Leading article: The Liberal Democrats remain ahead of the curve

Mistakes were made in Bournemouth, but Nick Clegg's strategy is right

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The Liberal Democrats, as usual, kicked off the annual party conference season with their gathering in Bournemouth. And the third party of British politics certainly succeeded in making waves at the seaside this week. Not always, it has to be said, for the right reasons.

Some delegates took umbrage at Nick Clegg's clumsily phrased warning at the start of the week that "savage" cuts are needed in public spending. Many also baulked at the proposal that the party's commitment to scrapping university tuition fees should be shelved. Frustration seemed set to boil over when Mr Clegg suggested means-testing child tax credits.

The party's Treasury spokesman, Vince Cable, also came in for some rare criticism when he failed to brief his shadow cabinet colleagues adequately about the party's new "mansion" supertax policy, leaving them flailing when asked by the media for details. Questions have also been raised, not all of them spurious, about how thought-through this policy is.

Mr Clegg's lively and forceful speech yesterday went some way to easing these tensions. But there are lessons on presentation and consultation that Mr Clegg ought to learn. A party like the Liberal Democrats depends to a larger degree than either Labour or the Conservatives on a sense of common purpose among its members. It is not a good idea to alienate those whose campaigning efforts will be vital in next year's election.

Yet we should not make too much of the disagreements in Bournemouth. The Liberal Democrats have always held more open debates on policy at their conference than the other parties – and that is often a healthy process. Moreover, whatever presentational or managerial errors might have been made this week, strategically Mr Clegg and his team got a lot right.

Their calls for curbs on public sector pay and middle-class benefits such as child benefit will – and have – upset people. But the alternative of mirroring the timidity of the other two parties on spending would have been a missed opportunity. As Mr Clegg pointed out in his speech, the Liberal Democrats have led the way on a host of issues in recent years, from responding to the banking crisis, tackling climate change, invigorating local democracy and pushing for electoral reform. Their latest addition to this pioneering list is the policy of being specific on what they would do to restore balance to the public finances. Every party admits that serious spending cuts and tax rises are going to be needed in the years ahead. But only the Liberal Democrats, to their credit, have thus far come out with specific plans on what they would do to close the deficit.

There have been suggestions of late that, since the Liberal Democrats are not going to win a majority of seats at the next general election, they would enhance their credibility by setting out their terms for forming a coalition government with either Labour or the Tories. This is a trap that Mr Clegg should resist. The result of setting out terms would not be enhanced credibility for the party but a lethal perception of irrelevance.

The Liberal Democrats can make the most headway by speaking with a distinctive voice, remaining independent and keeping ahead of the ideas curve of British politics. Despite the upsets, Mr Clegg's party emerges from this week's conference having achieved those key objectives.

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