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Monday, September 20, 2010

One term wonder

Sometimes I wonder why we bother to turn up to big Conference events when you can read about them in advance in the papers. Of course the answer is that the papers often get it wrong or put their own spin on it. That certainly seems to be the case when looking at this morning's crop of headlines.

Still, this particular insight from the Guardian is an interesting one. They say that Clegg will tell Conference today that there will be no electoral pact with the Conservatives and he will hold out the prospect of a coalition deal with Labour after the next election. Why woud anybody think any different other than to make a partisan political point?

As Vince Cable has said this coalition is a business relationship not a marriage. Perhaps Clegg's problem is that he has not emphasised this enough. If he now takes a change of tack then it at least shows that he has been listening to the party. They suggest that:

In his set piece speech to conference this afternoon he will emphasise the temporary nature of the coalition by telling his party: "The Liberal Democrats and Conservatives are, and always will be, separate parties with distinct histories and different futures. But for this parliament we work together to fix the problems we face and put the country on a better path. That is the right government for now."

He will also restate the case for entering into coalition: "People have got used to us being outsiders against every government that comes along. Maybe we have got used to it ourselves. But the door to change we want was opened, for the first time in most of our lifetimes. Imagine if we had turned away. How could we ever have asked the voters to take us seriously again?"

All the signs are that Clegg has the party behind him and that journalists have largely given up trying to manufacture rows. That was evident in the unrehearsed and unspun question and answer session yesterday in which the party leader took on all comers and answered awkward questions honestly and directly. Clegg told the Conference that the public were yearning for an end to adversarial politics and craved pluralism and diversity in politics:

He said he was confident about the party's identity and denied the party would "suffer some mysterious cross-contamination in Whitehall which means that we will suddenly warp into something different. You can share power with others and still retain your values".

His most telling point though was about the stance of the opposition: He admitted he heard "quite a lot the charge that the party is being beaten up by Labour … and that we are not hitting back hard enough".

He said this criticism came down to the Labour cry of betrayal over the deficit. In some of his toughest criticism of Labour he claimed they had resorted to an "absurd cardboard cut-out argument that there is this la-la land where you do not have to take any difficult decisions, no jobs are lost, no cuts are made, there is no pain, where everything recovers miraculously by osmosis – the Ed Balls view of the future – and that we are like modern day Herods, slaying the first born".

He said the true distinction between Labour and the coalition is that Labour was planning to cut over eight years, while the coalition would do so over five years.

Perhaps things will change when Labour have elected a new leader but at the moment their picket line mentality to opposition is doing them no favours. In the long term, once the dust has settled on the comprehensive spending review and people come to reconsider their options, they will want to know what Labour stand for. At the moment I don't think they know themselves.
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