Isabel Hardman

Lib Dem conference: Clegg isn’t fighting his activists, he’s just fighting a faction of activists

Lib Dem conference: Clegg isn't fighting his activists, he's just fighting a faction of activists
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Nick Clegg's strategy of getting his party to approve his position on a number of contentious issues reaches its most awkward stage today, with the votes on the economy and taxes that are causing the greatest grief with activists. It's complicated by Vince Cable's plan to be a no-show at the economy debate in an attempt to hold onto his Jeremiah credentials. The votes are being billed as a clash between the leadership and its activists, but it's a little more complicated than that.

Last night I attended a fringe held by Liberal Reform, a group in the party that campaigns for a market-based approach to policy-making. It's reasonably young, and was set up as a reaction to the dominance of the left-leaning Social Liberal Forum, as economic liberal activists felt their voice wasn't being adequately represented. LR have published a book of essays called 'The Coalition and Beyond: Liberal Reforms for the Decade Ahead', which seems to be pushing not just for the party to embrace the market more wholeheartedly, but also for a more hard-headed approach to policymaking in general. This group is, if you like, the 'Britannia Unchained' faction of the Lib Dems. They represent the David Laws strand of thinking, not the Sarah Teather position.

Clegg isn't fighting the Liberal Reform activists. They are largely happy with the way things are going, and particularly the motion on the economy that Cable will conveniently not turn up to today. Meanwhile, the Social Liberal Forum, which describes itself as the 'soul' of the party, has always been at odds with many of the beliefs held by the leadership. No wonder its activists are grumpy about today's economy motion. Last night on Westminster Hour, the SLF's Naomi Smith argued that Clegg was 'fighting what's left of the party': in fact, he's fighting what's left of idealism in his party, and a left-leaning faction that he has never seen eye-to-eye with in any case.