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Wednesday, September 26, 2012 

Marching towards the sound of gunfire indeed.

And so, verily, as we must every year, let us discuss the Liberal Democrat conference. Held this time round in the British seaside resort of choice for sandal wearers, Brighton, a city noted for how it does things differently, what a glorious contrast the arrival of the Inbetweeners would have made had anyone been bothered enough to take any notice.  Attendance by the media is said to have dropped by about 500 compared to last year, and it's not difficult to see why.  Imagining that 2011 would see blood on beards as well as the floor, what happened instead was much the same as at conferences past: occasionally passionate debates, the odd outburst of pure political lunacy from a rather too earnest delegate, a decent speech from Vince Cable and then one which sent everyone back to their constituencies asleep from Nick Clegg.

Why then change a losing formula?  Indeed, this year's outing has been so similar to last year's that you'd be forgiven for thinking the reports from Birmingham had been filed again by mistake.  For all the supposed intrigue behind the scenes, there's been nary a whisper about Clegg's position as leader on the conference floor.  Yes, he made a prize tit of himself with the "sorry" video and he's about as popular with the general public as Andrew Mitchell at a policeman's ball, but then the Liberal Democrats as a party have long cherished mediocrity. Why else would they all but beatify the likes of Shirley Williams, fresh from her role in the Lords as chief protector of the NHS proto-privatisation bill, or Paddy Ashdown, a man who dearly wishes he was still leader so he could be the one helping to ruin the economy?

For if one thing is completely different to last year, it's that the feared double dip recession has arrived and yet it seems to have changed almost nothing.  Last year Clegg was insisting, just as the Tories were, that the coalition had "pulled us back from the brink".  This year, with the borrowing figures for August all but ensuring George Osborne is going to have to abandon his plan to reduce debt as a share of national income by 2015, Clegg in his speech today was still claiming that austerity was essential as otherwise we could still go the way of Greece, comparisons that are according to him too "breezily dismissed".  

It's a message that the party itself has lapped up, delegates voting to stick with "Plan A", even while they voted down the relaxations to planning laws and defeated the leadership on the secret courts bill.  According to Clegg, if "Plan A was as rigid and dogmatic as our critics claim, I’d be demanding a Plan B", and that he and the coalition had already taken "big and bold steps to support demand and boost growth", some of which his party have err, just voted against.  Except as Vince Cable told the conference on Monday, "[T]he central point is that the country must not get stuck on a downward escalator where slow or no growth means bigger deficits leading to more cuts and even slower growth."  Nothing proposed so far by either coalition party has come close to being bold enough to avoid just that.

If anything, power seems to have gone to Clegg's head.  All the time spent hanging around the likes of Cameron and Osborne has infected his rhetoric with their same dividing lines, the ones they themselves learnt from treating Tony Blair and Philip Gould as all knowing sages.  Casting about for villains of the piece, he chose Liam Fox and Ed Balls, as if their recommendations for getting the economy growing were somehow worse than the mess the coalition has delivered.   Balls and Labour were duly blamed yet again for the crisis, as though every other factor was irrelevant, and as if they were the ones who had created the double dip.  He mentioned how while the economy had grown threefold over the last 50 years, welfare spending had gone up sevenfold, without deeming to note how this might be something to do with the population ageing rather than largesse going to scroungers.  To finish off this cavalcade of bollocks, he defended the decision to agree to the drop in the 50p top rate of income tax in return for a further rise in the personal allowance, ignoring for the umpteenth time how this helps the middle far more than it does the poorest.  In an attempt to sugar the pill, he announced the 45p rate would remain in place until 2015, or presumably until he's once again mugged by George 'n' Dave.

This resorting to empty Blairite soundbites didn't just end there, oh no.  If you stripped away the layers to reveal the party's inner core you wouldn't just find an unshakeable belief in freedom, you'd be able to hear it!  It wouldn't be tinny, like libertarian freedom, or thudding, like a socialist's freedom, but rich, amplified and sustained by opportunity!  Earlier on, Clegg declared that his mission was national renewal, and if the party's policies didn't serve that, they served nothing at all, which isn't quite true.  They're serving the Conservatives by keeping them in power.  Instead of listening to Clegg, the party could have called for an end to the coalition, offering support to the Tories only when their policies are genuinely in line.  Doing so couldn't possibly be worse than what seems to be facing them in 2015.

The problem is that even while they're (relatively) enjoying power, the party as a whole doesn't know what it's for.  Even if the socially liberal rather than social democratic wing are in the ministerial positions with the exception of Vince Cable, they aren't distinctive enough in their liberalism to attract new support.  As John Harris tries to get to the bottom of, the likes of Mark Littlewood would push for the party to be known for deregulating business and letting you smoke a joint, and yet neither policy is likely to make it to their next manifesto.  It's all well and good wanting, as Clegg does, to be a third party of government, but you don't get there by being exactly the same as the other two.  In 2010 you thought you knew what the party stood for, and when set against Brown and Cameron Clegg was worth a punt.  Come 2015 and the exact opposite will be the case, unless the party once again acts ruthlessly against a leader who seems determined to lead them to oblivion.

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