LibLink: Stephen Tall – The Lib Dem Conference That Didn’t Bark

Over at the Huffington Post, LibDemVoice co-editor Stephen Tall assesses the party conference. His verdict? What’s significant is what hasn’t happened. Here’s how his piece starts:

On the face of it this has been a pretty tepid, even dull, Lib Dem conference. No rows, cock-ups or defeats. But it’s probably been the most important party gathering since the special conference in May 2010 when the party dipped its hand in blood to sign the Coalition Agreement.

Why do I say that? Because of what didn’t happen. Political commentators, especially of the left (yes, I’m looking at you, Polly) – the folk whose favourite past-time it is to write-off the Lib Dems between elections before re-discovering once again we’re still alive-and-kicking – have told us there are two things we must absolutely do to stand a chance of surviving:
1. get rid of Nick Clegg.
2. kill Plan A stone dead.

Yet what’s happened this week in Brighton? The party has point-blank ignored the conventional wisdom so generously proffered.

And here’s how he concludes:

… the Lib Dems are hoping against hope that this half-way stage of the parliament marks the nadir of our fortunes. If, and it remains a big if, Nick Clegg’s fees apology earns him even a little credit with those voters willing to give him a second hearing a big sigh of relief will be exhaled. If, and it remains a big if, the economy begins to recover even a little there will be an even bigger sigh of relief. … for now at least the Lib Dems are following Ronald Reagan’s famous injunction: “Don’t just do something, stand there!”

You can read Stephen’s post in full here.

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  • It looks like the delegates looked at Pollys advice and concluded that the opposite was called for. Sensible.

  • @ Tabman

    Seconded. I used to read Toynbee’s articles, but now they are like so much Labour apparatchik nonsense, sheer verbal wallpaper. She’s disappeared over the other side of the tribal divide, never to be seen again (hopefully).

    The sad thing is that while on its own, the UK economy would be gradually repairing itself after the debt led excesses of the Balls-Brown era and might just limp into recovery by the end of next year, unfortunately it is not on its own. In the last quarter, net trade took 1.0 percentage point off GDP. Without that impact, which comes mainly from the Eurozone crisis, our economy would have grown at 0.5% a quarter or 2.0% a year – i.e. a slow, but steady rate of expansion. All the leading indicators point to a worsening economic situation in the Eurozone, so this position isn’t going to be resolved soon.

    What an irony, that our electoral fortunes are being held hostage by the very European Union for which Liberal Democrats have always been the principal advocates.

  • The LIbDems’ conference ‘didn’t bark’ because all the ‘bark’ has been knocked out of it. Your current leadership will do, more or less, what they want to do, irrespective of the views within the Party. Polly Toynbee’s latest pieces in the Guardian have been, in my opinion, well-agued and sensible. Judging from the LibDems I know I suspect the ‘centre of gravity’ of opinion within the LibDem Party is much more with Polly Toynbee than it is is, or ever will be with Clegg, Laws or Alexander. The Liberal Democrats currently have a very right-leaning leadership – out of sync. with a large section of your members and voters. I believe your Party will have a huge problem finding voters at the next General Election.

  • RC. If your read Polly’s articles down the years you would realize that she hasn’t “moved” anywhere. It is the LIbDems (at least their leadership) that has lurched to the ‘right’. Make no mistake, Ms Toynbee remains precisely (politically and economically) where she has always been; the LibDems are the ones who have moved. Big Time.

  • I don’t think anyone could realistically have expected the party conference to unseat Nick Clegg as leader.

    If that happens, it will be done by the parliamentary party, as it was in the cases of Charles Kennedy and Ming Campbell.

  • Peter Watson 26th Sep '12 - 12:19pm

    A Lib Dem MP (Martin Horwood?) on Nicky Campbell’s Radio Five phone-in this morning took great offence when Charles Kennedy and Menzies Campbell were mentioned. Not pushed at all. Kennedy had an illness and Ming resigned.

