Liverpool 2010: What the Lib Dems are really thinking

Neither triumphant nor panicking, the Lib Dem mindset is as on the fence as ever.

By Alex Stevenson

“Cautious optimism” is how one delegate put it. This is the party’s first conference in power for 65 years. There has been real delight at introducing ministers of state on to the stage. The security arrangements have been strengthened. Attendance is up 40%. “It feels like a government conference,” one diplomat said.

The novelty has not yet worn off. There is an almost surprised tone in the voice of Jonathan Pope, from Windsor, as he recalls Nick Clegg’s speech.
“He did have the odd soundbite, saying what we’ve achieved… not what we hope to do 20 years in the future,” he chuckles.

Neil Christian, a Chester Lib Dem, agrees. “It’s very exciting. What’s good about Lib Dem conferences is that party members are able to come along and have an input into what our party’s policies are. What’s even better now is a chance to influence – and hopefully have that impacting on proper government policy. We should be celebrating we’re in government now.”

It has been a very mild kind of triumphalism, rather British in its self-restraint, as the party follows the reserved Clegg’s lead. “We’re picking up the pieces from a situation where Labour’s left the country in a bankrupt situation,” Christian adds. “It’s not going to be easy, but Liberal Democrats are not going to shy away from the problem of putting the pieces back together again.”

As Julian Astle, director of the liberal thinktank CentreForum told politics.co.uk last week, most Lib Dems did not go into politics to make sweeping public spending cuts. So it’s not at all surprising they are viewing the impending comprehensive spending review, due next month, with trepidation.

Lorraine Daly, from north London, seems to see the issue as a matter of faith. Ministers are “thinking deeply about it, I’m sure”. She is sure everything will be alright “as long as they don’t go too deep”. What she’s not sure about is whether her party as a whole will accept the reality of cuts, as opposed to the theory. “We intellectually know, but whether we can physically go through with it…” She trails off, the sentence left unfinished.

Most believe the presence of Lib Dem ministers will save the austerity drive from being as harsh as it could have been under the Conservatives alone. That faith will be tested when expectation becomes reality on October 20th.

Until then there are scant signs of the discontent many predicted after the unveiling of the coalition agreement in May. Ian Smith is from Newcastle City, where Labour rather than the Conservatives are the main enemy. “I think the coalition was the only thing we could do as the Labour party wouldn’t give much [in coalition negotiations],” he says. “I think we’d be doing a lot worse if we hadn’t said there would be cutbacks.”

The perception that the Lib Dems got a lot out of the coalition negotiations is a big factor. Judith Ost, who runs Lewes town council, says she was “amazed” when she read the coalition agreement for the first time. “That’s our policy, that’s our policy,” she says, miming picking details out from its programme. “I saw very strong influence of our policy right the way through it.”

Yes, it’s obviously weighted towards the Conservatives. But Pope points out the Lib Dems only have “50-odd MPs”. “We did feel we got a good deal from it,” he admits. “But then you really have to see what happens in government.”

The 2010 autumn conference has highlighted the increasing potential for tension to be expected in the next five years. Conference delegates realise they are bound by the coalition document, what one called their “Bible”, but feel nothing holding them back to pressure the leadership on policy areas it does not cover. As ministers tick the boxes on the original deal opportunities for debates will multiply in the coming years. For journalists, debates mean splits. But the Lib Dems don’t mind.

They’re finding their curious method of deciding policy is well-suited to life in a coalition. Peter Tyzack, who stood for the Lib Dems in Filton and Bradley Stoke, is fiercely proud of members’ say in the policy-making process. The Lib Dem trinity of parliamentary party, federal executive committee and conference gives grassroots members a critical role. “Nick Clegg hasn’t got the power to tell the party what he’s going to do,” Tyzack says. If the leaders “go off in the wrong direction” then the party conference simply “steers them back”.

One option for Clegg might have been to attempt to win over the party, to seek its approval for all elements of the government’s approach. As this week in Liverpool has demonstrated, that was never really on the table. Minister Sarah Teather’s attempt to water down a motion condemning the coalition government’s proposals for free schools and academies was defeated, to cheers from the conference hall.

“There’s always a certain amount of protest about conference. It’s part of the creative thing that is policy creation,” Ost explains. She suggests the reason the coalition deal was so good for the Lib Dems was precisely because of the party’s “robust” habits. “We’re a pretty bolshy lot and we stand by what we believe,” she adds proudly. “It had to be put together in a way which is acceptable.”

The role of conference is a cherished part of the Lib Dem personality, never to be abandoned – even if it does make life easier for the leadership.

“We do trust the leadership but we feel we have to push them hard,” Pope continues. “That fits with the Lib Dem ideology which is about pushing from below. That’s where power comes from. Everyone has their say and it balances out the independent decisions the leader has to make.”

Clegg will feel relieved by the positive reception he’s enjoyed in Liverpool. It may be very different next year, when the spring conference is held just weeks after local elections set to be disastrous for Britain’s third party. Then some of the concerns highlighted by Daly might become more apparent.

“People aren’t leaving Lib Dems in their droves, as some bits of the media would have you believe,” she says. “The thing about the Lib Dems is it’s good news and bad news. We’ve made an impact after the general election – even if it’s maybe not quite the one we’d hoped for.”

Next May seems a long way for a party still recovering from the excitement of a general election campaign. Most downplay the relevance of the national picture to local votes, which is what you’d expect for a party suffering a slump in the national polls. “I suppose we developed the community politics side because we didn’t have a big national image,” Pope muses. “I think politics has moved that way, it is far more about local politicians and particular concerns than the big ideological differences.”

One former MP argued the outcome depends on whether Labour’s next leader will be able to quickly re-energise the party after their fall from power. Whichever candidate wins will be seeking to recreate new national differences based on the spending cuts backed by the Lib Dems. The novelty of power they have basked in in Liverpool could be wearing thin by next spring.