Brighton 2012: Why the Lib Dems aren't losing their heads

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Brighton hosts the Liberal Democrat conference, but they remain stoic under the wind and the rain.
Brighton hosts the Liberal Democrat conference, but they remain stoic under the wind and the rain.

The Liberal Democrats must be out of their minds. Polls indicate their share of the vote in a general election would barely creep into double figures, wiping out virtually all of their MPs. Their leader has a negative rating of minus 63. The party is reeling from another heavy hammering in May's local elections. Their prized Lords reforms have been scuppered by the Conservatives. And yet, as the storms of the English Channel buffet the conference centre where they have gathered, they appear to have mentally sheltered themselves from the much harsher political winds that blow no Lib Dem any good. It is a wilful placidity in the face of looming electoral catastrophe.

The insouciance with which party delegates assess their fate is, at times, even a little frustrating. "It's going as well as could be expected," says Howard Sykes, the party's leader on Oldham council. His local party failed to take Oldham East and Saddleworth from Labour in early 2011 even though Phil Woolas, the incumbent, had been disgraced for breaking election laws. Sykes accepts that there aren't going to be many Lib Dem seats gained in the north of England at the next general election, but hopes that a decent performance might set them up well for 2020. He smiles to himself, turning over the last two years in his mind. "We've had our little moments, haven't we?"

Unlike in the Labour or Conservative parties, where it is always possible to find some malcontent grumbling away to themselves, the Lib Dems do seem to be a cohesive bunch. Their unity has a dogged quality to it. "The grassroots will support us through thick and thin," Liz Leffman, a councillor in Witney, says. "It is fairly upbeat," Rhodri Jamieson-Ball of Islington agrees. "We're starting to see a glimmer of hope in the future, that there is light at the end of the tunnel." They simply won't give in.

There are clues to the riddle of this infuriating Lib Dem refusal to gnash their teeth and collectively howl at the wind. Their persistence, at the midway point of the coalition, is not all that baffling, actually. Here's three reasons why Nick Clegg's party are not losing their heads at the prospect of losing their seats.

Firstly, the Liberal Democrats are no strangers to unpopularity. "I've been in the party since 1970," Mary Fallon from Chippenham, a calm and softly-spoken veteran tells me. "I've seen it go as low as six per cent. I've seen us as a protest vote." Even those who have only been in politics for a couple of decades or so can remember the days of being outcasts, a sideshow to the main clash between the Tories and Labour. What a contrast with the 23% of the public vote they won at the last general election which, had it taken place a week earlier, might even have seen them returned as the main party of the opposition.

Having not won the support of the vast majority of the public is not so very different from having lost the support of the vast majority of the public. And there are plus sides to this new state of affairs, too. "Now people have a pretty good idea of what the Liberal Democrats stand for," Fallon says proudly.

Another big help for the Lib Dems is that, in the view of the party's delegates, the coalition is actually working for them. They are philosophical about the battles taking place within Whitehall but believe their ministers are fighting hard. "It's nowhere near as bad as portrayed in the press," Tony Little of the Lib Dem History Group tells me. "Practically, ministers are able to get on well enough together. And they've been able to have successes." He's talking about that rare commodity, the Lib Dem policy win. Having spent the weekend in workshops where party trainers list those achievements, they are all now well-briefed on what to say on the doorsteps. "If you get the policy right, you don't have to worry," Little believes.

This is a difficult government for the Lib Dems to be a part of. The economic circumstances are desperate. Despite this, they are determined to press on with the austerity drive backed as firmly by the Lib Dem man in the Treasury in his speech to delegates, Danny Alexander, as by chancellor George Osborne. Sykes insists Britain would be in the same mess as Greece or Spain if it wasn't for restoring credibility on the economy with massive, slashing spending cuts. "A bit of me is proud we're doing the right thing, even if it costs us in the short-term."

Here's a final reason for the Lib Dems' apparent chirpiness: that, when it comes down to it, they don't really have many alternatives but to continue on the path they chose in May 2010. And being in power still seems to have a kind of novelty value which holds them in thrall. "I'm quite pro the coalition, because it gives us the opportunity to do things we wouldn't otherwise be able to do," Leffman says. Like govern, I suggest. "Yes!" she laughs. The premature demise of the Tory-Lib Dem tie-up would be a big setback for a party keen to demonstrate that this kind of government really can work for Britain.

Perhaps the game will change in two years' time, as party members conclude they stand a better chance with someone else in charge. Business secretary Vince Cable and party president Tim Fallon have both been raised by commentators as potential alternatives to Nick Clegg in the run-up to the next general election, for example. "Who is there other than Clegg?" asks Paul Childs, a young delegate from Liverpool. He argues that anyone replacing the current deputy prime minister now would instantly become vulnerable to exactly the same criticisms - the same complicity in the doings of the coalition that would taint them come 2015.

Cable and Fallon are biding their time. Though they won't admit to it, the party is, too. "People realise there is going to be a serious fight out there," Jamieson-Ball muses. But this is not a battle they have written off just yet. The Lib Dems, accustomed to losing the national 'air war', are used to relying on the 'ground war' to win their votes. "There are really positive stories that can give us a lot of hope out there," Jamieson-Ball adds. This has helped the Lib Dems cope with the shock of the 2011 and 2012 local election results - that there have been areas where solid campaigning has overcome their overall unpopularity.

Even those who know the party well have, nevertheless, to admit they are surprised by its determined mood. Mark Littlewood, a former head of media for the party, is now a bemused onlooker as director-general of the Institute for Economic Affairs think-tank. "I expected the cracks to start showing within months of the general election. Staggeringly, more than two years in there is not the level of outright rebellion I was strongly expecting." Littlewood notes that Clegg's poll numbers are "catastrophically awful", however - and he warns that even the Lib Dems might lose their patience if progress cannot be shown soon. "There is no doubt in my mind he will need to turn those numbers around by 2015."

The peculiarities of the Lib Dem character, their conviction in the fundamental rightness of the coalition's approach and their limited options are all helping to prevent the Lib Dems pressing the panic button. They are displaying their peculiar qualities of stubborn, determined blinkeredness as a result.

Yet the mood in 2012 could be very different by 2014. "We don't drop our leaders," Fallon declares emphatically. Oh, really? Just ask Charles Kennedy and Menzies Campbell what they think about that, and you'll realise this is a party which - when the right moment comes - can adopt a very sudden change of view.

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