Why was this Lib Dem conference cheerful? Simple: because it mattered.

by Stephen Tall on September 22, 2011

The Economist’s pseudonymous political commentator Bagehot devotes his column this week to the Liberal Democrats, analysing the mood of serenity which prevailed at this year’s party conference to the surprise (and chagrin) of the media.

He notes that activists were cheered by the anti-Tory rhetoric that pervaded speeches by Tim Farron, Chris Huhne and Vince Cable, believing this differentiation will in turn demonstrate to the electorate that the party is punching above its weight — that Nick Clegg is, in the words of Tory MP Nadine Dorries, “the boss”.

Many Lib Dems argue that Tory-bashing is good politics, and long overdue. It is true that differentiation does have a strategic aim: persuading voters that the Lib Dems are not powerless puppets in a Tory government. But those same Lib Dems underestimate the emotional temptations to which they are giving way.

The Lib Dems think it unfair that they are hated. They think (rightly) that inconclusive election results and a mood of national crisis made joining the Tories in the coalition last year the responsible thing to do. They can tolerate self-sacrifice: Lib Dems enjoy the moral high ground. What they cannot bear is that many on the left suspect them of enjoying high office. At one fringe meeting, Mr Huhne was asked how he planned to spend his “30 pieces of silver”. That explains why attacks on the Tories cheer Lib Dems so: they can live with being martyrs, but not with being thought Judases (especially when many, if not most, would prefer a coalition with Labour).

The grassroots, in short, are cheerful for alarmingly self-regarding reasons.

More accurately, I think the conference acted (as they are largely intended to when you’re a governing party) as a pressure valve. Party members, sore from one of the most disastrous years in its recent history, gathered together to offer each other some solace, and to cheer each other up.

Parties are extended families, often falling out with each other, but always there for each other when times are toughest.

They are also tribes, defined as much by who they are not as by who they are. That tribalism found an outlet in anti-Tory jokes (that no-one could find it in themselves to laugh at Labour signifies Ed Miliband’s irrelevance). The Lib Dem leadership will be relaxed that activists find comfort laughing at Eric Pickles rather than passing a conference vote demanding his resignation.

What struck me, observing goings-on in Birmingham from afar, was that Lib Dems were enjoying remembering that we are a proud, independent, resilient party, a party that takes relish in bouncing back each time the media writes us off.

But what struck me most was that the party has a much more sophisticated understanding of the dynamics of power than much of the media. The Lib Dems’ internal democracy has driven each and every leader to distraction at times. Liberals are by nature sceptical, cussed, pernickety. But for a junior partner in Coalition that is a huge strength.

We saw it play out in the Coalition negotiations: the Lib Dem negotiating team had a much stronger hand for being able to say, quite truthfully, that certain policies were critical if the membership were to be convinced to vote for a Lib/Con pact. The result? 75% of the Lib Dem manifesto made it into the Coalition Agreement.

And we have seen it play out again more recently with the NHS reforms, when the Lib Dem leadership was able to manouevre Health secretary Andrew Lansley into accepting key concessions directly as a result of votes passed at the Lib Dems’ spring conference.

The Lib Dem membership has realised the power it now wields: a vote at conference can now shape government policy. No wonder there was such a sense of cheerfulness, no matter our current opinion poll ratings.

Bagehot argues that the party leadership and its membership are at odds, that while the membership is gleefully indulging its soft-left muesli-eating tendencies, Nick Clegg is steering a solo course:

The optimism around Mr Clegg is more calculating, and more focused on the world outside the party tribe. … Come the next general election, the Clegg camp believes that Labour will have less economic credibility than the coalition. They also hope that within the coalition, the Lib Dems will be seen as more compassionate than the Tories—and as less in hock to powerful interests, from trade unions to bankers, than either big party. But coalition credibility comes first.

I don’t believe there’s such a simple binary at play here.

I think party members very well knew what this conference was about: licking our wounds, safely sounding off against a political enemy we have been forced to ally with, strengthening the leadership’s resolve in those areas that most matter.

For once the purpose of a Lib Dem conference was clear, strategic, important. What we saw this week wasn’t indulgence or self-absorption: it was focus. Lib Dem Focus.