Leading article: A party that must show it still stands for liberal values

This is an important opportunity for the Lib Dem Party to show it is not composed of crypto-Conservatives

Share
Related Topics

The choice of Sheffield to host the Liberal Democrat spring conference, which opens today, is a bold (some would say masochistic) choice. The city is home to a large student population and also Forgemasters, the engineering firm whose £80m state loan was cancelled by the Coalition last June. There are many people in the city who feel betrayed by the Liberal Democrats.

Sheffield is also of huge political importance for the party. Nick Clegg's constituency is Sheffield Hallam. It could perhaps be here that the ultimate verdict on the Liberal Democrat leader's decision last May to go into full coalition with the Conservatives is delivered at the next election in four years' time.

Over the coming days, protests are expected both outside Sheffield City Hall and within. Delegates are likely to vote against the Government's moves on tuition fees and NHS reform. And the leadership will have little choice but to soak up the anger. They cannot distance themselves from the Coalition's record now. The strategy of Mr Clegg these past 10 months has been to hug the Tories close in order to prove that coalition does not mean weak government.

He has succeeded in that narrow goal – but at a considerable cost. Support for the party in the opinion polls has halved. Mr Clegg has become the public face of the trebling of tuition fees. And the outrage over the Government's wider cuts has eclipsed Liberal Democrat policy successes such as the Freedom Bill, a delay on Trident, the pupil premium, a rise of the income tax threshold for low earners and greater powers for local councils. Delegates in Sheffield will be given an "achievements card" to broadcast these victories. But the very fact that they need to be reminded of what their party has got out of the Coalition is an indication of the difficulties Mr Clegg faces.

There has been personnel damage too since last May. David Laws was forced to resign from the Cabinet for being less than transparent in his expenses claims (although he is believed to be on the verge of a return). Vince Cable has been marginalised since making injudicious comments in a constituency meeting before Christmas.

The party saved face in the Oldham East by-election in January, managing to come second behind Labour. But there was total disaster in the Barnsley by-election last week, where it plummeted to sixth place. And Barnsley could foreshadow a Liberal Democrat meltdown in May's local elections. The Alternative Vote referendum, which will be held on the same day, will be a moment of truth. Mr Clegg is staying away from the Yes campaign for fear of contaminating it with his unpopularity. But the Liberal Democrat leader desperately needs a positive result.

Electoral reform is what has bound Mr Clegg's party together over the past year. If the referendum is lost, Mr Clegg could be in fatal trouble. Part of the rationale for hugging the Tories was to smooth the way for electoral reform. The nightmare scenario for the Liberal Democrats is that they end up with the hug, but not the reform.

The danger of a negative result in the referendum explains why the Liberal Democrat leadership is now attempting to highlight differences with the Tories. Last month Mr Clegg made a speech in favour of AV on the same day that David Cameron made a speech against. The Liberal Democrat leader also recently publicly contradicted Mr Cameron on the subject of state multiculturalism.

The change in strategy is sensible. This is an opportunity for the Liberal Democrats to show that they are not crypto-Conservatives, motivated only by the trappings of power, but that they stand for genuine liberal values. Actually, the stakes are higher than that. Greater Liberal Democrat definition has become a basic matter of survival.

React Now

Latest stories from i100
iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Recruitment Genius: Front Of House Team Member

£16500 - £18000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: This is a fantastic opportunity...

Recruitment Genius: Sales & Marketing Manager

£22000 - £28000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: This company has won the award ...

Recruitment Genius: Store Manager & Store Supervisor

£19000 - £23000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: This is a fantastic opportunity...

Recruitment Genius: Case Liaison Officer / Administrator

£13000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: This Pension Specialist based in Rochest...

Day In a Page

Read Next
Kennedy campaign for the Lib Dems earlier this year in Bearsden  

Charles Kennedy: A brilliant man whose talents were badly needed

Baroness Williams
Nick Clegg (R) Liberal Democrat Leader and former leader Charles Kennedy MP, joined the general election campaign trail on April 8, 2010  

Charles Kennedy: The only mainstream political leader who spoke sense

Tim Farron
Sepp Blatter resignation: The beginning of Fifa's long road to reform?

Does Blatter's departure mean Fifa will automatically clean up its act?

Don't bet on it, says Tom Peck
Charles Kennedy: The baby of the House who grew into a Lib Dem giant

The baby of the House who grew into a Lib Dem giant

Charles Kennedy was consistently a man of the centre-left, dedicated to social justice, but was also a champion of liberty and an opponent of the nanny-state, says Baroness Williams
Syria civil war: The harrowing testament of a five-year-old victim of this endless conflict

The harrowing testament of a five-year-old victim of Syria's endless civil war

Sahar Qanbar lost her mother and brother as civilians and government soldiers fought side by side after being surrounded by brutal Islamist fighters. Robert Fisk visited her
The future of songwriting: How streaming is changing everything we know about making music

The future of songwriting

How streaming is changing everything we know about making music
William Shemin and Henry Johnson: Jewish and black soldiers receive World War I Medal of Honor amid claims of discrimination

Recognition at long last

Jewish and black soldiers who fought in WWI finally receive medals after claims of discrimination
Beating obesity: The new pacemaker which helps over-eaters

Beating obesity

The new pacemaker which helps over-eaters
9 best women's festival waterproofs

Ready for rain: 9 best women's festival waterproofs

These are the macs to keep your denim dry and your hair frizz-free(ish)
Cycling World Hour Record: Nervous Sir Bradley Wiggins ready for pain as he prepares to go distance

Wiggins worried

Nervous Sir Bradley ready for pain as he prepares to attempt cycling's World Hour Record
Liverpool close in on Milner signing

Liverpool close in on Milner signing

Reds baulk at Christian Benteke £32.5m release clause
On your feet! Spending at least two hours a day standing reduces the risk of heart attacks, cancer and diabetes, according to new research

On your feet!

Spending half the day standing 'reduces risk of heart attacks and cancer'
With scores of surgeries closing, what hope is there for the David Cameron's promise of 5,000 more GPs and a 24/7 NHS?

The big NHS question

Why are there so few new GPs when so many want to study medicine?
Big knickers are back: Thongs ain't what they used to be

Thongs ain't what they used to be

Big knickers are back
Thurston Moore interview

Thurston Moore interview

On living in London, Sonic Youth and musical memoirs
In full bloom

In full bloom

Floral print womenswear
From leading man to Elephant Man, Bradley Cooper is terrific

From leading man to Elephant Man

Bradley Cooper is terrific