Geoff Duggan looks at the state of play for the Lib Dems after their party conference in Glasgow.
Despite grim poll ratings, empty seats and adverse weather the mood at Liberal Democrat conference was surprisingly upbeat and optimistic. Unlike their main counterparts there was a distinct lack of in-fighting, defections or concerns over leadership. It certainly didn’t look like a party facing electoral oblivion. On the contrary, it looked like a party making a case for another five years in government. And with opinion polls pointing to the likelihood of another hung parliament – this is a very real possibility.
A key strategy for the Liberal Democrats over the last year or so has been to tread a very delicate balancing act which involves distancing themselves from their coalition partners while at the same time demonstrating that coalition can work. This was in many respects epitomised in the last conference before next May’s General Election.
The political name calling began at the tail end of Conservative conference and continued throughout. Nick Clegg’s defiant closing speech included attacks on David Cameron, Ed Miliband, Theresa May, Michael Gove and Nigel Farage, much to the delight of the party faithful who made it all the way to Glasgow.
At the same time there was a considerable focus on lessons learned if there’s a next time. This was a core theme of Nick Clegg’s speech and was aimed at those who have fallen out of love with him since the heady days of Cleggmania. He admitted that he and the Liberal Democrats were “tainted” by office and urged voters to judge them on their full record in government rather than the one the one policy they failed to deliver.
Having been badly burned by its first experience of government – most notably by the failure to scrap university tuition fees – the party leadership recognises the need to be realistic and not to exaggerate or overstate what the party is capable of delivering. Yet this represents a key challenge for the Liberal Democrats. They are faced with a choice of going into battle with coalition-ready manifesto or a bigger, more eye-catching offer to the country, unburdened by the realities of governing.
This is another difficult balance to strike but with core Liberal Democrat issues – constitutional reform, Europe, civil liberties, immigration – rising to the fore of political debate in the UK, the party has a unique message yet needs to make its voice heard.
In 1963, Jo Grimond urged the then Liberal party to march towards the sound of the gunfire. If this party conference is anything to go by, the successor Liberal Democrats look set to do exactly that.