Well we’re back from our first Beyond the Bubble event with Reuters at the Lib Dem conference, and fortunately, any pre-match nerves (especially after reading that one BBC journalist was called a ‘miserable sod’ for raising the state of the party in the polls earlier) proved unfounded.
It went really well – standing room only – and there was a lot of interest in what there was to say. You can view my slides below and download them here.
I think it would be more interesting, however, to let you know some of the key points made by the other members of our panel: Jodie Ginsberg from Reuters, Lord Rennard, and Simon Hughes MP, deputy leader of the party (and Ipsos MORI’s local MP). Suffice it to say, I made three key points.
1) So far, being in government hasn’t helped the public perception of the Lib Dems. It has been all hard choices and no real benefit.
2) There is still a big centre ground out there, but it’s pretty clear which group of voters whose support they have lost – most noticeably the ‘soft-left’ elements of their support, many of whom have switched to Labour. This lost group has very different values to their remaining support base (which is the reason why they have lost them), and devising a strategy to appeal to both groups won’t be easy.
3) So the dilemma this raises for the Lib Dems – and clearly recognised in the speeches at Birmingham – is how to differentiate themselves from the other two parties without bringing down the Coalition.
Jodie particularly emphasised the need for the Lib Dems to differentiate themselves from the Conservatives. She argued this was made more difficult by the lack of Lib Dem departmental portfolios which would enable them to brand policies as their own, an approach often taken by minor coalition partners in other countries. She contended this wasn’t helped by the fact the public don’t feel the Lib Dems have strong positions on many key policy areas, apart from the environment. This is most pronounced in the vital area of economic policy, where it is the Conservatives who are likely to get the credit if the economy improves.
Lord Rennard stressed that the Lib Dems have been in bad positions before, but have always managed to recover at the time of a general election. The seats they win, he went on, are often down to their strong local campaigns (which of course was the central plank of his successful time in charge of their campaign strategy).
He was most worried about Ipsos MORI’s finding that the party was seen as divided – never a good omen. He argued that the party needs to consistently deliver on its promises while in government, winning voters’ respect and once again being seen as a credible alternative to the other two parties.
Simon Hughes also picked up on importance of trust. Once a Lib Dem USP, it has been damaged by the tuition fees debate in particular. He described how it had taken time for the party to develop the structures needed for its new status as a party of government, but that it now was in a much stronger position.
He also picked up on the theme of marriage (or divorce) often used this week to describe the relationship between the Coalition partners. This was the wrong metaphor, he argued, and not only for the uncomfortable images it brought to mind. Instead, he said the Coalition was a business arrangement in response to the electoral arithmetic, a contract on which they need to deliver but which is up for renegotiation in 2015.
Overall though, I came away thinking how positive the mood was among the delegates, a feeling shared by much of the media. Despite their poor standing in the polls, there was no attempt to shoot the messenger (not always the case in my experience). Instead people accepted the truth of their position, and seemed quite optimistic that with a combination of time and hard local campaigning, they would turn their situation around.
The polls may not paint quite as pretty a picture, but the test will be whether they really can reap the positives from their new-found position as a party of power, instead of only succumbing to the pitfalls.