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Wednesday, September 21, 2011 

Simply grateful for small mercies.

For the past few days, the main body of political journalists, having travelled to the mean streets of Birmingham for the Liberal Democrat conference with their reports pre-written on the splits, mutinous motions and Tory-bashing about to unfold have instead been almost dumbfounded by the level of unity and calmness shown by the majority of the delegates. There they were expecting blood to be spilt, or at the least a few battered ministers told in no uncertain terms how the grassroots feel about the NHS reforms, the changes to the welfare system, as well as how the party appears to be conniving in the Tories' economic stagnation strategy, and instead everyone seems to have been lobotomised.

The lack of an insurrection or even general unruliness shouldn't though be mistaken for anything approaching complete contentment. Instead, it's merely the latest stage in the Liberal Democrat acceptance of their position in the coalition: first came the (relative) elation of gaining power after having been in the wilderness since the days of Lloyd George, which lasted for a couple of months at best; this was then followed by fear and loathing, as many concluded that they were merely in the government to take the blame for everything the Tories wanted to implement and none of the plaudits for their restraining influence and own policies adopted. While that assumption has hardly been completely dispelled, those who haven't lost their position as a result of the electoral purge in May or resigned in despair at the catastrophic loss of the AV referendum are now reaching the acceptance stage. If all the other options available to the party seem worse than the status quo, which it's reasonable to conclude they are, with a major loss of seats inevitable in a snap election, then they may as well make the best of a bad situation.

As can be expected at any political party conference, you're also always going to attract a good number of the real true believers, those so loyal and devoted to their sect that they can see white as black and black as white, and these poor afflicted individuals also tend to be the ones who find themselves being asked questions by reporters or featured amongst Monday's embarrassingly optimistic Newsnight audience with Paxman, who found himself being denounced with a smile by one especially egregious on message individual. This isn't to suggest that the media hasn't perhaps slightly overdone the "party in crisis" angle, the one so loved by football journalists when any of the traditional top four in the Premier League loses more than two games in a row, and which has duly been reacted to by the attendees, but all the same this still seems a gathering where reality has only occasionally intruded.

After all, it's almost been as if an economic crisis which seems more comparable by the day to the collapse of Lehman Brothers three years ago hasn't been taking place at the same time as speaker after speaker has been trumping (and yes, I do mean trumping) on about everything the Liberal Democrats have already achieved by being in the coalition. Vince Cable, bless him, probably went too far the other way by declaring that it was the equivalent to being in a war (someone might want to tell him we're already in two, another subject the party hasn't wanted to broach), yet at least he suggested that we're close to being in a true crisis of capitalism. All we've received from the rest of the party, Nick Clegg included, is the indication that the coalition has "pulled us back from the brink". This is not only nonsense, as the borrowing figures for last month are the latest piece of evidence which says otherwise, it's also a rewriting of history: if you were to take at face value the spin of the coalition, you'd think that last May the country was about to be declared bankrupt, the creditors at the door as they now are for Greece, George Osborne's emergency budget saving us from going to the IMF as Denis Healey had to.

Instead that self-same IMF, headed by the neo-liberals and de-regulators who really did get us in this mess, now says that if things get any worse then the deficit reduction plan the coalition has made a fetish of and which Clegg praises so will have to be scaled back. Search for any reference to this by anyone other than Cable and you will do so in vain. The sage of Twickenham, who Clegg once again points out was the Cassandra of the banking crisis, is alone and must be increasingly unhappy as his colleagues seem unconcerned by the spectre of the dreaded double-dip recession. In fact, it's worse than that: in probably the most fatuous line of Clegg's facile and often deluded speech, he said you "never, ever play politics with people’s jobs", as if the coalition's refusal to consider even a Plan A+, let alone a Plan B was doing anything other than that.

The best that can be said of Clegg's oration was that as a speech it was well delivered, flows well and unlike last year's efforts from both Miliband and Cameron, genuinely enthused and encouraged his party. It's just a shame it's so lacking in facts, or ignores the unpleasant things which counteract Liberal Democrat policies. Incredibly, he managed to go through the entire thing without mentioning the changes to the welfare system which would be brutal enough during a boom. To throw those who are genuinely sick onto jobseeker's allowance when there aren't enough jobs for the able-bodied is the antithesis of liberalism. Likewise, while much was made of his 2-week voluntary classes for students falling behind prior to secondary school, Michael Gove's unaccountable educational blitzkrieg went unremarked upon. The pupil premium was naturally mentioned, but not that it comes from money already within the schools budget. The rise in the income tax personal allowance was trumpeted, but not that the rise in VAT more than takes away any gains, while the end result of changes in last year's emergency budget will be that the poorest will be even worse off. Clegg claimed that child detention had ended, when it hasn't and that his party had "led the charge against the media barons", when they simply reacted to the Guardian's journalism, as would Labour if they had still been in power. One of the few things he said which was indisputable was that they "are in nobody’s pocket", and that's only because no one other than a fraudster has ever been daft enough to give them money.

For now at least the party is simply grateful for small mercies. The worst losses are most likely behind it, and the betrayal on tuition fees was gotten out of the way as quickly as possible. It would also be churlish to deny that the party has succeeded in stopping the Tories from indulging its worst instincts, its presence having ensured that the Human Rights Act hasn't been ripped up, while Clegg's response to the riots was the one part of his speech which shone in its reasonableness. Where it has failed, and continues to fail though is on the things that truly matter, and will have the longest lasting impact: the dead end of austerity, the marketisation of the NHS and education, and the tearing up of the welfare safety net. It may be that 75% of the Liberal Democrat manifesto is being implemented, as opposed to 60% of the Tory one, but it was that other 25% which was the part worth voting for and defending. There is no reason why anyone outside the party should do either now.

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