With Labour in dire trouble and the Conservatives some distance from sealing the deal with the British electorate, this was the moment to present the party as the option for voters sick of Labour and unconvinced by the Conservatives. The party had built considerable public credibility on the back of its critique of the handling of the financial crisis as well as its principled defence of civil liberties and opposition of war in Iraq.
So how was it that bathed in the celestial light of autumnal Dorset sunshine, the LibDem leadership seemed to squander the opportunity?
The rot started with what, in retrospect, seems to have been a miscalculation, namely, to pointedly ignore Labour and use every media and oratorical opportunity to launch attacks at the Tories (often rather personal ones). From Nick Clegg down, the front bench fired off personal attacks – Cameron is all spin and no policy; Osborne is a tyro who hasn’t managed anything, let alone the British economy; Hague is a skinhead.
On one level, this seemed sensible – facing down the Tory threat to LibDem marginals as well as appealing to disenchanted Labour voters who cannot stand the Tories. But it was also an act of hubris – if you accuse your opponents of being inexperienced or unclear on policy, you had better make sure you are running a tight ship yourself.
So it was little surprise when nemesis struck. The LibDem front bench went seriously off message about Saint Vince’s mansion tax. Many LibDem Parliamentarians had known nothing of the announcement and their frustration on not being consulted spilt over when they could not answer basic questions about the policy their deputy leader had just announced. It was also seriously risky political territory. considering voters in many LibDem-held marginals would potentially be stung by the tax (I am sure the residents of Richmond were hardly thrilled to hear Vince’s announcement).
This mansion tax furore was unfortunate because it obscured a clear statement of LibDem intent and a point of differentiation, namely, that the LibDems will take those earning under £10,000 out of paying tax on income by being unapologetically redistributionist. Goodbye higher-rate relief on pensions. Goodbye generous capital gains tax relief and hello clampdown on tax loopholes (and, for some reason, child trust funds). The rich – and babies – will pay, those on minimum wage will benefit.
Compounding this lack of clarity was confusion about spending cuts. What? How much? When? How could you square Nick Clegg’s view that “savage” spending cuts are needed with the commitment to pony up a serious amount of cash for university students to get free tuition? Clegg took to the stage on the last day of the conference to address all these issues – by ignoring them all. Talking about them would have been an act of digging oneself deeper into the hole, so he kept it high level and thereby failed to answer compellingly how the LibDems will capitalise on Labour’s meltdown. The election campaign is beginning to shift up a gear and LibDem activists will no doubt be hoping that their leaders will show a defter touch in the months ahead.
John Rowland is an analyst at Cicero Consulting