Conference preview: Nervy Lib Dems gather in Birmingham

Nick Clegg will need to do a lot of reaching out in Birmingham
Nick Clegg will need to do a lot of reaching out in Birmingham

After 500 days in government, Liberal Democrats have even more reason to feel uncertain now than they did 12 months ago.

By Alex Stevenson

By the time the party arrived in Liverpool for last year's conference, their first which most could remember as a governing party, many of the early nerves suffered during the hung parliament period had subsided. The mood could be summed up as one of cautious optimism.

Now, after their first full year in power, the Lib Dems have a real opportunity to take stock.


Party leader Nick Clegg is accentuating the positive. "We've been in government in Westminster for 500 days: 500 days of delivery," he says in the foreword to the conference agenda document. And in addition to making the NHS "safe from any threat of backdoor privatisation", Clegg insists his party's ministers are putting "long-held Liberal Democrat ideas into practice". The pupil premium, tax cuts for low- and middle-income earners, a green investment bank - the list goes on.

It has not all been easy going, though. Having to break the tuition fees pledge proved about as traumatic as it gets for a political party. Clegg, lionised during the general election campaign, found his name becoming mud by the end of the year. There was the agony of the comprehensive spending review to be swallowed, too. "It certainly isn't what I and other Liberal Democrat ministers came into politics to do," the deputy prime minister adds. "But it is only by having Liberal Democrats in government that we can ensure it is done as fairly as possible."

That argument might placate the grassroots. But it did not seem to work for members of the public in this May's local elections, when the party suffered huge losses across the country. Several party members called for Clegg to quit after the Lib Dems lost 695 councillors, compared to Labour and Tory gains of 800 and 81 respectively.

There's been another disappointment, too. Clegg would have hoped to be boasting about a major fillip for the Lib Dems with a change in the voting system. But May's electoral reform referendum saw voters roundly reject the alternative vote by a ratio of roughly two to one, after an effectively negative 'no' campaign left the Lib Dems seething. The promise of electoral reform, a major bargaining chip during coalition negotiations, has effectively disappeared for now. Clegg appears weaker as a result. As the International Institute of Strategic Studies put it in its latest overview of British politics, "coalition was proving to be a bruising experience for him".

All these difficulties will hang over the Lib Dems as they meet in Birmingham. "We had a rough time in May," Clegg's parliamentary private secretary Norman Lamb said at a pre-conference briefing "But it's an opportunity to discuss the implications of that, and to reinvigorate the party. The party's obviously not going to be euphoric, but I think its mood will be good, determined."

As is always the case with political parties struggling with an awkward recent past, the solution will be to keep the focus firmly on the future. For Birmingham 2011 that means the key session of the conference comes on Monday morning, when delegates debate a policy paper on, essentially, how the Lib Dems will behave in the second half of the coalition. Lamb, who has been a key figure behind the scenes on this, aims to ensure that "we have a distinctive, radical Liberal... manifesto" for the next general election. He will be hoping the early preparations for the 2015 campaign whet the appetites of those present.

Alas. Attention is more likely to be focused on those Lib Dems who remain uncomfortable with the health and social care bill, after the 'listening pause' failed to win over many of those in the party. The legislation is now heading to the Lords, where Shirley Williams is set to become a figurehead for rebels when parliament returns next month.

There is no chance of the NHS reforms throwing a spanner in the works, as happened at the spring conference with a defeat for the leadership, because there is no vote scheduled. Instead this controversial issue will be debated, not once but twice, during a 'report back' session on Tuesday and in a one-hour 'topical issue' debate on Wednesday, before the leader's speech. Journalists at the conference will be following how the Lib Dems cope with NHS reforms very closely indeed. It could end up overshadowing all those hopes of unity and reinvigoration Clegg and co hope for.

Even if everything goes according to their plans, the main lesson this week could be the same as that taken away from the local elections catastrophe: that the Lib Dems need to do better at explaining to voters what difference it is they're actually making. "We won't overplay our hand," Lamb vowed, "but we will be clear about what we bring to the table."

Last year saw Clegg appeal to the grassroots, asking them to stick to the coalition for five years in order to reap the rewards of an improving economy. That strategy will probably be repeated this time round. "The right thing to do is to see it through, and if you see it through there may just be an electoral dividend," Lamb said. "In time people may just see by going into coalition and going into government, we secured stability at a difficult time."

The same long-term goal will be dangled before jittery Lib Dems, just as it was in Liverpool 12 months ago. Yet again, the party's leaders will struggle to drive those nagging doubts away.

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