Should the Lib Dems battle to be distinctive?

On the ground at the Lib Dem party conference

Lots of meet and greet today, and excessive use of that classic conference greeting style of enthusiastic "Hellos!" to someone while looking over their shoulder. It's larger but feels much the same as last year, a family getting together for a special occasion.

There may well be a tiff by the time the main course is served and the great auntie (former leader) says a little too loudly that she never liked that new son-in-law Cameron, but there is no sign of it so far. Pity the broadcast media, who are being regularly asked by their newsrooms, "Have you found the anger yet?" knowing that if they say, "No sign of it so far" they will inevitably be knocked off evening bulletins and their weekend in Liverpool will be wasted.

The genuine signs of real debate are around the issue of whether or not to be distinctive. How much do we celebrate our separateness in government versus how much do we argue that this is a fully integrated team? Nick Clegg in the Independent today is clear:

It is not a game of parallel shopping lists. What is emerging is something much more interesting – a mix, a blend of things.

Contrast that with the calls by Liberator Magazine to the left and Mark Littlewood, their usual nemesis, so far to the right that he quit the party a while ago. Both argue that showing distinctiveness is critical. Reading the runes, it is possible to suggest that Vince Cable also agrees with that view.

So what is the correct answer? Celebrate the differences? Or talk about the team? I suspect that the Holy Grail of "being distinctive" at a national rather than local level is far less realisable than people think. In pure communications terms, it requires time and resources, which are in short supply.

If you are a special adviser spending all your time putting out the fires of distinctiveness, is that time that would be better spent on getting on with the governing? Perhaps this is something that comes at the end of a five-year term, not the beginning. In the bars of Liverpool tonight, this eclectic family will be getting together to solve this issue.

Olly Grender is a political consultant. She was director of communications for the Liberal Democrats between 1990 and 1995

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What Jeremy Corbyn gets right about the single market

Technically, you can be outside the EU but inside the single market. Philosophically, you're still in the EU. 

I’ve been trying to work out what bothers me about the response to Jeremy Corbyn’s interview on the Andrew Marr programme.

What bothers me about Corbyn’s interview is obvious: the use of the phrase “wholesale importation” to describe people coming from Eastern Europe to the United Kingdom makes them sound like boxes of sugar rather than people. Adding to that, by suggesting that this “importation” had “destroy[ed] conditions”, rather than laying the blame on Britain’s under-enforced and under-regulated labour market, his words were more appropriate to a politician who believes that immigrants are objects to be scapegoated, not people to be served. (Though perhaps that is appropriate for the leader of the Labour Party if recent history is any guide.)

But I’m bothered, too, by the reaction to another part of his interview, in which the Labour leader said that Britain must leave the single market as it leaves the European Union. The response to this, which is technically correct, has been to attack Corbyn as Liechtenstein, Switzerland, Norway and Iceland are members of the single market but not the European Union.

In my view, leaving the single market will make Britain poorer in the short and long term, will immediately render much of Labour’s 2017 manifesto moot and will, in the long run, be a far bigger victory for right-wing politics than any mere election. Corbyn’s view, that the benefits of freeing a British government from the rules of the single market will outweigh the costs, doesn’t seem very likely to me. So why do I feel so uneasy about the claim that you can be a member of the single market and not the European Union?

I think it’s because the difficult truth is that these countries are, de facto, in the European Union in any meaningful sense. By any estimation, the three pillars of Britain’s “Out” vote were, firstly, control over Britain’s borders, aka the end of the free movement of people, secondly, more money for the public realm aka £350m a week for the NHS, and thirdly control over Britain’s own laws. It’s hard to see how, if the United Kingdom continues to be subject to the free movement of people, continues to pay large sums towards the European Union, and continues to have its laws set elsewhere, we have “honoured the referendum result”.

None of which changes my view that leaving the single market would be a catastrophe for the United Kingdom. But retaining Britain’s single market membership starts with making the argument for single market membership, not hiding behind rhetorical tricks about whether or not single market membership was on the ballot last June, when it quite clearly was. 

Stephen Bush is special correspondent at the New Statesman. His daily briefing, Morning Call, provides a quick and essential guide to domestic and global politics.