Opinion: Clegg tourettes – the three party conferences

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My occupation took me to all three major conferences this year and I’d like to share my impressions with you.

First up, our lot. As usual, the press marched on us, expecting a revolt. Wanting to be there as Vince made his big move. As usual, nothing much really happened on that front. A few more grumbles about Nick than last year, that was all. The biggest complaint I have about my time in Brighton was the weather (particularly the gale force winds), always a good sign.

The overriding feeling at Labour conference was one of complacency. Apparently, 2015 is in the bag, folks. Despite the fact that behind the scenes, away from the speeches, no one in the party thinks all that much of Ed Miliband. The Progress types are still pining for David. The Fabian folks think Ed’s “okay, not great”. Blue Labour are begrudgingly holding their noses for now. The unions thought he was their man but he’s been a disappointment to them thus far. But no one thinks this will stop the Labour machine now inevitably rolling into Number 10 come May 2015.

I should mention that the obsession with Nick Clegg remains as strong as ever within the Labour party. It was often easy to forget what a fringe you were attending was actually supposed to be about after a backbench MP would use their five-minute warm up slot to talk about how much he hates Nick in the most visceral terms imaginable and then sit back down again. It’s as if the Labour party is infected with Clegg Tourettes. What you didn’t hear a whole lot about in Manchester was either what policies the Labour party should be pursuing in 2015 – nor, oddly enough, the Conservative party.

Meanwhile, at Conservative party conference, the Tories seem both focused and hungry for victory. Within twenty-four hours of arriving in Birmingham, I’ll admit I started thinking of a Tory majority post-2015, a truly bone chilling thought. What really struck me was the volume of ideas on show – ideas that as a liberal I mostly found abhorrent, but well thought out and well articulated ideas nonetheless. By comparison, the Labour conference was intellectually arid, a schematic vacuum.

The only real problem for the Tories is, as ever, Europe. It is often stated in the media that Europe is the one thing that unites the Conservative party. Trust me, it isn’t. It remains an ever expanding problem for Cameron’s leadership.

But the biggest thing I got from going to all three conferences was this: there is a large, Lib Dem shaped space in British politics. The illiberalism on show at times at both Labour and Tory conferences was rather staggering. Whether it was the Glassman brigade talking about how we should roll back the clock to some sort of cosy socialist 1950’s where everyone did what they were told, or Phillip Blond and Jesse Norman discussing “post-liberalism”, I would not take the future of liberalism in this country for granted without the Lib Dems.

Question now is, how do we communicate that to everyone else who shares our concerns?

* Nick Tyrone is a liberal writer. He blogs at nicktyrone.com and is an associate director at CentreForum.

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9 Comments

  • jenny barnes 18th Oct '12 - 10:01am

    Has the LD party in government been demonstrating what goes in this “LD shaped hole”? Because if so, it’s not very inspiring, and from what I saw at conference, isn’t what the grass roots believe in.

  • Dominic Curran 18th Oct '12 - 10:23am

    Thanks Nick, that was insightful and kind of confirmed what i suspected might be the case.

    If one looks at Conservative Home it positively fizzes with ideas, unlike, I’m sorry to say, LibDem Voice. For example, today, CH is running stories about how Cameron should use Twitter; abortion; Ashcroft’s view of Rupert Murdoch; how to get the vote out at elections and two items about an EU referendum. That’s before we start on the comprehensive review of the papers.

    By contrast, on LDV, we have your (very good) item about the conferences and a news piece about our candidate’s selection for the Croydon North by-election. Under those is stuff from yesterday about Nick Clegg’s views on post-natal depression, Mike Moore’s notes and biofuels.

    While not wishing to denigrate any of those topics or writers, it just doesn’t really compare. I know LDV doesn’t have ashcroft’s funding but we do have ideas, but compared to the Tories we just don’t appear to have much interest in the talking about those big ideas about the future of the country. It just all seems so…pavement politics. Can’t we raise our gaze up to the horizon a little more?

  • The people I know who said they were going to vote Lib Dem in 2010 wanted electoral reform (PR and an elected House of Lords), tax breaks for the poorest employed people , and no more nukes (they did understand that one was not going to happen in an instant), they also thought that leaving the EU was some kind of lunatic idea bound to achieve nothing but a bankrupt nation in which the residents have no human rights. That is a summary, but it covers the points. The only question in my head, is how many others like them are there?

  • There is a “Lib Dem shaped” in British politics but I do wonder if the current Lib Dem leadership Nick, Danny et al are the ones to fill it. They do not come across as Lib Dems at all. Vince’s thoughts on Share Ownership in return to forfeiting one’s rights is just one example of this. This is a big problem for the Lib Dems as a party and one I am not sure everyone has yet woken up to.

  • Nick Tyrone 18th Oct '12 - 3:48pm

    Thanks, Dominic for the kind words on the piece.
    Further to your comments on the state of ideas within the party, you have a point there. I think sometimes we as Lib Dems can get a little bit insular in our thinking. We worry too much about ourselves and how we are perceived and don’t spend enough time trying to define what we as a party are about in terms of issues.

  • I think that the problem with this notion of “taking personal responsibility” is that it has led us being more and more of a “middle class” party (which we can see increasingly in our membership composition conference attendees etc). It has also led us to be in a position where we can (too) easily form an alliance with the Tories, who still tend to the “private good, public bad” syndrome. I think going down that road, rather than a more open concern with public, or community ownership, will take us away from being a party with broad appeal, and one that will increasingly be seen as for part of the better off, and not a big enough part to give us any more than niche significance (FDP – lite, if you like). I suppose the question that needs answering is, have we lost all influence among those who might think like this – bearing in mind that many of the driving forces of this tendency are still sticking with the Lib Dems – or should the Party let the likes of the movers and shakers of the SLF and Liberal Left go?

    IMO, the party has rather lost its driving ideology of the 70s and 80s, and we have people who are driven to defend their own area, but don’t have a wider (Liberal / Democrat) ideology. I see that, for instance, Mike Tuffrey, is an optimist, but digging deeper into trends, I cannot be very hopeful.

    The language of empowerment, of levelling up society – making it more equal – of services and goods belonging to people, if only through a public or community agency, should be an attractive one, especially in an era when there will be shortages – not because of Govt imposed austerity, but because of ceilings on consumption.

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