Stephen Tall is the Co-Editor of LibDem Voice.
1. Not dead yet
“What’s the mood of members? It’s a lot more upbeat that I was expecting.” I’ve heard that sentence, more or less verbatim, from half a dozen journalists. I’m not too sure what they expected. Well, that’s not totally true. I think what they expected was some kind of continuation of the party’s post-European and local elections meltdown when, briefly, it looked like Nick Clegg would either fall on his sword or be pushed on to it. Truth is, though there remains a significant minority of the party who want Nick Clegg gone, everyone knows he’s staying until May to fight the election. Which means the vast majority of the party is now focused on the campaign ahead. So, with a taut, grim determination, members here are readying themselves for the fight ahead. When John Major said, “When your back’s against the wall it’s time to turn round and fight,” we all knew what he meant to say. And it’s that spirit of cussed resilience – tinged with justifiable fear – which I think best captures the mood of this conference.
2. Will hope and reality collide?
Of course we all read the polls. And in particular the Lord Ashcroft polls of Lib Dem marginals showing what a massive uphill task faces the party, though they do at least show that our MPs’ incumbency still works massively in our favour. Here’s my honest take. As it stands, with the Lib Dems struggling to reach double-digits in the polls, I reckon we’d win 25 seats on a bad day, 45 seats on a really good day. So my best guess lies somewhere inbetween, say 30-35 seats. When I’ve asked fellow Lib Dems who know about these things (some of whom have seen the party’s private polling) they reckon that sounds about right. The hope is that the party will recover its national position in the polls – up to, say, 12-14%, – so that we won’t have to be quite so reliant on the Stakhanovite local fetishism of our MPs. At the moment, though, that’s a hope more than an expectation.
3. The elephant in the room
It’s compulsory for Lib Dem MPs with leadership ambitions to deny they have any leadership ambitions. They know if they were to speak out loud what they’re thinking – “Yeah I’d like to be leader and chances are there’ll be a vacancy in seven months so I’m making some plans so I’m ready” – the headlines would be ‘Clegg’s leadership rocked, Lib Dems in chaos’. So they don’t speak it aloud. But – quietly, gently, cautiously – hopefuls are beginning to limber up. Tim Farron on the party’s liberal-left, Jeremy Browne on the party’s liberal-right. The cabinet ministers (Alistair Carmichael, Danny Alexander) hoping their red-box gravitas will mean they pass the “Does this guy look like a future Deputy Prime Minister?” test. And a handful of MPs, including ministers like Norman Lamb and Jo Swinson (if she retains her marginal seat), who could emerge through the middle as the compromise candidate. The smart money’s on Farron – he polls well ahead of any candidate other than Vince Cable, who’s unlikely to stand – but he knows only too well the curse of being the favourite. It almost did for Nick Clegg in 2007 (he only just squeaked home ahead of Chris Huhne) just as it did for David Davis two years before that.
4. You don’t bring me Rose Gardens any more
There’s a palpable sense that coalition, whether with the Tories or Labour, seems less likely now than it did even a year ago. That’s not too surprising, given Lib Dem support, which most of us had hoped had bottomed out a year ago, turned out to have a little bit further to fall in 2014. Bluntly, we may not have enough MPs after next May to be a viable coalition partner: our votes, plus Labour’s or the Tories’ 280 MPs, may not equal a working majority. But there’s something else, too. The Tory conference – with its relentless focus on benefits, Europe and immigration – played well to the right-wing press and appallingly with Lib Dems (I imagine you think that’s the right way round!). Meanwhile, Labour’s dud conference – everyone I’ve met who was there has called it utterly flat and depressing – inspired no-one, including us. Can we really imagine ourselves summoning the enthusiasm to work with either party for five years after the battering we’ve taken? Never say never – the voters may deal us a hand that leaves us with no real choice as happened in May 2010 – but any idea the Lib Dems are eager to jump into bed with whichever party wins no matter what are wide of the mark.
5. The C-word
Does any party want to occupy the centre ground any more? That’s the question hanging over all three parties’ conferences as they seek to shore up their core vote. Once 35% would have been seen as an electoral disaster for either Labour or the Tories – it’s what Neil Kinnock polled in 1992 – now it would be seen as respectable. And to get to that minimal figure you need to motivate your base. That’s what George Osborne sought to do with his announcement of a benefits freeze on the working poor. And it’s what Ed Miliband tried to do by ignoring the deficit and pretending Labour wouldn’t have to cut public services if they were in power. They were messages strictly confined to the parties’ ideological comfort zones. They weren’t messages that will reach out to the voters beyond. Just six summers ago, David Cameron’s cuddly Conservatism was attracting the support of up to 49% of voters in the polls: because he had planted himself squarely in the centre of British politics. Stronger economy, fairer society is the core Lib Dem message for a simple reason: it’s what voters want (even if they don’t necessarily want us). The public can’t vote for it, but, if they could, the most likely election winner next May would be… this Coalition. Worth thinking about.