Jeremy Brier: Was the Lib Dems' seaside farce in Bournemouth the most hapless Party Conference in recent times?
It’s always tragic to see great, beloved institutions fall from grace. On the other hand, it’s tremendously jolly to watch farcical institutions like the Liberal Democrats belly-flop off the Bournemouth pier. Devoid of a coherent philosophy under the maladroit Nick Clegg, I asked almost two years ago on this site: what do the Lib Dems want to be when they grow up? After this year’s seaside side-show, I’ve realised my question took too much for granted.
Arriving on the south coast on the luxurious political sunbed of being able to propose absolutely anything (since there is no chance of it ever being implemented), this week’s Conference gave the Lib Dems carte-blanche for a glittering array of attractive promises. And so, Day One began with Nick Clegg telling his key voter-base – students – that he would no longer abolish their tuition fees (the logic presumably being: why keep a populist policy for which you will never have to bear the cost, when you could just ditch it for no political gain?) and the scintillating news that the Conference “backed plans to ban airbrushing in adverts targeted at children”.
Yes, you heard right. Jo Swinson MP commented that
“Women face pressure from all directions these days. Hit hard by the recession, trying to juggle family commitments with work and home life, and bombarded with adverts that contain completely unattainable images that no-one can live up to in real life.”
All very well, but this ban is apparently aimed at adverts facing the under-16s. So, just to be clear for any multi-tasking children under pressure from the recession, you might be running short of pocket money and fighting off negative equity on your doll’s houses, but at least when you open your next edition of Heat the adverts will only contain pictures of normally good-looking people that are not “completely unattainable”.
Feeling better? Probably not, because aside from being patronising, unenforceable and easy for clever glamour photographers to side-step, this ban also excludes from its imperious scope actual photoshoots and stories. So poor little cash-strapped Jemima does not have to face a “completely unattainable” image in the Burberry ad before the contents page, but she’s still got to endure 90 pages of photoshopped scantily-clad models in the features section!
Perhaps one could forgive the odd fringe foible, but what was so extraordinary about this Conference was that the big-hitters made the biggest gaffes. Enter the once invincible Vince Cable to announce a tax on £1 million homes to hit really hard on those people like, er, Roman Abramovich. Poor Roman’s never felt so Middle Class! With the average detached home in London is already over that price bracket, this tax would hit far harder exactly the “hard pressed, recession hit” families trying to pay off their mortgages that Jo Swinson was so keen to look out for.
But the biggest problem is that this tax would hit many ordinary families and pensioners who bought their homes years ago and don’t have high incomes. Cable says that they could apparently have the payment deducted from the value of their estate; thus acknowledging both that this would hit people who cannot afford it and create a hidden new inheritance tax by stealth. Many would no doubt be forced to sell their homes, cautious not to pass on debt to their children. Just the kind of tonic you need to get you through Hard Times.
The broader strategic disaster of the Conference reflects the malaise of the Party. There was an endless stream of ideas and issues, but one which was unthematic and often incoherent. Reflecting the increasingly significant divide between the Orange Bookers and the sandal-wearers, the Right hand doesn’t know what the Left is doing. Does Nick Clegg know? His plan was to attack the Conservatives at a time when it is Labour who are universally disliked and can yield up more seats to the Lib Dems.
So why attack Cameron so hard? The virulent attack on ‘Conman Cameron’ backfired horribly when, rising above the fray, Cameron called for Lib Dems to come and join him, noting that there was only a “cigarette paper” between us and at least some of them. Some policies might be Rizla-close, but there’s a gulf in intelligence and skill, as the slick CCHQ machine completely outmanoeuvred Clegg.
What do the Liberal Democrats want to be if they grow up? I’ve started to think that they are irredeemably divided between a left-leaning liberalism which is close to pre-9/11 new Labour and a right-leaning liberalism which overlaps extensively with David Cameron’s Conservatives. I see that earlier this week, Graeme Archer reached a similar conclusion.
When a political party appears redundant, it’s understandable that its first instinct is to try and be noticed with knee-jerk initiatives and ad hominem attacks. But this Conference was living proof of the dangers of shouting too much, with not enough to say. The result was just a jamboree of pointless gesture politics and confusing political positioning which will keep the Liberal Democrats firmly rooted to third place.