Praise be

by Stephen Tall on September 21, 2006

There seems to be a worrying degree of consensus in the Lib Dem blogosphere tonight that the Brighton conference was not only a success, it was enjoyable too.

Fellow bloggers – do try and remember we are liberals, and therefore natural dissenters. And that we are Lib Dems – and therefore won’t be able to keep such dissent to ourselves. I hope to see a proper post slating the whole shebang on the Aggregator by nightfall.

Anyway, it seems we are not alone. Bagehot in this week’s Economist is also grudgingly impressed, albeit back-handedly. Here’s a taster:

Is the Liberal Democrats’ glass half full or half empty? … that the question can even be put, after the turbulent past nine months, is testimony to the resilience of Britain’s third party. By rights the Lib Dems should be on their knees. …

Despite everything, the Lib Dem vote has held fairly steady in opinion polls at just under 20%. In last May’s local-government elections the party won a higher share of the vote than Labour. And it has lost none of its ability to achieve spectacular results in by-elections, winning the Dunfermline seat where Gordon Brown has his home and coming within an ace of claiming Bromley, the 17th-safest Conservative seat in the country. …

To his credit, Mr Kennedy’s successor, Sir Menzies Campbell, is doing his best to wean his party from its customary frivolity. … he is both braver and more serious than Mr Kennedy.

These qualities were in evidence during the conference’s set-piece event, a debate on whether to adopt a package of tax reforms put together by Vince Cable, the shadow chancellor, and the environment spokesman, Chris Huhne. The package was controversial, not so much because it embodied a radical switch from taxing earnings to taxing pollution as because it dropped the party’s commitment to raise the top rate of income tax from 40% to 50%. To Mr Cable and his allies, it was important to show that the Lib Dems did not want to penalise work and ambition.

But for many in the party, the 50% rate identified the Lib Dems as the party of social justice. Never mind that Mr Cable’s package was already strongly, indeed riskily, redistributive. And never mind that at the last election the revenue supposedly gained by soaking the rich would have been frittered away on middle-class subsidies such as abolishing university-tuition fees rather than used to fight poverty. The 50% rate was a badge of honour that distinguished the Lib Dems from pusillanimous Labour and wicked Tories.

Had Mr Kennedy, with his hands-off style, still been leader, there is little doubt that the tax package would have been voted down. But when it was pointed out to Sir Ming what effect defeat would have on his authority, he chose to lead from the front. In other ways too, he is a marked improvement on his predecessor. There is a new feeling of professionalism in the party. Meetings start on time and are effectively chaired. Out-campaigned by the Tories last year, the Lib Dems have learned the lesson and next time will have better technology and more money.

Compare that with the scathing assessment delivered last year:

Never mind that theirs was the only party to increase its share of the vote at the last election; the mood of the Liberal Democrats who met in Blackpool this week is sombre. Despite having returned 62 MPs to Westminster—the party’s best result since the 1920s—the Lib Dems are haunted by an overwhelming sense of opportunities missed and fear for the future.

As one of Brighton’s most famous sons, Fatboy Slim, might note:

We’ve come a long long way together,
Through the hard times and the good.