Conference Preview: LibDems Have A Tightrope To Walk In Birmingham

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Firing its traditional starting pistol for the autumn conference season, the Liberal Democrats are heading to Birmingham next week for five days of political soul-searching, confidence building and probably a consolatory drink or two.

For while the party will likely still be enjoying the (relative) novelty of holding genuine power, it has not been an easy year for the junior partner of the governing coalition.

To be blunt, and as James Lansdale puts it at the BBC, "the Lib Dems have had an awful year".

In May the party lost nine councils and 747 councillors after its worst local election showing for three decades.

The referendum on the alternative vote was a disaster, and its failure probably wreck the chance for significant electoral reform (at least in the House of Commons) for a generation.

Opinion polls have taken a dive, Nick Clegg has been both burned in effigy and declared less popular than a wasp sting, while furious students have taken to the streets to protest via the medium of smashed windows, against what they see as a betrayal on education policy.

Add to that looming battles over health, police reform, education and perhaps even the party leadership at some stage, mix in the the still-rumbling scandal(s?) surrounding energy minister Chris Huhne and add a pinch of internal confusion over its communications team, and it all looks rather bleak for the LibDems.

Fortunately for the leadership, it is unlikely that a vote on the NHS will create as many problems as it did at the spring conference because - thankfully for Clegg - there is no such vote scheduled. The NHS will be debated (twice) but no vote will be held.

"Journalists at the conference will be following how the Lib Dems cope with NHS reforms very closely indeed. It could end up overshadowing all those hopes of unity and reinvigoration Clegg and co hope for," said Alex Stevenson at Politics.co.uk.

For all of this, many LibDems are remarkably positive about the mood within the party.

LibDem blogger and a former party staffer, Mark Pack, told the Huffington Post UK that the mood within the grassroots was "not quite as bleak" as some were keen to make out.

Recent events, including the riots in England, have allowed the party to more clearly define itself against its Tory coalition partners, Pack said. Citing successes in local polls, including a recent council election in Surbiton Hill won by the LibDems, Pack said that the party would be in a serious, but positive, mood in Birmingham.

In addition, the general stability of the coalition has helped make the case for longer-term coalitions in British politics.

"The other strategic theme to watch out for during conference is whether or not the party manages to move beyond praising and defending the events of 2010," Pack added in a recent newsletter. "Being optimistic about the past yet pessimistic about the future may be the natural habitat of a Telegraph letters page contributor, but it is also the exact opposite of traditional political messaging."

And given that it is the one moment of the conference that the public will probably see, it will inevitably come down to Nick Clegg to walk the tightrope between inspiring the LibDem faithful without alienating Cameron and Co., and making as much of its successes as possible while still looking to the future..

"We’ve proved that Coalitions work, that we can work in government, and we’ve tackled the deficit head on," wrote Rhys Taylor, a LibDem blogger, recently. "But… we need to push Lib Dem values, speak out for Lib Dem accomplishments, respond to reports on inflation, unemployment, and rising prison levels. Silence helps no one."

Planned debates on Lords Reform, internal voting procedures and grumbling about increased security measures at this year's conference are all important to the party faithful, but will probably be ignored or resented by the public.

As such Nick Clegg will also need to use his speech to set out his economic agenda to the country at large.

Clegg will also be keen to vigorously defend the charge that his party has backtracked on its election promises. His forward to the conference agenda claims that the party is "implementing 75 per cent of our Manifesto commitments" and has "made the NHS safe from any threat of backdoor privatisation".

But therein lies the real challenge. For while the easiest fallback position for the LibDems is to play up its victories over the Tories, as David Laws put it in The Sun recently, “it would be a disaster if the Lib Dems were simply to evolve into an internal opposition”.

Whether they can resist the temptation, however, remains to be seen.