Wednesday, 22 September 2010

The Lib Dems Identity Crisis

At last years party conference Nick Clegg proclaimed- to much sniggering- that he aspired to be Prime Minister. A year down the line, and though he is only Deputy PM, few people would categorise his year as a failure. But whilst Clegg may be comfortable in his new surroundings in government, rubbing shoulders with Tories and making decisions that he is will now be held accountable to, there were rumblings that sections of his own party were less enamoured with their new bedfellows. And so the Liberal Democrats entered this week in Liverpool with some serious questions needing answering. A conference proceeded by Clegg's announcement that the party had no future as one of the left, and rounded off by Vince Cable's call to arms against capitalism, has sent out mixed messages to say the least.

The issue arises from the very nature of the Liberal Democrats themselves. They are a synthesis between the Liberal and the Social Democrat traditions, meaning internal divisions on certain issues are inevitable. What appears to have become apparent since May is that, if not the majority of its members, but certainly the majority of the people who voted for the Liberal Democrats are more of the Social Democrat variety, whilst the higher echelons of the party, those that now sit in David Cameron's cabinet, run more in the liberal vein. Whilst Lib Dem support in the polls has collapsed since the coalition agreement, as those who voted for them in the General Election, like myself, have deserted, the delegates in Liverpool this week sat like fans of a band making its commercial breakthrough, unsure whether to keep supporting the people they'd been following for the last few years, or brand the new, successful sound as having sold out.

There were no cries of 'Judas' as Clegg delivered his conference speech but it was a defensive piece of oratory, filled with denials- 'we will never lose our soul, we haven't changed our liberal values'- and pleas for support- 'hold our nerve', 'stick with us'. It was , in fact, a well-judged speech, pitched at an audience who may have dropped out of sync with his footsteps, but still trusted him enough to follow his path. Clegg, to date, has done a good job of selling the coalition to his party members, and has competently, if inconsistently with his pre-election thinking, put forward the case for the impending cuts.

While many members accept the coalition's belief in the need for swift deficit reduction, clearly other aspects are more of a hard sell. A motion condemning the Conservative's free schools policy was passed and planned reduction to universal benefits were also overwhelmingly rejected. When grilled on this Clegg extolled the democratic virtues of his party, but what good democracy if those Lib Dems in government must sit like nodding dogs as the coalition sees these measures passed. Five months into government and these are minor tremors, but come conference season next year cracks could open both internally within the Lib Dems, and within the coalition.

One senior Lib Dem who definitely sits in the Social Democrat corner of the party is former Labour Party member and current Business Secretary, Vince Cable. Last week I read a description of Cable as looking like a 'shot-down pilot being forced by his captors to read out a propaganda statement.' Today he was a Marxist revolutionary, proclaiming from the barricades the fall of capitalism. Ok, maybe not- but the mainstream media might make you think so. Cable obviously does believe in capitalism, but the kind he believes in is a more regulated, responsible kind, a perfectly reasonable desire in light of recent effects. Cable's speech was one for all those who consider themselves on the left-wing of the liberal democrats and showed the face of the party that I fell for in May. Unfortunately that face, like Cable himself, looks rather the worse for wear after the bruises and blows encountered from five months with the Conservatives.

The coalition has raised many questions about the Lib Dems identity, but it also provides the key answer to it. Right now the Liberal Democrats are a force in government, not a voice in opposition. Though the slogan 'Delivering for Britain' may seem more appropriate for a conference of the national union of midwives, the point is clear. The Liberal Democrats are influencing policy within Britain in a way they never have in their history, and there is little about that the rank-and-file members can condemn.

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