Thursday, 27 September 2012

Conservative parties' legend about LibDems

The autumn federal conference of the Liberal Democrats in Brighton saw the start of a new legend about the party. Conservative-leaning commentators, like the BBC's Nick Robinson and Andrew Pierce of the Daily Mail interviewed on Radio Wales yesterday, are putting it about that most "activists in the hall [...] were instinctively attuned to the Labour Party", disapproved of the coalition and sought "a progressive alliance with Labour". It is clearly in Conservatives' electoral interest, as the economy improves, to associate LibDems in the public mind with the party which was irresponsible in government and is talking the country down in opposition.

One cannot accuse journalists of such high standing as lying. However, they do appear to have been highly selective in the activists they spoke to. Certainly, most Welsh LibDems would question whether "progressive" and "Labour" should appear in the same sentence and I guess that the same holds true for Scots and those tussling with Labour in the inner cities in England. Moreover, the platform speakers, who are more representative of party activists than their equivalent in the Conservative rallies, predominantly addressed ways in which government could be improved rather than whinge about being in coalition. There was a clear relish in having Liberal ministers round the cabinet table for the first time since the dark days of the second world war. There was no talk of "triangulation" or "equidistance", rather a reiteration of the party's uniqueness.

This is a party both of sound money, going back to Gladstone, and of concern for the deprived, the discriminated against and the sick, of Lloyd George and Beveridge. It is also the party of civil liberties, of Roy Jenkins and Shirley Williams. The constant references to "Liberal values" in speeches at Brighton may have proved wearing after a couple of days' watching, but they were nonetheless heartening. (It's a pity that the inherent social democratic strand was not name-checked, but "Liberal and Social Democratic values" would have been too much of a mouthful.) The side-swipes at Labour and Conservatives were there but far outweighed by the positive, distinctive, tone.

I predict that the scales will tilt the other way when Labour meets in Manchester this weekend, and that sneers and smears directed at the "Conservative-run government" will far outnumber positive proposals.

There is a Labour plan to woo Liberal Democrats, (except of course for the demonised Nick Clegg). Note that the seducers do not have honourable intentions. They are bent on breaking up the coalition marriage, though they have to appear sincere.  (Harriet Harman doesn't get the message, but she is clearly out of the loop.) Labour leaders know that their best chance of regaining power is for the coalition to break up before the economic recovery is felt throughout the country.

Both Sir Menzies Campbell and Sir Alan Beith have reminded the party of Labour's sins in government apart from their handling of the economy. It would be a misjudgement to, as one headline-writer put it, "play footsie" with Labour before the original end date of the coalition agreement, in 2014. Come the election, whether forced by an unholy alliance of Thatcherite Tories and Labour, or as scheduled in 2015, the message should be the same as in 2010: if no party has an overall majority, and assuming that we are not the largest parliamentary party, we should open talks with the one that is. Nick Clegg did not spell this out in his closing speech at Brighton, but he gave a clear indication that this would be the case. As he said in that speech: "In a democracy, politicians take their orders from the people".

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