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Wednesday, October 08, 2014 

The chronicles of Glasgow.

And so to Narnia (surely Glasgow? Ed.) for the Liberal Democrat conference.  For the second year in a row the yellow peril have decamped north of the border, opting not to go somewhere different every 12 months as the other parties tend to, presumably as booking the hall 2 years in a row was the cheaper option.  Never let it be said the Lib Dems don't know how to save money.  Indeed, such has been their dedication to making the most out of old material, at times you could be forgiven for wondering if they weren't just giving last year's speeches again, hoping no one would notice.  Certainly the media wouldn't have done, and with reports of plenty of delegates leaving before Clegg's main speech, the hall apparently less populated than it was for Vince Cable's annual bash-the-Tories-let's-hope-everyone-forgets-we're-propping-them-up oration, neither would most of the party's members.

Give the delegates their due: they've continued to oppose the leadership's worst instincts, defeating the party on airport expansion, much to Clegg's chagrin.  If anything can save the party from being all but wiped out come the election, their sacrifices and dedication just might.  What certainly won't is the strategy, or rather lack thereof emanating from the party's advisers.  They just can't work out why it is Nick is so disliked, especially when Cleggmania reigned for a couple of weeks, and when he's so personable, honest, prepared to apologise for broken promises and all the rest of it.  He's the political leader all the focus groups and people in the street when asked the qualities they most admire are effectively describing, and yet he remains less popular than Ebola.

Perhaps the contempt for Clegg and the Lib Dems in general might just be linked to how the party that once tried to be all things to all people has become disliked for that very reason.  If you're a right-wing Tory then Clegg's mob have prevented the coalition from being truly radical, while if you're a Labour supporter or even vaguely left-of-centre then by the same token they've enabled and supported a right-wing administration that's cut the public sector to the bone, privatised Royal Mail, put in place a Health and Social Care act that opens up the NHS to privatisation as never before, froze benefits and introduced the bedroom tax.  Most pertinent of all, if you were a floating voter last time around and plumped for Clegg, loathing Brown and not trusting Cameron, believing Clegg when he promised a new politics, no more broken promises and all the rest, you really have been taken for a ride.  It isn't just tuition fees, although most will point to it as the most glaring betrayal; it's the whole damn package.

Nor does it help when at the same time as they condemn the Tories as evil for proposing to slash the benefits of the working poor to pay for tax cuts for the well-off and poor old Ed Miliband for his never to be forgotten or forgiven failure to mention the deficit, everyone knows they're actively reaching out to both should there be another hung parliament, as the party itself believes.  It takes some almighty chutzpah for Clegg one moment to be going on alarming about an us vs them mentality, the tribalism of right vs left, swinging at both the other main parties, and then once again making the case for how wonderful coalition is with one of those tribes, as though his party's mere presence makes it all better, "undermining the soulless pendulum".

The voting system, for all its faults, does after all protect the Lib Dems to a certain extent.  While the party seems destined to lose most of the seats where Labour is its main opponent, in the constituencies where it faces off against the Conservatives the choice for those on the left is either the Libs or bust.  With the Tories bound to lose a uncertain percentage of support to the UKIPs, they can afford to be quietly confident about hanging on to around 30 or so seats.  It'll mean the party seeing its number of MPs cut in half sure, but the way polling continues to suggest either a dead heat or slight Labour lead it will likely still mean they hold the balance of power.  The nightmare scenario, outlined somewhat by Norman Lamb, is Labour winning the most seats but coming second in the popular vote to the Tories, while UKIP picks up a token number of seats if that but manages to come third in the popular vote ahead of the Libs.  The right-wing press would duly howl about the illegitimacy of a Lib-Lab coalition, something preventable had they err, supported the alternative vote, and the likely outcome would be a second election sooner rather than later.

This assumes of course enough former Lib Dem voters return to the fold, something not guaranteed by Clegg's address.  While Miliband spoke for over an hour and yet managed to say very little, Clegg had everyone heading for home in 52 minutes, racing through all the reasons why the party has much to be proud about and so should return to their constituencies to await their doom.  Again we heard how the Tories couldn't have stalled the recovery for 2 years without the help of Clegg and Danny Alexander, although he might have phrased it slightly differently, how the raising of the income tax threshold is the greatest single tax initiative of all time, despite how it helps the better off more than it does the poorest, and how the pupil premium has saved the lives of thousands of school children, with teachers and parents coming up to Clegg in the street to thank him.  In spite of the drubbing their anti-populist strategy took in the European elections, Clegg and his party will be resolute in standing up for liberal values, a position less brave than it seems when there's not really that much further their support can fall.

To give Clegg some credit, his speech was probably the best of an extremely poor vintage.  He's spent the week acting like someone who can go no lower, coming across happier and more content with his lot.  There were some exceptionally dodgy parts, mostly the guff about opportunity all but required by diktat and the parts about "vested interests" where he seemed to be channelling Tony Blair, but this was outweighed to a point by the announcement on mental health services, which if followed through on has the potential to be something resembling a legacy for him.  Sure, his portrayal of the Liberals as the only people who can possibly be fair to society while also strengthening the economy is completely putrid when his proposal is for the same 80/20 ratio of cuts to tax rises as the coalition has been pushing through, still leaving the country in the dark to just how savage the next round of cuts will have to be, but at least it's a start.  His and his party's chief problem is most people made their minds up long ago.  And as the rise of the UKIPs has demonstrated, something akin to realism and shallow decency aren't the sellers they once were.

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