Conference speech after conference speech, policy motion after policy motion, Liberal Democrats agree that we're doing good work in Government. Why wouldn't we? We've raised taxes to support hard working people across the UK - over 100,000 people in Wales no longer pay any income tax at all, and 23 million across the UK, thanks to the work of Liberal Democrats in Government.
We've increased the number of apprenticeships offered in England since 2010 by 35%. We've increased funding for pupils from the poorest backgrounds through the Pupil Premium, giving pupils the support that they need to get a good start in education. A taper on benefits, meaning that benefits are gradually withdrawn as someone re-enters employment, ending the benefits trap. We're giving up to £1,200 to working families to help with childcare. We've ended child detention for immigration reasons. We introduced equal marriage. Investing in rural broadband to ensure basic infrastructure up and down the country, helping smaller businesses. Shared parental leave. Placed a triple lock on pensions, a 6.5% increase for today's pensioners. £10m for modern healthcare technologies in Wales, in opposition. Free school meals for all, giving all children an equal start at education, using research to give pupils the best start in school.
However, we cannot, and should not, be proud of everything that's happening in Government. The party that I joined in 2008 would not have considered some of this Governments’ policy, from changes to benefits that impact upon Disability Living Allowance or Personal Independence Payments to tax breaks for married couples.
Yes, the economy is beginning to get back on track, and we're doing our upmost to anchor the Tories in the center ground, biting back against the worst of Tories in Government. But it's where we're unable to achieve a 'stronger economy in a fairer society' that we should be most concerned. We say that some of our best achievements have been stopping the worst of Tories in Government – cuts in inheritance cuts, scrapping the Human Rights Act and docking benefits such as Housing Benefit for under 25s, profit-making in schools, new childcare ratios, firing workers at will, without any reasons given, regional pay penalising public sector workers in the north, no to weakening the protections in the Equalities Act – but things have slipped through the center-ground net.
The last few days has seen the resurgence of the 'Will the coalition last until the next election?' question. Maybe it will, maybe it won't, but now is the time to make clearer the differences between us and the Conservatives, as we did, at some point long ago.
Conference unanimously voted against the bedroom tax - yet not once has it been said that we must continue to fight against and challenge Conservative policies that discriminate against the vulnerable in society. We need to talk about what we're doing, and the positive things that we're doing - but what about the other things that happen in Number 10? The privatisation of services that will, undeniably, put delivery at risk. Charities have warned about the changes to benefits and the impact on disabled people.
Whilst we have, for a long time, called for service users to manage their payments and their budgets where appropriate, the practicality of PIP will leave many people across the UK at a disadvantage - this is not a realization of Liberal Democrat policy.
I've spent many an evening getting all wound up about selling off the student loans book, something I've read around camps for the disabled, how benefits changes are seeing ill and terminally ill people forced to return to work, changes to Universal Credit which will see people lose out, cuts to education, changes to education.
Our record of delivering on our own policies is something to unashamedly shout about, and tell people about at every opportunity, but we leave ourselves open to attack when the Government (that we do allow to continue) enacts the under-occupancy penalty (yes, the bedroom tax), and we have little to say. Regardless of whether Labour introduced the Local Housing Allowance, like the bedroom tax, in 2008 when they changed the terms for those renting privately, which would, many of us will argue, have a greater impact on those living in the private sector as private sector rents are disproportionately higher, we are still party to a government that has enacted something that is unfair.
The general rhetoric of conference, particularly from Nick Clegg, was that coalitions work; Liberal Democrats can no longer look back to the cozy confines of opposition, and that Liberal Democrats can deliver fair and progressive policy, whilst softening the sharp edges of Labour and the Tories. It’s a strong message to take forward, not only to current members, but old members, lost members, non-members, and the electorate in 2015. The grey cloud that has haunted the party for decades of ‘can they survive in Government’ was answered by this conference in particular.
Conference should be about the Liberal Democrats being open and honest about the role that we play in government. What do we, what we don't do, what we stand for, and what we don't stand for. Being on message, over time, in volume only does so much of the legwork, the rest of the legwork has to be us not only open among ourselves - by having debates on the economic recovery, the bedroom tax, Syria, and Higher Education funding (somewhat of an alien thing to other parties) - but open and honest with the electorate. And that’s what we must carry forward into 2015.
By Rhys Taylor