Given their abysmal poll ratings (hovering between 6 and 8 percent at last count) and the loss of 91 of their MEPs at the recent European Elections, it would not be surprising if the tone of the Lib Dem Conference had been one of desperation, yet this did not seem to be the case. Rather the mood at Glasgow’s Crowne Plaza was one of quiet optimism and a sense that with Labour and the Tories both failing to move beyond their core support the Lib Dems could once again play the part of parliamentary kingmakers. Indeed, there were even suggestions that the country could only succeed if they were able to adopt this role.
Nowhere was this more evident than in Nick Clegg’s keynote address. Pursuing what may be called a ‘Stealer’s Wheel approach’ Clegg pointed to the flaws of both the ‘clowns to the left’ and ‘jokers to the right’ and attacked the “bitter tribalism” of British politics, telling activists that the party had to “make our voices heard.” Clegg seemed unafraid of tackling either the shortcomings of his Tory coalition partners or the Labour Party, possible allies should Ed Miliband win May’s election without an outright majority. Amongst Lib Dems – from ministers to activists – there seems to be genuine scorn towards the conservative’s rightward tilt. From Europe to immigration, there are several hot button issues on which the parties fundamentally disagree. However, there is little sense that Clegg would prefer to work with Ed Miliband, who he seems to perceive as politically weak and ideological obstinate. In short, Clegg would prefer five years of disagreement with the Tories, perhaps gaining some key caveats in the process, than the prospect of trying to restrain Labour’s tax and spend approach to governance.
This opinion was not, however, universal. In his address to the party faithful Business Secretary Vince Cable expressed a desire to address the rights of workers and improve their status within the workplace. He focused on “outlawing abuses of zero hour contracts” and reiterated that his tenure has “overseen the first above inflation increase in the minimum wage since the financial crisis.” In stark contrast to David Cameron’s keynote speech, which promised to address the pay packets of the £40k+ bracket through tax cuts, Cable stated that “the truth is more taxes will be needed.” He also aligned himself with Labour in a number of areas, including: abolishing employment tribunal fees, clamping down on zero hours contracts, and implementing a ‘mansion tax’ on all properties worth over £2m. There were unmistakable parallels with Shadow Business Minister Chuka Umunnah’s suggestion that Labour’s “challenge in 2015 is clear: too many people don’t have secure fulfilling jobs that give dignity, respect and a wage they can live on. Your dignity is why we’ll increase the value of the minimum wage and incentivise employers to pay a living wage.”
Should Nick Clegg opt to vacate his post after the next election, as has been predicted in some quarters, it is clear that Cable would be a leading candidate to replace him. While their respective positioning, to the right and left of the centre respectively, do not suggest deep divisions within the Lib Dems, they do illustrate a key problem facing the party: what do they stand for and what does the centre ground mean in 2014? Nick Clegg promised much needed reform on mental health, but that aside there was little to indicate a Lib Dem identity as anything other than a moderating force to the pernicious cuts of the Tories or profligate spending of Labour. While their core support may feel confident in taking on this role, there is little to indicate that it can, or will, attract floating voters to the Liberal Democrat’s cause.
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