Lib Dem grassroots yearn to be distinctive


Liberal Democrats are not ready to quit coalition, but they are desperate for distance from the Conservatives

FOR MANY in the Liberal Democrats, Danny Alexander has become a problem – too close to the Conservatives and too ready to be the good soldier, rather than being willing to emphasise the separate message of the junior coalition party since he became chief secretary to the treasury.

Reflecting the concerns, a party member who has spent decades battling for the Liberal Democrats, posed a question to Alexander yesterday from the floor during the party’s Brighton conference: “The trouble for activists knocking on people’s doors is that we are perceived as being the same as the Tories.

“We need to be able to show that we are making a difference, that a vote for the Liberal Democrats is not the same as a vote for the Tories,” she said in words that provoked a rumble of agreement around a conference hall that holds hundreds fewer delegates than it did last year.

Alexander, in turn, highlighted the problem faced by Lib Dem ministers. “We can’t have a government that looks like it is fighting on every issue every day, where we publicise areas of difference. Most people want to see government tackling the job. There’s a middle way.”

Minutes earlier, Alexander offered some meat for the doorsteps: no tax on minimum-wage workers, more school funding for poor children, the highest yet pension rise.

However, his list soothed few worries, even if the delegates themselves had displayed the same level of political pragmatism required by Alexander every day in the treasury when earlier they had rejected demands to scrap the Conservative-Lib Dem pledge to deal with the UK’s deficit woes.

Such a motion, they agreed, would lead to a rash of headlines, such as “Lib Dems vote for Plan B”, provoking concern on the international financial markets about future budgetary policies and raising dangers about the rate of interest the UK has to pay those same markets for billions in debt.

The concern among the party leadership about the impact the amendments on the economy could have had, if accepted, was clear by the number of ministers and other senior figures who spoke against, with party president Tim Farron describing the calls as “flippin’ madness”.

Even if he was happy to make jokes about “plebs” at the Conservatives’ expense – on the back the confrontation of Conservative chief whip Andrew Mitchell with police at Downing Street – business secretary Vince Cable still pressed home the political realities facing the party.

“In a time of crisis what the country needs is national government. That means working with political opponents in the national interest. Indeed, one of our central aims as Liberal Democrats is to show that coalitions work and Nick Clegg’s major contribution as leader has been to do just that.”

However, he acknowledged grassroot fears with local elections ahead next year and a general election a year later.

“I know many of you worry that while we do what is right for the country, the party is suffering for it.”

Nevertheless, the political circle that cannot be squared remains.

“At a time of crisis, coalition government was and is still the only way forward – and it required considerable political courage from Nick to make it happen,” said Cable, who is seen as the party’s conscience by many and the leader-to-be by some, including, clearly, himself.