From the opening scenes of the Liberal Democrat conference, it has been clear that there is a grave concern within some of its members and leading figures. It is a concern that the party direction is becoming blurred, that it is seen as the puppet the Conservative Party and therefore needs to search for a defining vision before the wheels of the 2015 general election start turning.
Nowhere were these concerns personified more than in the case of Vince Cable yesterday. He began the day attending an economic debate which, initially, he had planned to abstain from, seemingly in a protest against Nick Clegg’s continued economic position in favour of ‘Osbornomics’. Then, Cable embarked upon his conference speech, lambasting the Tories and their principles, suggesting that they have embarked upon “dog-whistle politics orchestrated by an Australian Rottweiler”. Finally, to take his ambivalence with the Conservatives to its logical conclusion, Cable expressed on Newsnight how it was “certainly possible” that the coalition could end before 2015. Whilst also hinting that he himself could resign from the cabinet if certain ‘red lines’ were crossed.
Now, although the views of the Business Secretary may be the most extreme within the Liberal Democratic contingent, there have been many other signs that there is a great deal of discontent within the yellow ranks. Indeed, Nick Clegg’s victory of 224 votes to 220 yesterday in favour of maintaining the 45p tax rate was unconvincing to say the least, with party president and Ed Miliband accomplice Tim Farron expressing a desire to reintroduce the former 50p rate in his rally address. Many within the party feel as though the Liberal Democrats shouldn’t be openly standing up for unfair tax cuts in a time of economic austerity, and although there have been murmurings regarding tax rises on earnings above £50,000, and a ‘Super Mansion Tax’, it is felt that the 45p tax rate is the cornerstone Tory policy, fighting for the rich in a time where the poor are increasingly worse off.
Moreover, the ‘Bedroom Tax’, another controversial, high-profile policy from the Con-Lib coalition was brought into question yesterday, with conference representatives overwhelmingly voting to review its cost and effect on vulnerable tenants. Similarly showing an increasing desire to distance the party from what many think are the worst excesses of Cameron’s Conservatives.
At the root cause of all these concerns however is a Liberal Democrat leadership which has long placed stock in sacrificing principles in order to maintain stability. Clegg wants the Liberal Democrats to be seen as the governmental glue which held the nation together for five years whilst the forces of economic chaos circled all around. This policy may work to their electoral advantage, although the maiming assault the Liberal Democrats have taken in the polls over the past three years suggests it most probably won’t.
In the meantime, those who have an interest in the vision of the party, and the maintenance of its core principles, are becoming increasingly shifty. The 2013 party conference has seen ruptures within the Liberal Democratic camp, and the party needs to decide whether it will stand behind a message of principle or pragmatism going into 2015.