy direction something that was not so hard when we were distinctively opposed to the Iraq war. Soon we will be to the Afghanistan conflict but this is something Clegg could and should have said a long time ago instead of the obstrufication about ‘last chances’ and it is something conference itself has drawn closer with passing of the emergency motion.  Overall, there are bright points about this conference, Cable’s speech was awe-inspiring and the mansions tax policy is innovative and bold in the right direction.  However, Clegg’s leadership emerges tarnished and while not in crisis this side of an election; certainly more open to question. Regardless of what proposals the leadership manages to wriggle through at conference there is still a clear appetite for a fight on issues like tuition fees and Clegg does have to now prove himself that he is the right person to lead a ‘progressive challenge’ to Labour.

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About darrellgoodliffe

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6 responses to “Are we having a good conference?”

  1. RobC says :

    It is no coincidence that as soon as there is a sniff of a story that might make some of the UK’s wealthy elite a tad poorer (remember also the furore over Labour’s 45% now 50% tax rate for those earning over £150K per annum) then the likes of the Daily Mail and their allies in the visual media (like Andrew Neil – still a Tory) crank into action. Their well healed and articulate backers will select every chance to sow discord into our ranks.

    The likes of Julia Goldsworthy (if true) rather than whingeing about not being told about the policies should back Vince and his well thought out plans to recover our disastrous public finances while at the same time ensuring some of those who have benefited most from the boom years pay their fair share of the costs involved.

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  2. Barrie Wood says :

    I agree totally Darrell. The ‘kite flying’ on child on child benefit and on tuition fees and talk of ‘savage cuts’ have seen Clegg mistrusted by parliamentary colleagues and conference representatives alike. It was good to see Messrs Harris and Webb challenging such damaging thinking.

    Remember last years debacle on the £20bn in public spending cuts and where that was or wasn’t to go. Nick got in a mess on that one. Likewise he had no clue as to what the basic state pension was. He make speak 5 languages, but sadly not one that is likely to relate to those Labour leaning voters that need to be squeezed to hold Torbay next year.

    Moreover, I sense that losses in the SW of England and the wider south will not be offset by gains from Labour further north. The ambitious targets set by Clegg himself means a stand still result is likely to be received as a disappointment. I almost left the party due Clegg’s disastrous flip-flopping all over the place. I remain as unconvinced as ever.

    As for ‘St. Vince’ – he does show how to communicate to differing audiences and, in policy terms, sketches out how Lib Dem policies can reach out to the liberal and progressive middle-classes and those on low income alike. The one major caveat – and it is a major one – is the position on public sector pay. The majority of council employees here in Torbay earn between 12-25K and a squueze on them would be a disastrous vote loser. As a trade unionist I’d fight a proposal of this type all the way, irrespective of it’s sponsor being Cable, Cameron or Brown !

    More fruitful territory (from my perspective), especially with a Tory govt pending, is the kind of dialogue proposed between Labour’s Compass group and the LD Social Liberal Forum that may result in better co-ordination of responses to what will be a very nasty Tory regime.

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  3. Joe Otten says :

    Have you read the Liberal Moment pamphlet yet?

    And I hope you realise you are actually talking up the Tories when you suggest that everybody else ought to be deluding themselves over the state of the public finances.

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  4. darrellgoodliffe says :

    Rob C,

    Agreed that there is no surprise this happens. On the other point welllll….I am not so sure, I agree with the policy but not the leaderships tendency to do things by fiat which has once again seemingly manifested itself in this.

    Barrie,

    Thank you for the comments. I agree that it has been good to see messers Harris and Webb swing into action and signal that the party won’t take this lying down.

    Too true and it reflects on this being as much a cultural as a political issue. Sadly, as things are I actually agree with you and anything under a net loss of say 15 seats will be a minor miracle in my eyes. In reality I am becoming so pessimistic that I would see no gains as something of a triumph against the odds but then again I am probably wrong to think that way to be honest.

    I think alot of people will feel that way to be honest, but then again when I see people like CK and Vince speak I feel happy again in this party so it’s swings and roundabouts. Speaking of Vince, totally agree; ironically, Clegg is better on that but no doubt that is due to the high concentration of public sector workers in his seat!

    Agreed, I think this dialogue is very fruitful indeed.

    Joe,

    No.

    And errrr no; im not calling for d illusion, but here is a curve ball for you, governments always borrow and are always in some degree of debt. Nobody talks about that one much do they (nor do they the size of the US debt or others debts)….

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  5. Joe Otten says :

    Darrell, the reason I ask about the pamphlet is that I think it might tax even your ability to interpret everything Clegg says as Toryism.

    All governments are in debt – except Luxembourg last time I looked – so it is unremarkable. The difference between a debt of 60% of GDP and 80% of GDP is still huge. It verges on the innumerate to treat this as insignificant.

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  6. darrellgoodliffe says :

    Joe,

    I doubt much would do that to be honest. I dont intepret everything he says that way but I think it is definatly fair to place him on the centre-right of the spectrum of our party and the ‘savage cuts’ rhetoric he employs is trying to ‘out Tory the Tories’.

    Glad to hear you admit that; it’s an important contextual fact to this debate. It is a huge debt but it has to be set in the context of what the government actually did; some good, some bad, the rhetoric of this from the Conservatives and now seemingly ourselves is alarmist and silly.

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