I was at the Liberal Democrat conference in Sheffield last weekend. The most striking thing about it was how upbeat it was. Disagreements were downplayed; discussion was civilised; people didn’t seem to be spooked by the polls, still less the demonstrators outside the conference hall. And yet the party has lost half its popular support, performed atrociously at the Barnsley by-election, and comes under daily attack for supporting what are seen as vicious Tory policies. “You’re shafted,” a (perfectly friendly) local member of the public told me when I was walking between venues. What’s all this about?
The obvious explanations don’t seem to be strong enough. The novelty of being in government has certainly not worn off; and attack, especially of the vitriolic sort we saw on display by the demonstrators, tends to induce solidarity. But a lot of members and activists are genuinely unhappy about the policies of the coalition government; it is often said that policy has been captured by an unrepresentative rightwing clique surrounding Nick Clegg.
The party’s democratic constitution helps. To many political pros no doubt these processes look like weakness, conceded to encourage people to join and stay as members. But they give countless opportunities for members and activists to feel consulted and involved.
The party’s leadership deserves some real credit here. The party’s internal machinery for policy making has been generally respected, in contrast to Paddy Ashdown’s leadership in the 1990s. Many critics have been co-opted in the policy formation process. Predictions that party conference would quickly be made irrelevant have proved unfounded (I remember Mark Littlewood, former director of communications, almost gloating about this in the coalition’s early days).
The leadership’s sensitivity to criticism, and wish to avoid needless confrontation from within the party was on display at Sheffield. The biggest issue faced by the conference was the NHS reforms. These are radical, controversial, and seem to go well beyond the coalition agreement. A rather defensive motion was put before the conference by the leadership, and an amendment submitted that was highly critical of the direction of government policy. The leadership quickly conceded defeat. Previously Paul Burstow, the health minister, who proposed the main motion, had been highly supportive of coalition policy. But he quickly said that he was in listening mode and accepted the amendment. At an earlier consultative session, Norman Lamb, part of Nick Clegg’s inner circle, appeared to admit that mistakes had been made over health policy, among other things. What the consequences of all this are for coalition policy in health and elsewhere is unclear, but we are expecting changes.
The leadership’s basic narrative is not seriously contested. The Liberal Democrats had no alternative to the coalition that would not have done even more damage. If they had declined the opportunity, the party would have “bottled it” and suffered disastrously at a rapidly called second election that the Tories would have won outright. And the Lib Dems have won a lot of concessions, and are managing to turn a lot of party policy into law. You only have to look at what the Tory right is saying. All this is difficult to translate into a clear message for the public, but it helps instill a degree of confidence among activists. The feeling is palpable that things will turn the party’s way in due course, and party’s critics will be confounded. Again.