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Lib Dem Conference - the 'Proalition' Politics of Power

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Shortly before the annual Liberal Democrat meet got underway at the Brighton centre, a fringe event was taking place in a stuffy conference room next door. Party president Tim Farron and home office minister Jeremy Browne were both in attendance, but the most telling words came from Stephen Tall, co-editor of the Lib Dem Voice website. "We're more caring than the Conservatives and more responsible than Labour", he affirmed.

Making as many voters up and down the country believe this is, above all else, the party's fundamental target for the next two years. Of course, the party elite is still very much - to use a word coined by Browne - 'proalition'. But that doesn't mean the on-going Lib Dem project to put forward their individual party identity before 2015 has lost the slightest bit of ambition.
From the moment the 2012 Liberal Democrat party conference began, Clegg's two aims for the event were clear.

Firstly, distance from the Conservatives. "It is no secret that we have different priorities to our coalition partners", he affirmed at a rally on the opening night. The Tories, he suggested, were only interested in improving the economy, whilst his party wants to "make it fairer and greener".

Secondly, amelioration of the Lib Dem image. The party wants to be seen as caring, whilst a competent and credible political force. The theory is that this would give them an edge in the public eye which Labour and the Tories don't have. Easier said than done? No, easier to do than say. Creating policies which fit this bill is a lot more straight forward than explaining to voters exactly how they meet the criteria.

Communication is an undeniable problem for the Liberal Democrats. It always has been. They are in government without the formal support of a single national news outlet. (A quote from a Polly Toynbee piece is enough to turn even eternal optimist Tim Farron slightly sour.) This would certainly explain the emphasis on doorstep campaigns in the top speeches and fringe events here in Brighton.

This idea of direct campaigning was pushed last year in Birmingham, but failed to take effect in the 12 months that followed. Although it's clearly an important strategic technique, it has seemed more dated than ever this week. In the digital age, over a million people watched Clegg's tuition fees apology - original or remixed - in four days. If a single lesson can be taken from the Deputy PM's chart success, it's that the power of the internet is not to be underestimated.

What have they got to shout about, though? The focus here in Brighton is firmly on the areas that the party has achieved, as delegates try to move away from the failure of tuition fees. In education, schemes like the pupil premium and the halting of Michael Gove's two-tier exam plan slightly soften that blow. The green deal and tax threshold increase are two other policies which have been championed over the weekend. The specific policy isn't entirely relevant, though - what matters is that the party finds a voice to speak to disenfranchised voters.

Delegates here in Brighton are entirely aware of their party's dire statistical position. However, many are quick to put forward a particularly valid counter-argument. For the first time in the history of the party, they have escaped the confines of opposition. Right now, the reality of government is proving too much for its electoral health, but for the first time in history, the Liberal Democrat party is actually in government.

Popular support is falling by the week, but credibility as a genuine force for power is rising each and every day this party works in Whitehall. Will this help in 2015? It's currently looking doubtful. Will this help in the broader future? Only time will tell.