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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.