Leading article: Now the Liberal Democrats can show their real strength

There is new political space for the party and Nick Clegg must seize it

Related Topics

It has not been the best of years for the Liberal Democrats; that was probably 2005, when they achieved a record number of MPs. But nor has it been the worst of years, not by a long chalk.

The party, and its leader, Nick Clegg, go into their conference this weekend in pretty good shape, given the ravages wrought across the political landscape by the economic crisis and the MPs' expenses scandal. What is more, there is a clear space now for the sort of policies, economic and social, they have been espousing, as there is for their view of Britain's place in the world.

Mr Clegg has settled in as party leader and now looks thoroughly comfortable in the role. That his profile has not risen commensurately has less to do with any presentational inadequacy on his part than with the media's preference for adversarial left-right encounters. Unless the electoral system changes, the third party will always have to fight harder and shout more loudly to be heard. That is a cross – for the time being, at least – that Mr Clegg just has to bear, but shouting a bit louder would do no harm.

The Liberal Democrats deserve more attention than they have been getting – on good old-fashioned policy grounds. Over the past year they have made the running in a host of areas. In part this reflects the stature of their Treasury spokesman, Vince Cable, who has been consistently ahead of the pack on the banking crisis and everything that proceeded from it. Perversely, though, Mr Cable's guru status has not been the asset it might have been. It is not that he has eclipsed Mr Clegg as party leader, rather that he has been feted almost as a one-man economic think tank beyond all notions of party politics. The Liberal Democrats need to find a way of capitalising more effectively on the authority of this undoubted star.

But it is not just Mr Cable's ideas for tougher banking regulation, more redistributive taxation, and the – laudable – principle that any higher public spending must be paid for with savings elsewhere for which the party deserves credit; nor yet for embracing some unpopular, but probably necessary, cuts affecting tax credits for the better-off and pensions. Mr Clegg brings a great deal else to the political table.

Liberal Democrat MPs can pride themselves on being the staunchest defenders of civil liberties and the least tarnished by the expenses scandal. The party was also the first to reject the renewal of Trident – something the two major parties are now toying with. On foreign policy, the Liberal Democrats are looking, with the help of their elder statesman, Lord Ashdown, at how best to redirect the costly mission in Afghanistan. And now that France and Germany are leading the euro-zone out of recession, the Lib Dems' pro-Europe stance looks as persuasive as it has ever done.

In policy terms, of course, they have one signal advantage: they are further from power than Labour and the Conservatives and can float ideas with relative impunity. But the party is not so far from power that it can risk appearing irresponsible. And that in itself creates difficulties. Their goal of replacing Labour as the second party will be hard to achieve without alienating the Conservative voters they need in the south and west. Nor, paradoxically, is it in their interests for Labour to do too badly; only a hung Parliament would give the Liberal Democrats a slice of power. This must be their immediate aim, and the next few days give them the chance to show they are ready to be what Nick Clegg calls the "progressive force" Labour once was.

React Now

Latest stories from i100
iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Ashdown Group: Junior Application Support Analyst - Fluent German Speaker

£25000 - £30000 per annum + benefits: Ashdown Group: A global leader operating...

Ashdown Group: Training Coordinator - Financial Services

£32000 - £38000 per annum + benefits: Ashdown Group: A highly successful, inte...

Recruitment Genius: Supply Chain Administrator

£8000 - £10800 per annum: Recruitment Genius: A Supply Chain Administrator is ...

Recruitment Genius: Client IT Account Manager

£25000 - £30000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: A Client IT Account Manager is ...

Day In a Page

Read Next

The epic mug battle is only the latest in a cheap set of campaign gimmicks set to define this election

Nash Riggins

Daily catch-up: the endless and beginningless election campaign goes up and down

John Rentoul
No postcode? No vote

Floating voters

How living on a houseboat meant I didn't officially 'exist'
Louis Theroux's affable Englishman routine begins to wear thin

By Reason of Insanity

Louis Theroux's affable Englishman routine begins to wear thin
Power dressing is back – but no shoulderpads!

Power dressing is back

But banish all thoughts of Eighties shoulderpads
Spanish stone-age cave paintings 'under threat' after being re-opened to the public

Spanish stone-age cave paintings in Altamira 'under threat'

Caves were re-opened to the public
'I was the bookies’ favourite to be first to leave the Cabinet'

Vince Cable interview

'I was the bookies’ favourite to be first to leave the Cabinet'
Election 2015: How many of the Government's coalition agreement promises have been kept?

Promises, promises

But how many coalition agreement pledges have been kept?
The Gaza fisherman who built his own reef - and was shot dead there by an Israeli gunboat

The death of a Gaza fisherman

He built his own reef, and was fatally shot there by an Israeli gunboat
Saudi Arabia's airstrikes in Yemen are fuelling the Gulf's fire

Saudi airstrikes are fuelling the Gulf's fire

Arab intervention in Yemen risks entrenching Sunni-Shia divide and handing a victory to Isis, says Patrick Cockburn
Zayn Malik's departure from One Direction shows the perils of fame in the age of social media

The only direction Zayn could go

We wince at the anguish of One Direction's fans, but Malik's departure shows the perils of fame in the age of social media
Young Magician of the Year 2015: Meet the schoolgirl from Newcastle who has her heart set on being the competition's first female winner

Spells like teen spirit

A 16-year-old from Newcastle has set her heart on being the first female to win Young Magician of the Year. Jonathan Owen meets her
Jonathan Anderson: If fashion is a cycle, this young man knows just how to ride it

If fashion is a cycle, this young man knows just how to ride it

British designer Jonathan Anderson is putting his stamp on venerable house Loewe
Number plates scheme could provide a licence to offend in the land of the free

Licence to offend in the land of the free

Cash-strapped states have hit on a way of making money out of drivers that may be in collision with the First Amendment, says Rupert Cornwell
From farm to fork: Meet the Cornish fishermen, vegetable-growers and butchers causing a stir in London's top restaurants

From farm to fork in Cornwall

One man is bringing together Cornwall's most accomplished growers, fishermen and butchers with London's best chefs to put the finest, freshest produce on the plates of some of the country’s best restaurants
Robert Parker interview: The world's top wine critic on tasting 10,000 bottles a year, absurd drinking notes and New World wannabes

Robert Parker interview

The world's top wine critic on tasting 10,000 bottles a year, absurd drinking notes and New World wannabes
Don't believe the stereotype - or should you?

Don't believe the stereotype - or should you?

We exaggerate regional traits and turn them into jokes - and those on the receiving end are in on it too, says DJ Taylor