Lib Dems at a crossroads: A personal plea

The Liberal Democrat Spring Conference 2015 took place in Liverpool this week and it was definitely one for the core. I attended what was a quiet, muted conference on behalf of Connect and came away worried for the future of the party I notionally support, and bemused by the slightly bizarre conference rally.

Those MPs and candidates without a scheduled speaking slot were told to stay home to fight for their lives/jobs, so it was left to a handful of members, a couple of no-hoper PPCs, and the few MPs who were speaking at the handful of fringes to come together to look back at five years that history is likely to remember more sympathetically than the electorate will in 51 days’ time.

My support for the party has wavered over the past five years, but I will always believe that the Liberal Democrats in government has been good for this country. This weekend the Lib Dem MP for Eastbourne, Stephen Lloyd said that the party had “played a pivotal role in stopping the Tories from being completely demented”. This is a little extreme: much of this Government’s agenda is likely to have been unchanged had the Tories won a Conservative majority in 2010, but there would be differences. The ‘Snooper’s Charter’ would now be Government policy and, despite what many Conservatives claim, there was nothing in their 2010 manifesto on raising the personal allowance – which is expected to increase again in Wednesday’s Budget.

But the futures of many who have been behind this are in doubt. ‘All of the blame, none of the credit’ was the feared outcome of many Party members but, no matter how badly the Party does at the election, it is crucial that the element who long to be back in opposition do not win out. These are the same members that will rally behind Tim Farron’s campaign for leadership if Nick Clegg is toppled or walks away this year: the ones who turned up at conference.

Tim was on manoeuvres, speaking out against the Coalition in an interview that Paddy Ashdown said lacked judgement. Danny Alexander’s leadership bid hinges on a likely doomed campaign to keep his seat, so Ed Davey and Norman Lamb are now the favoured options for many. Vince Cable, still loved by the membership (his speech at conference was well received), may see himself as too old to launch a leadership bid this year. This is a shame as it is difficult to imagine Tim Farron running against him as the left wing candidate.

Increasingly Norman Lamb looks to be stepping up to the plate. His star is in the ascendancy, as one of the few frontbenchers to be at the conference for the whole weekend. He should rightly take much credit for the Lib Dem win of this week’s Budget: extra funding for mental health services for children. It’s an announcement that shows what the Lib Dems can achieve in government, something that the detractors in the party should take note of. The next few months will be a crossroads for the party. It cannot afford to take the wrong path.

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