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Tuesday, September 17, 2013 

Is that the sound of gunfire?

There's something almost touching about the general mood prevailing at the Liberal Democrat conference up in Glasgow.  For a party that is still looking electoral oblivion in the face, they seem to have managed to convince themselves that things will be fine. Really. Honestly. Everything will turn out okay in the end. 

To be fair for at least a couple of sentences, their reasoning isn't completely irrational.  Buoyed by the victory in the Eastleigh by-election, which seemingly proved that local organisation and popularity will trump the vote nationally, they're fairly confident that they can hold on in at least their Tory marginal seats.  This appears to be backed up by Lord Ashcroft's latest batch of polls in those constituencies (which also suggests Labour have increased their lead where they need to win, despite Ashcroft saying the results make him slightly more optimistic for his side's chances), and combined with the changing economic weather, those who have always favoured the coalition have something resembling a message to make about all the pain having been worth it.

Except, if you so much as bother to look slightly more broadly, the positives are clearly outweighed by the negatives.  About the only policy contribution the public look positively on is the rise in the personal allowance, and even then less than half think they deserve credit for it.  If I wanted to be completely factitious I'd suggest this is because it's always been a policy that looks good in principle but doesn't work as well in practice, especially when a cut in VAT would be more progressive, but more likely is that people, regardless of their party allegiance, are simply turned off by the party the Lib Dems have become.

For if there's one that goes in their favour, it's that they still talk a good game.  There's something to be said for seeing ordinary delegates speak for their motions (Sure you don't want to rephrase that? Ed.) on the news bulletins, like the Tories and Labour also did prior to their discovery that party democracy means splits and differences of opinion and both are Very Bad Things Indeed.  The problem for them is that having said these things, they promptly do the opposite when it comes down to it.  Having done nothing to stop the secret courts bill from becoming law, they've now decided they're against it.  The same seems certain to happen with the proposed "default on" filtering of internet pornography; they voted it down, but they hardly seem likely to make a stand on it within government.  Now according to a leaked email they want the rich to pay more in tax (although apparently almost double the average wage doesn't make you well off), despite having, err, went along with the ideological decision by George Osborne to cut the 50p rate before it had a chance to prove its potential worth just a year ago.

The veritable king of this approach is the man once referred to as the sage of Twickenham, the oracle himself, Vince Cable.  Like the many who have gone before him, briefly intriguing the media, Vince seems to have began to believe his own hype.  And just as they gradually turned into their adversaries, so Cable is morphing bit by bit into Gordon Brown. Every year dear old Gordie used to go to conference and deliver a speech that gave the impression he could do a better job than our Tone, and so too now does Cable. Nothing was too hypocritical for him yesterday, as he set about reprising the nasty Tories riff, denouncing their approach to immigration, benefits, and the trade unions to name but three.  All true, naturally, but just a bit redundant when you're either facilitating those policies or doing nothing whatsoever to stop or alter them.  Nor does it reflect well on him when he doesn't seem to have the courage of his convictions. Regardless of whether or not Clegg engineered a vote on economic policy to trap him, speaking up for continued intervention then voting with the party rather than staying away as he planned looks pathetic.

It does however make more sense than the actual party line, which is to claim equal credit for the "recovery". Saying the Tories couldn't have done it on their own is certainly one strategy, but it isn't one you'd recommend unless electoral suicide is the ultimate goal. The hope presumably is that by the election most will have forgotten the three years of stagnation and drift and be optimistic for the future instead. This rather forgets that it's thanks to the flatlining economy that austerity will continue well into the next parliament. Cable's warnings about the type of recovery we're seeing would surely be the correct line to take, yet he's been dismissed as talking nonsense by the same man who wants to share the blame with Dave 'n' George.

The same thinking is behind the "compromise" which will see the Lib Dems claim credit for funding free school meals for primary school students while the Tories get their marriage tax allowance. Decent and praiseworthy policy as a free lunch for kids is, it's hardly worth going along with the Tory bung to the middle classes for. The Tories will simply claim they came up with both, while Clegg and friends will be saddled with a backwards looking piece of bourgeois social engineering.

Lib Dem strategy is built around the belief that this sort of compromise, however unpopular, will stand the party in good stead if another hung parliament ends up being the result of the next election.  This rather ignores just how this particular coalition has put people off them, and yet still the rhetoric is that without their influence, either Labour would ruin the "recovery" or the Tories would go off the deep end into out and out social conservatism.  Dislike it as they may, "coalition" is not going to be an option on the ballot paper.  By abandoning all pretence of winning a majority, despite the prospect being unthinkable, the Lib Dems encourage the belief that their manifesto won't be worth the paper it will be printed on (even more so than already).  Three years ago it seemed as though the party was going to make a true electoral breakthrough.  It didn't, but still gained some semblance of power.  We shouldn't be surprised in two years' time if the predicted by some but scorned by others wipeout becomes reality. 

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