Nick Clegg has up until now been admired and respected by his party activists but not necessarily loved. He was very nearly not leader, only narrowly beating Chris Huhne. After this conference speech Clegg began to get a little closer to being loved as he delivered what is generally felt to have been one of the best conference speeches of his leadership.
Nick Clegg got to work very quickly and won over the Liberal Democrat conference hall in the first few minutes of his speech. He started off by delivering some very carefully chosen words on the response to ISIL. Liberal Democrats were reminded that they had a Deputy Prime Minister at the head of their party, whose words and tone of voice actually mattered in matters of life and death. This man had got them into Government and was still there, doing just a little bit of running the country. Most people simply couldn’t imagine that ever happening just five short years ago. He also managed to sound resolute and statesmanlike without upsetting liberals with pacifist leanings. He talked of stopping ISIL and restoring peace in determined but measured terms without being vengeful, inflammatory or excessively jingoistic
He then went straight the heart of what it is to be a liberal – celebrating diversity and difference as the things that make us proud to live in a modern liberal Britain. He quoted Al Murray (who unsurprisingly turned out to be not too happy to have been quoted) talking about the understated and unimposing way that we are Brit-ish. He listed all the different ways and groups and tribes and lifestyles that make up the rich complexity of a warm, inclusive, tolerant society.
He did all the things you have to do in a leader’s conference speech for the news media and the viewers at home. A few jokes at the expense of Ed Miliband and George Osbourne. Some call and response with the audience to see if they had learnt the slogans yet. He needn’t have worried – they were word perfect. He listed the achievements in this government and the plans and manifesto promises for the next. As I predicted, he got one of his biggest rounds of applause for attacking Teresa May’s civil liberty crushing snooping tendencies.
But what he also did was to get angry and angry in a way that liberals love. He got angry at the bigotry of ‘pick a side’ politics. The small minded bitter negative politics that is always looking for someone to blame rather than something to celebrate. The same sort of politics that had some bad-tempered, beaded, Glaswegian cyclist call me ‘scum’ just for being a Lib Dem, as he whizzed past me outside the conference centre earlier in the week. He tore into Farage and Salmond for their ‘seductive and beguiling’ but cynical and corrosive use of the politics of fear. He looked for all the hall to see as the man who would stand up and speak up for liberal values of tolerance, diversity and decency. At that point he had me, and pretty much everyone else in the hall eating out of his hands. Liberals simply love that stuff. There were loud cheers and dear reader, some of them I confess were mine.
Perhaps at times he got a bit shouty and petulant, frustrated at not getting the credit for delivering bucket loads of manifesto pledges that are making Britain better – whilst still being crucified for failing to deliver just one – like the Scooby Doo bad guy, he might have got away with it if it hadn’t been for those pesky students. That tone might not work in the country but it certainly worked in the hall. He was bothered and cared that his party, his MPs and his Ministers were not recognised for doing some genuinely good liberal stuff.
He then began to do what is needed for the next election – to set out the values that will underpin the Liberal Democrat offer into come sort of coherent vision. Liberals and most political ideologies are often defined and described by what they are not. Liberals even more so because, being in the centre of politics they have to not be at least two things. Clegg wants the Liberal Democrats to be the party of opportunity, with education at the heart of giving every child the opportunity to get on in life.
The announcement on mental health was pretty clever too. Almost everyone knows someone affected by mental health issues and where stigma is the biggest part of the problem, liberal understanding is a pretty helpful response. The good thing about being in government is occasionally you get to do good things like tackling waiting times for mental health treatments.
He got a little hot and sweaty at the end, but that was ok. In the hall we were all getting a little bit warm. He declared that it was not ok to caricature Liberal Democrat motives. Lib Dems know that they are decent people, in politics for all the right reasons and it felt good to have someone sticking up for them. Clegg stared straight down the camera to address David Cameron and Ed Miliband and the hall had a hero in its midst. At the end he got the hall to its feet faster than any Lib Dem conference has jumped up for quite some time. It was spontaneous and genuine.
Those of us Lib Dems in the hall were under no illusions. The message may well fall on deaf ears outside the conference hall and make no impact on doorsteps but in the room Clegg had nailed it. The young party organiser sat next to me said the speech had made the hair stand up on the back of her neck. It’s her job to make sure a Lib Dem Minister retains his parliamentary seat. She needed to be inspired and she was. This was Nick Clegg winning over his troops ready for the toughest battle they will have ever had. It was good, and it needed to be. The question will be, was it good enough to work on televisions in living rooms around the country. If not, it will have been his last Autumn Conference speech as Leader of the Liberal Democrats.
Steven Gauge is a Senior Consultant at PLMR and an experienced political campaigner. He has spent the last two general elections on the road managing media events in battleground seats for Nick Clegg and Charles Kennedy. In the 2014 local elections Steven was in charge of the Liberal Democrats HQ in a target seat in Southwark, in South London.
Dispatch from Lib Dem Conference 2014: This time it’s different