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.