  • Richard Dean 26th Sep '12 - 12:25pm

    I find NC and DA quite impressive – real LibDems, carefully applying Lib and Dem principles – even though I do think Plans A and V need fixing.

  • Big Dave – unfortunately the membership survey puts Clegg, Laws and Alexander exactly with party members, but then that wouldn’t fit your theory.

    As to Polly, she’s never got over the guilt of her SDP betrayal and has been trying to stitch us to Labour ever since to assuage it.

    “If your read Polly’s articles down the years you would realize that she hasn’t “moved” anywhere.”

    The problem for Polly and for your thesis that the Lib Dems have somehow “moved to the right” is that REALITY has moved on. The New Labour contention that you can carry on as before and that nothing is wrong fundamentally with the UK’s public finances that a bit more spending wouldn’t put right has been shown up to be utter nonsense.

    Polly’s problem is precisely that she hasn’t moved on and she, like Labour as a whole, is actually retreating into deep denial about the problems it caused.

  • PS – of course Polly is also right to remain exactly where she’s always been politically and economically, because the world has remained exactly the same for the last 30 years.

  • Matthew Huntbach 26th Sep '12 - 1:05pm

    Well, ok, you may say the party has ignored the conventional wisdom coming from the left. However, has it been too willing to swallow the conventional wisdom coming from the right? This was given in all its glory in the article by Richard Reeves in the New Statesman, with plenty of commentary elsewhere picking up on it – if you ask me (I know you won’t), the path he is advocating is one of suicide. Articles giving this sort of advice are a perennial feature of media commentary at the time of the Liberal Party Assembly (or its successor), except in the past they tended to be written by Tories, or at least Tory-sympathisers. I’m not sure the party as a role has swallowed the Reeves strategy (which is essentially “say bye-bye to the voters you’ve been painstakingly building up for the past 30 years, but there may be a few soft Tories you could pick up instead”), but there are too many who just let these things slip by as they’re told “shut up, do what you’re told, carry on delivering the Focus (and here’s the party lien you are now obliged too put in it)”.

    Yes, yes, yes, we didn’t go into politics to be opposition protestors, did we? But did we go into politics to be nothing but fiddlers on the edges of a government dominated by another party?

    The saddest thing has been the drip-drip-drip resignation from the party or from activity in the party of so many who were once keen members – funnily enough not always the obvious leftists, I’ve been surprised at the number I know who always seemed pretty much centre loyalist who have suddenly dropped out with “that’s it, I’ve had enough”. In some ways, long-term lefties in the party have perhaps become inurred to this and can take it more easily. It’s “OK, here we go again, let the soggies wreck the party again, and again we’ll pick up the pieces when they’ve finished.” 1988 all over again. Yes, Richard Reeves is classic social democrat, however much he may now be trying to switch the labels because it suits circumstances – first ban the word “liberal” (“can’t say that, it’s disloyal to the new spirit of the merger”), and once people have forgotten what it meant, pick it up and use it to mean something else. I hope to find time and space somewhere to give my arguments as to why Richard Reeves is a social democrat and the true heir of the SDP, but I hope the re-writing of history has not succeeded to the point that now no-one else can see my point.

    I’ve heard of a few more drip-drips resulting from what’s happened at this conference. Never mind, the Richard Reeves of this world probably feel we don’t need members anyway, all we need is a well-funded central office pushing out the glossy stuff, and there’s plenty of millionaires willing to pay for his sort of politics. As Clegg and Gove put it in their Evening Standard article, continuing the fight against the “establishment”. By which they mean – us: ordinary party members, councillors, people working in the public sector, non-millionaires.

    I was kind of sorry there was no big rebellion this time, but I think Chris is right – it needs a leader, who will have to come from the Parliamentary party. However much us rebels like the idea of it coming form the party floor, these things never do. It won’t be Vince, for all sorts of very sound reasons, but if you think of Vince as the John Prescott of the Liberal Democrats, that sort of says why.

