I returned from the Liberal Democrat conference in Birmingham yesterday. After the March conference, when things were already looking bad, I blogged under the title of "The Strange Cohesion of the Liberal Democrats". The cohesion is still there, but to that was added widespread cheerfulness. This was not expected, but widely commented on .
This is strange for a number of reasons. The party's situation remains dire. The Independent's cartoonist depicts the party's bird logo as a dodo. Though I naturally believe the opinion polls showing the party at 17%, this still isn't that much better than what was achieved at the calamitous local elections last May. And plenty of polls show a much lower rating, down to 10%. Some party leaders (notably Paddy Ashdown) made much of some improved results in local by elections; but these are nearly meaningless, a fortunate confluence of favourable local factors.
And there's plenty of anger about too, especially over NHS and education reforms, which worry many activists a lot. And not everybody buys the leadership line that there is no alternative to the government's austerity policy. As Steve Richards of the Independent points out, the second conference after a general election should be when it is safest to display dissent in public; so why was it so muted?
Party conferences are always bubbles where attendees can cheer each other up without too much intrusion from the outside world. And there was undoubtedly an element of this. One reason for both the cohesion and the at times positively aggressive cheerfulness was a response to adversity. As a party that is just one step away from oblivion, people did not have the confidence to display of too much disagreement; we are much more vulnerable than the Labour or Conservative parties when in similar straits. This is not a bad sign; it shows a degree of maturity and survival instinct - in contrast to the response of the SDP in particular to the 1987 election, which resulted the party's poll ratings dropping into the margin of error of nothing.
Party outsiders will not be convinced that the party's fortunes are on the mend. But for insiders there are some reasons for cheer. First, of course, the thrill of being in government remains strong. For so long the only hope of getting pet policies into action was that other parties might steal them. Direct access to the levers of power is the ultimate reward for any serious political party. It still feels good; almost nobody says that going into coalition with the Tories was a bad idea.
Further, the threat from the other parties does seem to have receded somewhat. The Left's rampant anger at the cuts and Lib Dem "betrayal" seems to be burning out. Compared to Sheffield the demos outside the conference were pathetic. And Labour's poll rating are stuck in a rut. And as for the Conservatives, only last May it looked as if their "human shield" strategy was working to a tee. Our presence in the government was supposed to help de-toxify the Tory brand, while we took the full brunt of the anger at government policies. Since then the party has managed its PR better, so that the opposite seems to be the case: that the Lib Dems get credit for anything progressive that the government does. For example quite a lot was made of the government's commitment to increasing foreign aid; and yet David Cameron gave this policy much more prominence than we did before the election. In this, ironically, the party has been greatly helped by the Tory right, and their friends in the press. The more they complain about Lib Dem influence, the easier it is for the Lib Dems to take credit for the nice bits.
All this gives credence to Nick Clegg's "centre ground" strategy, first unveiled in March (I think) to widespread scepticism. That means the party defines itself by what others do, the complaint ran. But neither of the other parties can win a majority without the centre, so denying it to them improves the chances of a hung parliament. And there may just be enough votes there so that the party can hang onto enough seats to be a real influence in the subsequent bargaining. And who knows, if the party stays the course they may even get a little grudging respect from the electorate that so despises it now.
And of course, there is the attention. The party have never had this degree of scrutiny before, leading to the widespread complaint that nobody knew what the party stood for. They still don't, by and large, but as the party learns how to present its distinctive profile in government this is changing. But will the public like what they see? Or is liberalism just a middle class hobby? Getting people to understand what liberalism is, and persuading them that it is good for them is the real challenge ahead.