The Liberal Democrats seem ever fated to hold their conference in the midst of diverting crises, whether it be the financial mayhem caused by Britain's exit from the ERM, the leadership crisis in Labour under Blair or, as on this occasion, a combination of the two. And yet for all the competing headlines of bank collapses and Labour leadership revolts, the party has run a surprisingly effective conference. Indeed it may actually have been helped by the general air of a government and a Tory opposition seemingly obsessed with themselves.
Amidst all the carnage, Nick Clegg, the party's young leader, has been able to carve out some distinctive policies and, just as important, get them through an unruly party. There are many of the party faithful – and some indeed outside – who will regret the dumping of past policies on entering the euro and the downgrading of the party's traditional obsession with voting reform. They are worthy causes, but in the hard realities of today's politics, neither are of paramount concern to most voters.
Instead the party leadership has produced a package of eye-catching policies calculated precisely to appeal to the middle-of-the-road voters it must gain if it is to hold on to its position in Parliament at the next election. Abolition of council tax, income tax relief for low wage earners and a sweeping reduction of testing in schools – all these are appealing to a wide range of citizens. You can argue, with justice, that the tax reduction plans are poorly financed. You can also say – and critics within the party have said so vociferously – that the proposals take the party far from its traditional left-of-centre concerns. But they are not inimical to it and, most important, they adjust the party to the new, more conservative times.
Much of the credit for this realignment must be put down to Nick Clegg himself, a new leader who, after his gaffe on pensions, gave a persuasive speech yesterday that covered a range of issues with a beguiling tone. The Lib Dems still face an uncertain future when no one can be quite certain which way the votes will fall at the next election. But, given a clutch of Labour seats, it still stands a chance of holding the ring. This week's conference has certainly helped it on its way.Reuse content