Pagefield’s resident Lib Dem, Fred-Azis Laranjo, along with Sam Oakley look at Nick Clegg’s lively speech to the Liberal Democrat Party Conference in Glasgow.
In what was perhaps the most animated (and certainly most amusing) of the speeches by party leaders this conference season, Nick Clegg tried hard to redeem his personal – and his party’s – fortunes in the hope of avoiding the significant defeat that many are expecting for the Lib Dems next year.
In many ways, I think (and hope!) he succeeded. The Lib Dems have recently been accused of only peddling a ‘negative’ vision of why they are necessary; of “caricaturing” the other major parties to paint themselves as something altogether more reasonable. Yet with this speech he struck a difficult balance: reminding voters how and why they occupy the middle ground, whilst also showing that the direction both Labour and the Conservatives are taking is leaving the centre more open than ever. At one point Clegg almost sounded like a young Tony Blair – there was a moment he seemed about to repeat Blair’s classic ‘Education, education, education’ refrain. The focus on education, “from cradle to college”, opportunity, and aspiration, appeared to be an almost direct appeal to Labour voters wanting the return of New Labour.
This was a hopeful speech, but also a pragmatic one. Clegg made some candid admissions – most strikingly (for a Deputy Prime Minister) conceding that politicians are guilty of promising what they know they can’t deliver. This seemed more than a convenient segue into his explanation for the tuition fees debacle – which still stands out to many as exemplifying all that’s wrong with politics – and which with his candour he no doubt hopes will help voters forgive and forget. It remains to be seen whether that will be the case, but if Clegg can keep up the verve, vigour and passion that brought his speech to life; and if he can hammer home the party’s centrist (and in coalition, balancing) credentials, then perhaps the Lib Dems won’t receive the thrashing that many expect next May.
The important caveat always comes with Nick Clegg speeches: ‘as a speech, it was brilliant’, but… There is always a but, and in this case it is one of, ‘but what are you offering that is any different to the last four years?’.
Oratorically, Clegg is perhaps the most gifted of all of our current party leaders, but his defeats to Nigel Farage in the Europe debates show that on policy he cannot seem to get the people on side. And the reason for this? Tuition fees. It doesn’t matter how many times the Deputy Prime Minister apologises and vows that he will learn from his mistakes, it is something that has been, and will remain, incredibly difficult to erase from the public conscience. Despite his regret over the episode, it makes it incredibly difficult for anyone to take him seriously when he suggests that the Lib Dems are ‘the party of education’. And it is this issue that is magnified to every other area of policy – none more so than the baffling commitment of Lib Dem members to do nothing about airport expansion in the south east, a position that is impossible to stick to.
The speech was a trailer for much of the next seven months: every single good achievement of the coalition was a Liberal Democrat idea and everything else was the brainchild of callous Tory ministers. Gove and May took a particular beating from Clegg in this speech and whilst it is mostly political peacocking, there can be no doubt that any potential coalition negotiations in May are going to have a somewhat frostier edge should be see the electoral math deliver another ‘ConDem’ government.
With regard to the next four years, Clegg made some interesting and heavily-trailed announcements on commitments to mental healthcare, an issue on which he is looking to fight the next election, thus completing the trinity of NHS announcements for this year’s conference season. But – mansion tax and personal tax allowance rise aside, did this speech reveal any more about what the Lib Dems would do in government – and what they stand for – other than not being Tories or Ed Miliband?