Nick Clegg has used his annual conference speech to do something rather unorthodox, in that he has addressed the delegates in the room, rather than the TV cameras and the six o’clock news. He delivered a workmanlike, ‘stick with it guys’ message, clearly designed to reassure his activists that the party is on the right track, and that despite the dire poll ratings that they are currently receiving, come the 2015 election everything will turn out rosy.
On the face of it, this seems incredible. Many ex Lib Dem voters remain furious about the broken tuition fees pledge. Those who supported the party under Charles Kennedy, when it basically acted as a left wing alternative to Blair, have defected to Ed Miliband’s newly soft left Labour Party. Nick Clegg himself is now more unpopular than even Gordon Brown ever managed. However, although their situation may appear bleak, the Liberal Democrats are in a deceptively strong position, and given the current political climate, have a real chance of maintaining a position in government after 2015.
It would be my guess, and it appears that Nick agrees with me, that in 2015 both major parties will be damaged goods. The Conservatives have spectacularly failed to ‘decontaminate’ their brand, and look like they will enter the next election unpopular, out of touch and aloof, the only thing going for them being the (again tarnished) image of competence, which it seems likely their main rivals will lack. Judging based on their current form, Labour will offer the voters an incomprehensible academic seminar on the nature of capitalism and its relationship with society, then wonder why nobody cares. If, as seems likely, the election degenerates into a ‘Conservatives are evil’ vs ‘Ed Miliband is wierd’ type slanging match, both major parties will end up damaged and the Liberal Democrats will appear to be the sensible, one nation party. To achieve this, the liberals must stick closely to the perceived centre ground, more caring than the Conservatives and more realistic than Labour. In other words, they need to position themselves in exactly the place where Nick Clegg has tried to position the party throughout his leadership.
Despite all that they have faced, the party has remained united behind Clegg. Vince Cable is positioning himself as a successor to Clegg, not attempting to oust him. There are no Liberal MP’s calling Clegg an ‘arrogant posh boy’, or claiming that the whole thrust of government policy is wrong, as David Cameron regularly has to put up with from his own backbenchers. There is no psychodrama about Nick Clegg destroying his family to gain his position, and splitting his party in the process. The public will not vote for divided parties (think Labour in 1983 or the Conservatives in 1997), and it is quite possible that the Liberals will look like the most mature and united option going in to the next election. ‘We care about fighting for the country, not fighting each other’ could be an appealing proposition if the others cannot match it. Don’t write Nick Clegg off just yet.