The Lib Dems: ahead of the curve or missing the moment?

by Stephen Tall on September 24, 2009

The editorials of two newspapers today sum up the alternative ways in which this past week’s Lib Dem conference in Bournemouth has been regarded – both internally by party activists and externally by the media. (Who knows what those members of the non-politically obsessed public thought, if anything, of the whole thing?)

The Times is pretty scathing of the party’s week in its leader column, Missing the Liberal Moment:

This week has been an opportunity lost for the Liberal Democrats. As the week unfolded, the excitement dissipated. With an election on the near horizon, with the Labour Government’s lease on power coming to an end and the Tories not yet commanding enthusiasm, this week has been an object lesson in how not to seize the day. …

There has been a lack of passion and urgency. When Nick Clegg attacks David Cameron, the anger sounds contrived. The party sounds earnest and bland, not full of radical liberal vigour as an anti-Establishment third party needs to be. The policy vacuum of both the Government and the Opposition leaves plenty of available space. Instead of filling it, the Liberal Democrats have fallen into quarrelsome disputes about mansion taxes and tuition fees. A week ago Mr Clegg offered an impressive vision of the Lib Dems’ destination. In the week since, he and his party have shown no inkling of how to get there. …

The only way to break through is for the Liberal Democrats to project a sense of purpose and certainty. This week they showed neither. Their role is to get out in front of policy issues, to stand up to the Government, not pretend they are set to replace it. They should be bold and savage in the positions they take. This week they were cautious and tame. It is time for some real change.

On the other hand, there’s glass half-full optimism of The Independent under the headline The Liberal Democrats remain ahead of the curve:

… we should not make too much of the disagreements in Bournemouth. The Liberal Democrats have always held more open debates on policy at their conference than the other parties – and that is often a healthy process. Moreover, whatever presentational or managerial errors might have been made this week, strategically Mr Clegg and his team got a lot right.

Their calls for curbs on public sector pay and middle-class benefits such as child benefit will – and have – upset people. But the alternative of mirroring the timidity of the other two parties on spending would have been a missed opportunity. … Every party admits that serious spending cuts and tax rises are going to be needed in the years ahead. But only the Liberal Democrats, to their credit, have thus far come out with specific plans on what they would do to close the deficit. …

The Liberal Democrats can make the most headway by speaking with a distinctive voice, remaining independent and keeping ahead of the ideas curve of British politics. Despite the upsets, Mr Clegg’s party emerges from this week’s conference having achieved those key objectives.

Which comes closest to representing your view on this week’s conference?