The Liberal Democrats: getting better, but not enough.
That's doubly unfortunate, as with Labour in dire straits financially, intellectually and electorally the Lib Dems ought to pushing against an open door, trying to communicate with those betrayed and abandoned by New Labour, whether they be the long ignored working class or the clichéd middle-Englanders that turned out in 1997. On the surface, they ought to be doing fantastically well; which other party can boast that it has long predicted the exact conditions which have so overshadowed their yearly show-piece and also the policies to deal with it? Compared to both Labour and the Tories, they're still the only one of the big three that is daring to suggest that actually the prison population should not be inexorably growing, that there is an alternative to the casual authoritarian consensus on criminal justice and that perhaps we shouldn't be wasting billions on renewing Trident.
Instead one poll has them on the depths of just 12%. Considering the poll has the Conservatives on a similarly ridiculous 52% it most likely is and will be written off as a blip. Even so, the party otherwise has been flat-lining just below the 20% mark for quite some time, and the defenestration of Ming Campbell last year has done nothing to alter that. Nick Clegg's performance as leader has hardly been stellar: the most attention he received was his "confession" to Piers Moron that he had slept with around 30 women, and he did himself no favours this week either when he thought that pensioners somehow manage to get by on £30 a week. He's also had to cope with being effectively the second Liberal Democrat that the media turn to, such has been the demand for the dancing demigod Vince Cable, merely because he unlike legions of other politicians can actually answer a question and knows what he's talking about.
Much was in evidence at the actual conference. Clegg's speech, despite some of the reviews of it, especially from the Labour-leaning bloggers, was probably about as good as it was going to get, getting the mixture just right between knockabout, talking of a "zombie" Labour government whilst attacking the Conservative party that doesn't have much left to it once you have taken the unpleasant bits out, and the deadly serious, the economic reforms which are much in order and also the proposed tax cuts for the poorest and middle earners which dominated the week. He might have made the mistake of trying to be too much like Cameron, despite the brickbats, and the wandering about and waving of arms is surely one innovation at political conferences that is not here to last, but it was what you expected: middling, strong in places and weak in others.
All eyes though were again on Cable, and his speech was little short of barnstorming. Delivered in his usual understated fashion, with by far the most wounding criticism against the Tory tax policy of "sharing the proceeds of recession" yet made. This could have quite easily been a speech by someone decidedly old Labour, from a bygone age, attacking tax evasion, demanding that socialism for the rich does not become the new religion, and calling for the poorest to be lifted out of tax altogether, while abandoning the bureaucracy of tax credits. Some bits were needlessly populist, like the idea that everyone earning over £100,000 in the public sector should have to re-apply for their jobs, which will hardly be fighting needless waste in the short-term, but this was the sort of thing on the whole you wished that the party of government should be proposing.
They could of course go further. One of the things not mentioned by Cable was the disastrous public finance initiative, with its around £100bn of debt off the Treasury's balance sheet, which needs to abandoned forthwith. On education the Liberal Democrats are still a much of a muchness, the "pupil premium" being all well and good, but not when they don't oppose the deeply authoritarian nature which much of the erroneously named academies adopt. When some schools resemble something out of 1984 and provide courses of training in working in a call centre, the equivalent of adopting pessimism as the school ethos, something has gone deeply wrong. On foreign policy they ought to dare to be different and potentially be unpopular by calling either for a withdrawal from Afghanistan or for a complete reappraisal of the current ahistorical campaign which cannot possibly either win local hearts and minds or beat the increasing insurgency with the number of troops deployed.
These might help win other a few more supporters, but you also have to be both realistic and fatalistic about their chances at the next election. They face a Conservative party which doesn't just pose a threat to Labour but also to them, especially in the southern seats, which is doubtless where the tax cutting policy has been aimed directly at. It's a risk worth taking, but it's unlikely to pay off. For those of us who have no intention of voting either Conservative or Labour at the next election, which leaves us roughly with a choice of either the Lib Dems or the Greens, the conference won't have done anything to actively turn most people off, but when the election will be fought primarily on Labour's unpopularity and giving them a kicking rather than actual policy, it means that a reversal of 1997 with a huge Conservative majority this time round looms ever closer.