Differentiation is necessary but not sufficient

There needs to be a fundamental political repositioning of the Lib Dems

One word that has been uttered time and again at this year's autumn Liberal Democrat conference is this: 'differentiation'. This is, in simple terms, the strategy that Liberal Democrats in government are now pursuing: highlighting much more openly the areas where the two coalition parties disagree. It's one of the reasons, incidentally, why this year's conference has been rather unexpectedly upbeat, because, for the first time in a while, there is a strategy in place to which both the party leadership and ordinary members subscribe.

But while differentiation - if done properly - is certainly necessary, it is by no means sufficient. After all, if disagreeing with the Conservatives was all we had to do for electoral success, the Liberal Democrats would have had parliamentary majorities since the party's formation.

Actually, what is now needed is something much more difficult than mere differentiation, tough though that in itself is to get right. What's needed is a deep and fundamental repositioning of the Liberal Democrats within British politics.

Such a process won't be easy, because it will involve accepting difficult truths - the most crucial of which is that many, if not most, of those who voted Liberal Democrat because they saw us as an uncompromised version of the Labour party will not be coming back to us any time soon. Many of them will go back to supporting a Labour party relishing the easy populism of opposition, while the ones that see any electoral compromise as a sin - the protest voters - will go and support smaller parties like the Greens.

Thankfully, though, the sort of strategising necessary to reposition the party seems already to be taking place. When I interviewed him on Sunday, Nick Clegg clearly had a vision about where he wants to take the party over the next few years, even if it is one that is not yet completely formed. He sums up how he wants the party to be seen quite pithily: more economically responsible than Labour and more socially just than the Conservatives.

This is an idea that has a lot of merit in my view, though it would be more effective if it wasn't expressed relative to the positions of the other parties. Developing the language necessary to clearly communicate this idea without borrowing the language of the other parties will take time, but fortunately that is something we have got.

Those political commentators who take a more intelligent approach to the Liberal Democrats are also beginning to see promise in the green shoots of this new strategy - take Mary Ann Sieghart in Monday's Independent, for example.

Much of the analysis of Nick Clegg's speech to conference today will focus on what he has to say about his coalition colleagues. What I will be listening out for, though, is not about what he says about the present, but hints about his vision for the future.

Nick Thornsby is a Liberal Democrat member and activist. His own blog can be found here.

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Who will win the Copeland by-election?

Labour face a tricky task in holding onto the seat. 

What’s the Copeland by-election about? That’s the question that will decide who wins it.

The Conservatives want it to be about the nuclear industry, which is the seat’s biggest employer, and Jeremy Corbyn’s long history of opposition to nuclear power.

Labour want it to be about the difficulties of the NHS in Cumbria in general and the future of West Cumberland Hospital in particular.

Who’s winning? Neither party is confident of victory but both sides think it will be close. That Theresa May has visited is a sign of the confidence in Conservative headquarters that, win or lose, Labour will not increase its majority from the six-point lead it held over the Conservatives in May 2015. (It’s always more instructive to talk about vote share rather than raw numbers, in by-elections in particular.)

But her visit may have been counterproductive. Yes, she is the most popular politician in Britain according to all the polls, but in visiting she has added fuel to the fire of Labour’s message that the Conservatives are keeping an anxious eye on the outcome.

Labour strategists feared that “the oxygen” would come out of the campaign if May used her visit to offer a guarantee about West Cumberland Hospital. Instead, she refused to answer, merely hyping up the issue further.

The party is nervous that opposition to Corbyn is going to supress turnout among their voters, but on the Conservative side, there is considerable irritation that May’s visit has made their task harder, too.

Voters know the difference between a by-election and a general election and my hunch is that people will get they can have a free hit on the health question without risking the future of the nuclear factory. That Corbyn has U-Turned on nuclear power only helps.

I said last week that if I knew what the local paper would look like between now and then I would be able to call the outcome. Today the West Cumbria News & Star leads with Downing Street’s refusal to answer questions about West Cumberland Hospital. All the signs favour Labour. 

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