As pre-election rallying cries go, it’s not the most inspiring.
“Go back to your constituencies and prepare for:
“Another 5 years (but maybe less…) of coalition in support of a Labour/Conservative party government who were desperate to scrape enough votes together to be able to get rid of you”
“A period of major rebuild, a readjustment to third party life and some serious soul-searching over the future of the party”
For the sake of simplicity, it’s a good job that those Liberal Democrats who were in Glasgow this week do not appear to be ready to accept the idea of Option B.
They may have good reason. It seems increasingly likely that no single party will gain a majority. So despite the party’s catastrophic national poll ratings, Lib Dems are confident of holding on to around 30 seats, a much-reduced but solid enough parliamentary block which could be enough to form a governing majority with a willing partner.
Fringe debates focused on what lessons would be learnt from the last round of coalition negotiations, who the party would be prepared to work with and what the ‘red lines’ would be. Bolshy talk from a party currently losing a fortune in non-returnable by-election deposits.
As a result, coverage of conference focused on process rather than policy. A regular feature of fringe events (especially those featuring Vince Cable) was the sudden flashing of BlackBerry’s and tapping of laptops from conference-weary journalists waiting for a shot to be fired at Miliband/Balls/Osborne or Cameron. They didn’t often have to wait long.
To be fair, there wasn’t a significant amount of notable new policy for attendees to get their teeth into. Clegg earned plaudits for his commitments on mental health care, but the pre-manifesto document, intended to be the blueprint for the next election, was often dismissed (by delegates, from the conference stage) as motherhood and apple pie. The only policy debate which really piqued interest was yet another battle over aviation expansion which managed to divide leadership and members, tie the hands of any future negotiating team and annoy both the green and business lobbies. So far, so Lib Dem.
Despite the glum headlines, most commentators noted the generally positive mood amongst the rank and file. Attendance by members, though, certainly appeared to be down and so it could be argued that the mood was helped by the absence of many of those former local councillors who found themselves first against the wall as the Lib Dem backlash kicked in.
The reality is that the Lib Dems already know what ground they are likely to be fighting the next election on. Voters’ trust in Nick Clegg, a defence of the decision to go into coalition, the tuition fees broken promise and the degree to which they have acted as brake on coalition excesses. Their problem is that this reads less like a manifesto and more like a list of apologies and ‘but what ifs’.
Conference has done little to change this reality. But it is confirmation that they are a party expecting a return to government – whatever that may look like.
As for Option B….
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