As the Liberal Democrat conference comes to an end are we any clearer about what they stand for and what difference they have made, and will make, to the Coalition Government? The Conference literature says “stronger economy, fairer society” but what does that mean in reality?
The first announcements were populist but marginal – we got proposals for a ban on free carrier bags and a commitment to make school uniforms cheaper – hardly the top of most people’s list of priorities. But as the conference got going, the debate warmed up and began to address the big issues. The key debate was about the economy, with left leaning Lib Dems proposing a change to economic policy and the Leadership sticking to the Tory Plan A, fiscal austerity. Whilst there was some significant dissent the motion to continue with the coalition’s deficit reduction plan was carried with a comfortable majority, enabling Nick Clegg to breathe a big sigh of relief.
Another big announcement – free school meals for all – a potentially very popular commitment, but also one which raises many questions and has actually received something of a mixed reaction. Conference also backed the development of new nuclear power plants, not something that was well received by many of the party faithful.
Vince Cable launched his usual attack on the Tories, something we have come to expect now, commenting on how he had spent most of his political life fighting against the “hated Tories” and using words like callous, ugly and cynical to describe elements of Tory policy and practice. But perhaps the greatest quote is this one –
“Let’s remember that we voted to join the present Coalition. We did not vote to join a coalition with UKIP”.
Indeed Lib Dems this week have also been pretty scathing about the Labour Party, yet they are still willing to go into coalition with Labour after the next election if need be. In Nick Clegg’s closing speech he was hard hitting about both Labour and Conservative:
“Labour would wreck the recovery. The Conservatives would give us the wrong kind of recovery.”
Fickle or functional necessity? The Lib Dems are pretty unlikely to govern as a majority party, so to have power and responsibility, they have to link up with one of the other main parties. This time the Tories, next time maybe Labour! A somewhat questionable approach maybe but one based on necessity, popular with some, but unpopular with other party members.
Many will say that coalition government is here to stay, quite what that will look like after the next election is anyones guess.