James Forsyth

Lib Dem conference: The battle for the soul of the Liberal Democrats

Lib Dem conference: The battle for the soul of the Liberal Democrats
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The Liberal Democrats are a party facing an identity crisis. During their many years in opposition, they had a slight all things to all men quality. But now they are in government, they are rapidly becoming defined in the public mind. How to respond to that is a question that they have been grappling with for the past two years.

In a packed and over-heated fringe meeting last night, Nick Clegg’s former director of strategy Richard Reeves provided his answer—which is, although more starkly stated, the leadership’s. Reeves’ argument is that the party should become a Liberal party of the radical centre. In other words, he wants to take off the Social Democratic hand brake.

Reeves makes this case with verve and one can see the political space he’s talking about. The question, though, is how this translates into an electoral strategy on a constituency by constituency basis, the way the Liberal Democrats have always fought campaigns. As Reeves himself asked last night, ‘does a distinct national identity make it harder for us to build local coalitions?’

One thing that was particularly striking last night was the concerted effort by the leadership to shock the activists into realising that a whole bunch of voters are just not coming back. Reeves declared that ‘out of necessity, as well as principle, we can’t be a party of the centre left anymore.’ Jeremy Browne, the Home Office minister and one of the leading Orange Books liberals, said that ‘there’s now no need for lazy, let wing oppositionist people to vote Liberal Democrat as they can now vote Labour.’

The implication of all this is that like Viking warriors the Liberal Democrats have burnt their boats on the beach by entering government, and now need to make a success of it and stick with Clegg. There’s undoubtedly some truth to this. But the leadership murmurings will continue as long as the polls suggest that Vince Cable would boost the party’s poll ratings.