    If there’s one thing that keeps me in, it’s the nonsensical lines of attacks on us coming from Labour and Labour sympathisers. They really are living in a fantasy world, where somehow the 2010 general election would have delivered a thumping Labour majority if it was not for those pesky Liberal Democrats. I don’t believe a useful alliance can be formed with people who are at that point on the scale of reality. I remain of the opinion that in 2010 we had the choice of either the current coalition or a Tory majority government a year later at most. The distribution of votes that put us in that situation was not something that could be plotted, it just turned out that way. Accepting the necessity does not mean accepting how our party leadership has dealt with it since – however much Clegg deliberately conflates the two.

  • Matthew Huntbach 26th Sep '12 - 1:11pm


    Polly’s problem is precisely that she hasn’t moved on and she, like Labour as a whole, is actually retreating into deep denial about the problems it caused.

    Many of the problems it caused came from their adoption of Tory-lite policies, or follow on from the wrecking nature of the 1979-1997 Tory governments. That’s why a Tory-heavy government is not going to solve them.

  • “Big Dave – unfortunately the membership survey puts Clegg, Laws and Alexander exactly with party members, but then that wouldn’t fit your theory.”

    That assertion looks very strange in the light of the last survey, which found more members dissatisfied with Clegg’s performance as leader than satisfied, and only 50% thinking the party was on the right course.

    And of course there are also all those who have left the party since Clegg became leader – membership is only three quarters of what it was then.

  • @Matthew Huntbach:

    “Many of the problems it caused came from their adoption of Tory-lite policies, or follow on from the wrecking nature of the 1979-1997 Tory governments. That’s why a Tory-heavy government is not going to solve them.”

    Too right. There were plenty of times during the Blair years when I had great fun winding up Labour supporters by pointing out that the LibDems were to the left of Labour on many issues.

    And when Cameron bleats on about a “broken society” my response (to the TV, Dave doesn’t ring me up that often), is “Who broke it? Who created a me-me-me, devil take the hindmost society? Answer: you lot. Between 1979 and 1997”

    And then as Matthew points out, Labour continued many of their mistakes.


  • I know that only time will tell but my hunch is that Lib Dems are already beginning to try and re-position themselves – they will ditch Clegg before 2015, put in a left-leaning leader (Farron possibly) lay into the Tories and try to pretend that the previous 5 years had nothing to do do with them. The question is, how many people will buy it?

  • Cllr. Nigel Jones 26th Sep '12 - 3:06pm

    It may seem odd to be commenting just before Nick Clegg’s speech, but I am very concerned that our leaders are not clearly differentiating from the Tories and that they do not represent the views (it seems from LDV) of about half the party. Nick Clegg has too often proclaimed coalition decisions as great, just because we have won major concessions from the Tories. Nick should more often begin his comments by saying that the coalition decision is not fully Lib-Dem policy but a pragmatic compromise; then go on to brag about ourinfluence while simultaneously showing the public where we disagree on this matter with the Tories as well as with Labour. This is vital from now on; as one speaker put it at Q&A to Danny, the public now think we are the same as the Tories. We know internally that this is not true, but when will our leaders wake up to that fact ?? I know that out there in the streets and within the grass roots, yet more people are questioning whether or not they wish to continue to support the Lib-Dems and some of those who are positive on this are nevertheless saying Nick Clegg gives us an extremely bad image.
    The latest one about Education is likely also to be proved completely wrong and a group of us were prevented from expressing our views at the conference last Saturday on a matter of great importance in Education policy.
    In case anyone misunderstands, I am in favour of fiscal tightening and voted against an amendment which would have grossly diluted that. I also supported us going in to coalition,but unless our leaders change now, we will continue to decline.
    Cllr. Nigel Jones

  • RC. The LibDems haven’t so much realized a change in reality, they have – in the eyes of many – simply signed up to the Cameron/Osborne High-Tory economic Worldview. This shift has pleased the top people and some ordinary members in the party – an awful lot more have left. The one group of people not considered in your rightward swerve are your voters. A political party needs to hold onto votes, this still hasn’t dawned on many of you. At the next general election, for the new non-Keynesian LibDems, votes will be hard to find.

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