Britain’s Liberal Democrats gathered in Sheffield at the weekend for the first time since the party took a share of power in a coalition government.
The spring conference comes amid growing criticism of the Lib Dems from traditional supporters who believe the party has ‘sold out’ by teaming up with the Conservatives.
Party Leader and Deputy Prime Minister Nick Clegg has borne the brunt of such criticism. He told the conference the Liberal Democrats still had “the freehold to the centre ground of British politics.”
“Our politics is the politics of the radical centre,” Clegg said. “We are governing from the middle, for the middle.” He said Liberal Democrats are “a party of fairness, freedom, progress and reform,” and not heirs to Thatcher or Blair.
Protesters outside Sheffield’s City Hall, who were separated from delegates by a purpose-built special fence, shouted against the party and its leader. Placards read “Leave my future alone,” “Nick Clegg, shame on you, shame on you for turning blue” and “No cuts, tax the rich.”
For party members, being the target of popular anger is a new experience. The response from the leadership was “get used to it, we’re now in power.”
“It’s a lot better being in government than being in opposition,” said Rosalind Scott, the party’s ex-president. Many members across the party ranks share the view, but almost nine months after the coalition government came to power, the argument on how Lib-Dems should differentiate themselves from the Conservatives is still very much alive.
When the question of “getting into bed with the Tories” was put to the party’s president Tim Farron, he was outspoken and called himself a “critical friend of the coalition.” But he pointed out that “I share a bed with my wife; that doesn’t make me a woman.”
Mr. Clegg tried to assure his supporters: “David Cameron hasn’t kidnapped me,” he said, adding that it was difficult to be in government, to be in a coalition, and explain why cuts should be made. But he insisted that he works “flat out” every single day to make sure what is being done is true to Lib Dem values.
He said Liberal Democrats are “the true radicals of British politics” and “a party of fairness, freedom, progress and reform,” not heirs to Thatcher or Blair. He hit out at the “tired tribalism of left and right” and said “we are on the side of Alarm Clock Britain.”
The party was “on the side of everyone who wants to get up and get on. People who, unlike the wealthy, have no choice but to work hard to make ends meet. People who are proud to support themselves but are only ever one pay cheque from their overdraft.”
He defended the coalition government for “restoring civil liberties,” which he said is possible because Lib-Dems are a part of it.
The National Health Service was a heated subject for debate. The party passed a motion that requires the health reform bill to be amended. A former member of parliament, who spoke in favour of changes to the NHS, urged his fellow Lib-Dems who are in government to follow what the members voted for and not just “see into it.”
Mr. Clegg said: “No government of which I am part will tamper with the essential contract at the heart of the NHS: to care collectively for each other as fellow citizens.” He emphasised: “Yes to health reforms. But no – always no – to the privatisation of health.”
Angus Heath, a 29-year old teacher from London who has voted Lib-Dem since the invasion of Iraq, told me on the way to the conference in Sheffield he felt betrayed after the coalition deal. For now, he said, the Lib-Dems need to “more publicly assert what they stand for” and “disagree with Tory policy” when it is against their values. He won’t vote Lib-Dem again, unless the party demonstrates dramatic change.
The message was similar from the party members; Lib-Dems want their identity to be different from their coalition partners.
By Ali Sheikholeslami