The Liberal Democrats, the junior party in U.K. Prime Minister David Cameron’s government, start their annual conference tomorrow seeking to rebuild support as tensions with their coalition partners rise.
Party leaders will aim to emphasize how they’ve made their mark on government policy, overcoming a referendum defeat on their long-cherished goal of overhauling the electoral system in May on the same day they suffered local-election losses across Britain. They will look to build on a history of successful grassroots campaigning to reverse a drop in opinion-poll backing to below 10 percent of the electorate.
“The coalition is a work in progress; we’re learning and we’ve become more assertive,” Norman Lamb, adviser to Deputy Prime Minister Nick Clegg, told reporters before the five-day conference in Birmingham, central England. “We had a rough time in May, but it’s a chance to discuss the implications of that. It’s time to reinvigorate the party as a campaigning party.”
That increased assertiveness has angered Conservative lawmakers and activists, who accuse the smaller party of blocking Cameron’s plans to overhaul the National Health Service and hobbling Tory policy on Europe, tax and human rights.
“The Liberal Democrats make up 8.7 percent of this Parliament and yet they seem to be influencing our free-school policy, health and many issues including immigration and abortion,” Conservative lawmaker Nadine Dorries said in a question to Cameron in the House of Commons on Sept. 7. “Does the prime minister think it is about time he told the deputy prime minister who is the boss?”
Cameron didn’t attempt to answer the question, and its tone may help the Liberal Democrat leadership make its case that they have not become “yellow Tories,” as the opposition Labour Party’s education spokesman, Andy Burnham, has described them, in a reference to the traditional Liberal color.
Liberal Democrats opposed a proposal by Dorries, supported by some Conservative ministers in Parliament this month, that would have prevented organizations that perform abortions from providing counseling to women seeking them.
“The Nadine Dorries line is quite helpful to the leadership” of the Liberal Democrats, said Andrew Russell, professor of politics at Manchester University and author of “Neither Left Nor Right,” a history of the party. “Annoying people like her is a badge of honor to them,” Russell said in an interview.
Human Rights Act
A poll last month for the Conservative Home website found that 72 percent of Tory party members blamed the government’s failure to repeal the Human Rights Act, which enshrines European human-rights law in U.K. legislation, on the Liberal Democrats.
Sixty-one percent said their junior partners were preventing a cut in inheritance tax or the 50 percent top tax rate on income over 150,000 pounds ($237,000) a year. The website surveyed 1,348 party members on Aug. 25 and 26. No margin of error was given.
Delegates at the Liberal Democrat Spring Conference in Sheffield on March 12 backed a motion condemning the government’s proposed overhaul of the management of the National Health Service. Three weeks later, Conservative Health Secretary Andrew Lansley announced a “pause” so the plans could be redrawn. At next week’s conference, there will be an hour-long debate on the NHS changes, though without a vote, avoiding a repeat of those events.
‘Being the Opposition’
“Clegg is likely to play up the idea that he’s being the opposition to the establishment from within government,” Mark Pack, who worked for the party between 2000 and 2009, said in an interview in London. “Within the Liberal Democrats, there’s very little sense that being in coalition is the wrong thing. The debate is all around how it should be conducted.”
In the May local elections, 748 of the Liberal Democrats’ 3,568 council representatives in England lost their seats -- 21 percent of the total. Labour took control of Clegg’s own city, Sheffield. In contrast, the Conservatives gained 85 seats as their junior partners became what Lamb called “human shields,” soaking up the punishment of voters angry at the government’s spending cuts, the biggest since World War II, to trim the budget deficit.
The Liberal Democrats also lost the referendum on changing the way lawmakers are elected, one of their conditions for joining the coalition, by 68 percent to 32 percent. The campaign saw Liberal Democrat ministers pitted against their Conservative colleagues, who backed the status quo and sanctioned personal attacks on Clegg. Liberal Democrat Energy Secretary Chris Huhne compared their tactics to those of the Nazi propaganda chief, Joseph Goebbels.
After the results, Clegg said there would be a “louder Liberal Democrat voice” in government. “We’ve got to show people where we are a moderating voice on the Conservatives,” he told the BBC.
“The people who felt worst on May 6 weren’t the leadership or the MPs, but the councilors who’d lost their seats and the activist base; the cost of being in coalition is being felt most strongly by them,” Manchester’s Russell said. “There will be kickback, but it will be typically Lib Dem in its texture, it will be griping at fringe events” at the conference.
A sign of the adjustments the party is having to make as a result of being in government will come in a debate on Sept. 18. Delegates, in defense of “hard-won British freedoms,” will be asked to “condemn the system of police accreditation” for the conference, which meant they had to be security-screened before attending.
Delegates will also return to the regular conference subjects of electoral reform, this time for the House of Lords, and the liberalization of drugs policy, alongside a debate on the Arab spring and speeches from government ministers.
“The party’s not going to be euphoric, but I think its mood will be good, determined. There are no views out there in the party calling for us to leave the coalition,” Lamb said. “It’s tough, it’s challenging for the party, but the right thing is to see it through.”
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