“After an early trawl of conference, it is obvious that the would-be-modest “in government” comes first for a reason: that is really what the Lib Dems are most excited about.”
Conference slogans? Dull but rarely meaningless. They are little hints about the deeper psychic state of a party, its yearnings and its midnight thoughts. “in government on your side” is the Liberal Democrat one, and it has to be reproduced like that. No capital letters, lest “in government” sounds too bossy and domineering; and “on your side” in bold type, in case you’d started to think they weren’t.
Trying too hard, I’d say. And after an early trawl of conference, it is obvious that the would-be-modest “in government” comes first for a reason: that is really what the Lib Dems are most excited about. Sarah Teather‘s been bouncing up and down like a space-hopper on vodka. Danny Alexander rolls big-sounding words round his mouth like gobstoppers. A huge gleaming Jaguar sits just outside the conference hall. The general air is of delirious bewilderment: “Mum, mum, look at me: I’m in government.”
Certainly, at this stage, the Lib Dem delegates are by and large at one with their ministers in this state of blissed-out amazement. The old cussedness of Lib Dem activists has not entirely gone away, thank goodness. There will be critical fringe meetings about the NHS (though the vote was lost on a full conference debate) and speeches warning of a confrontation with the Tories over Europe. But overall, this is beginning as a more passive, compliant conference than we might have expected.
For after all, the party’s poll ratings remain dire. Nick Clegg’s own polling is pretty awful. Nearly half those who voted Lib Dem in 2010 wouldn’t do so again. The spring slaughter of 500 Lib Dem councillors is still fresh in many minds. Prospects for the next general election have grown no brighter. Electoral reform is off the agenda for decades to come. So why so chirpy?
It’s a little like the economy. Objectively, the situation is very bad. The headlines are terrible. Yet people haven’t quite stopped spending – or, in the Lib Dem case, stopped smiling.
One part of the explanation is the private dealing between the coalition partners to allow their party memberships to feel good during the conference season. In Birmingham, Lib Dem ministers have licence to make jokes about David Cameron’s poshness, to bang their fists about Murdoch and human rights and boast that they are the ones bringing fairness into the tax system. Afterwards, in private, there will be no recriminations. In return, the Tories in Manchester will be “allowed” to unveil anti-EU manifestos, mock Vince Cable and openly yearn for better days once the Lib Dems have been consigned to the dustbin of history.
So we have to pull back the curtain of licensed ministerial play-acting and look a little deeper. A second reason for the blithe mood is that after the trauma of the failed AV vote – obliterating a central Lib Dem strategy – the party has discovered that, actually, they have another strategy: to be the smallish balancing-party for coalition politics. There’s life in that. There’s a future for them, even with fewer MPs. And it feels quite good.
There is an obvious objection to this. Coalitions are rare in Britain and the next election in first-past-the-post constituencies is likely to produce a majority Conservative or Labour government. Yet there is a strong feeling among Lib Dems that Labour has lost its way and is failing to offer an alternative. They don’t feel under pressure from the left. As to the right, there are clearly deals being discussed that would help protect them from a stronger Tory performance. So the Lib Dems find that, although unpopular, they are still able to look forward, emotionally distance themselves from the horrid Tories – and enjoy the fruits of office.
Yet there is a barmy disconnect about this conference mood. The truth is that the world economy is unwinding, and Britain’s very weak economy is groaning under a massive problem of unemployment, under-training and low investment. What follows is going to be nasty, angry and polarising.
On the right, they really mean it. The Tory Eurosceptics aren’t joking when they call for a pull back from the EU and a referendum on our future membership. They aren’t joking when they say the Human Rights Act has to go, and they aren’t joking when they call for the top rate of tax to be abolished. They think it’s essential, and the worse the recession, the more urgently this agenda will be pushed. What are the Lib Dems going to do then? They may have their little list of further political demands to help them in a 2015 general election, but they will be pushed aside if the Tories move to the right, as I am sure they will. The media remains Tory enough in instinct to row in behind the rightward shift and the Lib Dems will start to feel very isolated. All the extra money printed by the Bank of England won’t be enough to paper over those cracks.
Meanwhile, Labour’s response will be to demand proper Keynesian action to boost employment. As unemployment rises, people will start listening. The developing agenda around mutuality, support for communities and solidarity inside Europe steals much of what was once Liberal thinking. A push is coming from the left too, and the angrier people get, the better Labour will do.
There is only one, faint sign that Lib Dems realise the danger of being crushed between two sharper ideological reactions to bad times – and that’s their insistence on defending the totemic 50p income tax rate or replacing it with something equally tough on the rich. The 50p tax may not raise much extra money, but it’s of huge political importance as a signal that the coalition does not intend to reward the rich and make the majority take the strain.
But totems won’t be enough. Lib Dems complain people aren’t paying enough attention to those taken out of tax at the bottom, or giving them enough credit for “fairness”. That’s because the really big decisions, on the deficit and letting unemployment rise, simply swamp the smaller ones.
And the Lib Dems are today the party of the big, Tory, decisions as well as the smaller, Lib Dem ones. Danny Alexander sounds like George Osborne’s messenger because that’s what he is. No, this isn’t a Tory government. No, the Tories didn’t win a majority. But it’s a Tory-led government, a Tory-dominated government and out there, away from the conference bubble, everyone knows it. Lib Dems are enjoying power. They will find the price has been high. And like a maxed-out credit card, the bill is in the post.
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