Closing the Liberal Democrat Conference this afternoon, Nick Clegg had the concept of change on his mind. Change can be good, but loose change can be often rather annoying. Clegg had to ensure the modernisation agenda he wishes to wash away the cosy consensus of two-party politics in this country is not the political equivalent of pocket shrapnel.
His speech was well received, inside and outside the hall at Bournemouth. Taking the lowest earners out of income tax, improving the voting system for Westminster, altering for the better our nation’s attitude to young people and education, devolving as much decision making as possible to local people – all highly important and impressive policies from a man clearly eager to push the Liberal Democrats into the status of official opposition. He may yet achieve the aim of 100 MPs in the space of two elections, a high point which requires a net return of 20 more MPs in each election starting next year.
But Clegg’s high-point speech came at the end of a difficult week beside the seaside. His deputy Vince “fibre-optic” Cable made a passionate speech against Gordon Brown’s role in the current economic collapse, making a strong case for Liberal Democrat policies to help turn around the nation for the better. His “mansion tax”, a small levy on those homes worth over £1m, was greeted with warmth until the finer details were made clear after the speech. Suddenly things did not look so rosy – if the Liberal Democrats are against Council Tax, which we are, why is this levy based on Council Tax bands? Why did the proposal seem to have arrived without any consultation with other shadow cabinet members? How exactly would local authorities collect the extra money, and where would it go?
Clegg himself had to battle against plans to have “severe cuts” in public spending, including the ‘sacred cow’ opposition to tuition fees. Lembit Opik failed in his attempt to have rail nationalisation in the next manifesto, a policy which would potentially alienate many of the soft-Tories the party needs to attract at the next General Election. Overall, the mood of the activists seemed uneasy, as though the party had turned up expecting a typical Conference only to have most certainties whisked away from under their feet.
The Liberal Democrats remain the only true progressive and radical party in British politics, and throughout the Conference the Party proved it has the ability to make changes to the country which are so clearly needed. However the task of taking members with the leaders has been shown to be far harder than anyone expected. Conference did not go that smoothly. Now all Nick Clegg can do is wait – if the Conservatives have a good week away then a lot of the good work set out in his closing speech may have been for nothing.