Nick Clegg has now delivered his speech to the Liberal Democrat conference in Liverpool. It is the first time in more than half a century that the Liberals were in Government, a time long before many conference delegates were born. Clegg's own story is itself striking: three years ago he was not party leader and three years before that he was not a MP. Six years from first-time candidate to Deputy Prime Minister (and as a Liberal Democrat) is quite a feat. The kind of feat that only the happenstance of electoral politics can conjure up.
Yesterday, Clegg appeared to be on a clear mission: to convince party members to stand firm and turn a blind eye to those who say that the party has in any way been outmanouevered by the Conservatives. The BBC reports here that "The Liberal Democrats have not "lost our soul" by going into coalition with the Conservatives, party leader Nick Clegg has said. In his conference speech, he urged members to "hold our nerve" by serving a full five years in government."
There is much of interest to be found in his speech. First, this was a speech aimed at his party. Sometimes, politicians deliver a speech to their party conference whose primary intended audience is the wider public. The idea is that the party delegates are already in step and their support for certain policies may help sell them to the wider public.
However, this is a fracturing party. Party members with new government jobs were clearly the most eager to trumpet the importance of joining with the Conservatives to form a coalition Government. This enthusiasm does not seem to have spread far beyond to many conference delegates. This is not surprising. A general election was held only a few short while ago where they strongly contested seats against Conservatives. For some the prospect of governing alongside the Conservatives is difficult to accept even still.
Secondly, this was a speech indicating a gamble. Clegg must recognize the concerns of many supporters who remain apprehensive. His gamble to turn the party to a party of protest votes to a party that is a serious governing alternative to the Conservatives and Labour rests on several factors. One factor is sticking it out. If a general election were held soon, then this would pose possible catastrophe for the Liberal Democrats as a substantial number of those who claim to have voted for the party now would cast their votes differently, often in favour of Labour. Clegg's gamble is that things will turn around in time. The public need to begin to see the Liberal Democrats as a party that can govern responsibly. One way to do this is to be seen as helping push the more popular and more fair planks of the coalition Government's new policies. The public has not seen the Liberal Democrats in power in many decades and so this change in public reception will take time. Clegg's gamble is that five years should do it. Hence, the talk of how some may have said this coalition was impossible, but he's now shown this to be unfounded. Of course, the coalition has been relatively easily to keep together during a summer recess where most of Westminster is out of town.
The problem with Clegg's gamble is that we have seen it all before. Remember Gordon Brown? He was said to have "bottled" a possible general election that was likely to see Labour win, but lose MPs. His gamble was to wait. The thought was that in time voters would come around to support his leadership and Labour would win a new term.
Gambling is always a risk, and politics the arena of risk-taking. Clegg's gamble is that the public will grow to support the policies the Liberal Democrats promote and the party's fortunes will improve. He should remember that Brown played a similar game only to lose. Brown's lost gamble saw Labour out of power, but with substantial support and future potential. If Clegg were to lose his gamble, he could see his party face major problems.
We gamble for the same reason we take political risks. None of us knows precisely what the future may bring.