Thursday, October 09, 2014

My Leicester Mercury column on the Lib Dem Conference

My latest column for the Leicester Mercury. As ever in such pieces, I am poised uneasily between being a partisan and an analyst

We're enjoying power for as long as we can 

Watching the coverage of the Liberal Democrat Conference in Glasgow I am struck by how cheerful everyone looks.

By rights, they shouldn’t be. At the last general election the Lib Dems polled 22 per cent of the vote: the last poll I saw had us on 7 per cent. 

Why this strange happiness? I can think of three reasons.

First, we are rather enjoying being in government. Despite coming to power at a horribly difficult time, the Coalition has solid achievements to its credit: getting more people to enrol in occupational pension schemes, tax cuts for the low paid, more money for schools to help poor pupils.

The striking thing about this list is that all three measures were in the 2010 Liberal Democrat manifesto. Meanwhile, it is the Conservative Party that has started to splinter under the pressure of government. The Lib Dems have remained boringly united.

Just as the Lib Dems prove rather good at running councils when they take power, they have proved to be good ministers at Westminster. Why shouldn’t the party enjoy this for as long as possible? 

Second, no one joined the Liberal Democrats for an easy life. Fighting against the odds is business as usual as far as we are concerned. Perhaps there are those in the party who look forward to the purity and safety of opposition again, but a difficult general election does not scare us.

Third, there is a surprising amount of optimism around in Lib Dem circles. Ever since the Eastleigh by-election, which we won even though the previous Lib Dem MP for the seat was behind bars, there has been a feeling that, whatever the opinion polls say, our MPs will hold their seats.

The truth is probably somewhere in between, with the Lib Dems doing better than the polls (and a lot of commentators) suggest but not as well as their more optimistic activists hope.

But what happens after next year’s general election?

It may be that the Lib Dems will find themselves part of a coalition government again, but what if we are out of government?

I shall not regret a moment of the party being in government, but there will be a need to rebuild the party’s base on local councils and convince people again that we stand up for the poor and powerless.
While we have been in government, that standing up has been done behind closed doors by blocking the nastier Conservative ideas.

Soon it may be time for the Lib Dems to take off their suits and wear their beards and sandals again.

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