What did you make of Nick Clegg’s conference speech?

by Stephen Tall on September 20, 2010

As the music fades, and the hoardes of conference delegates file out of the Liverpool hall, what did Voice readers make of what he had to say? Here’s my first impression…

First, and above all, this was a sober speech. It wasn’t a barn-stormer, it didn’t grip by the throat or tug the heart-strings. This was a serious analysis of why the Lib Dems have gone into government, and what the party wants to get out of it for the country. Nick was careful to go through the famous four pledges — fair taxes, a fair start for children, a fair and green economy, and fair politics — and re-state how this is now being implemented from the position of coalition. Moreover, he nailed-down the specifics: the Freedom Bill will be published in November, ID card laws will be abolished by Christmas, the bank levy will be in place from New Year’s Day. In other words, these are no longer merely Lib Dem pledges: these are real pieces of legislation, of Lib Dem policy being enacted.

But, secondly, there was no sense of triumphalism. Nick listed many Lib Dem achievements now being legislated by Lib Dems in government, but the over-riding sense was of the party leader reassuring the party faithful — and the public at large. This was most noticeable on the issue of the economy, where the message has changed from last year’s “savage cuts” to what Nick is now terming “balance and responsibility”. Just as George Osborne was forced to row back from his stark austerity conference speech in 2009, so is Nick now signalling that, actually, the cuts aren’t going to be all that severe, “not slash and burn”. This is a significant shift in approach, away from confronting the public with the shock-and-awe of cuts and towards a more softly-softly message.

Thirdly, there was something missing from this speech compared with Nick’s previous efforts: no attacks on the Tories. Not that he garlanded them with praise; even David Cameron got only one compliment for “thinking beyond his party”. But there was a significant chunk of Labour attack; almost a third of the speech referenced Labour’s failures in government or their failures to provide constructive opposition. That’s understandable in the first flush of Coalition, and with memories of Gordon Brown’s government still fresh in our minds. It will be interesting to see how a Nick Clegg conferenece speech in 2013 or 2014 will look, as the party starts to put clear yellow water between ourselves and the Conservatives ahead of the next general election.