Forty days after shocking the nation by entering into a coalition deal with the Tories, the Lib Dems met to reminisce about the general election campaign, and thank those who campaigned so hard, only to be disappointed by a low youth voter turnout and the overall loss of five seats.
The property tycoon and long-time Lib Dem supporter Ramesh Dewan hosted the event, held in the ballroom of the Park Plaza hotel in London. Significantly, this opulent location lies just across the river from the Palace of Westminster — a constant reminder that although their election night did go entirely to plan, they are now a party of government.
Seeing Chris Huhne, now Energy and Climate Change Secretary, come bounding out of the front door to urge his smoking friends inside, was just another indicator of the strange mood at this gathering. The atmosphere was both heady (with power, perhaps?) and uncomfortable, as the room was crammed with members who remember Paddy Ashdown’s leadership and were clearly very aware of the long road the party had travelled from those days to the brave new world of the “new politics”.
There were giggles at the toastmaster’s address; Lib Dems are not yet used to hearing themselves addressed as “lords, ladies, gentlemen, secretaries of state and ministers”. But Dewan’s address was very much in line with what we’ve been hearing from those new ministers. He spoke of achievements and Lib Dem manifesto commitments fulfilled.
However, the party president, Ros Scott, was not quite so strictly on-message. She acknowledged that members will have some “strange” feelings about the new situation, and implied that the leadership must earn their members’ trust by the way the handle power in the coalition.
Promises made good
Naturally, Deputy Prime Minister Nick Clegg was very well received by those members present. It certainly felt like he had no need to earn back their trust as he made the customary after-dinner sallies, joking that there were still hairdressers who didn’t recognise him and that his ego had taken something of a battering when confronted with children supremely unimpressed by his new position. The rhetoric of the campaign did make a brief reappearance, though, as he spoke of the promises that would be made good.
But the mood in the room became palpably awkward as he moved on to the sensitive issue of staff redundancies. As a party of government, the Lib Dems no longer receive the £1.8m of public funding they received in opposition. According to staff members I spoke to, this will mean cuts, and up to 39 jobs could go. Clegg put his customary optimistic spin on the matter, speaking of “the new opportunities and adventures we will face”, but, according to one staff member, the job cuts are “the elephant in the room”.
It isn’t just staff members who are worried about money. There is a huge hole in the party’s finances that is bound to affect campaign resources, and although many of the key people are now enjoying government salaries, a lack of cash will make the next campaign much tougher. Next time, we could be losing seats simply because we can’t afford to put the resources into our campaign.
It’s hard to tell whether these members are genuinely pleased to be in government. While there are those who told me that they loved the idea of the coalition and had few concerns about its future, there were far many more who expressed scepticism. One member from the right of the party, who has contested several parliamentary elections, said: “I can’t say that this set-up is something I’ve campaigned for all these years. It’s not really what I wanted.”
Another source close to senior party figures believed that if Charles Kennedy were still leader, the party would not have entered into the coalition, preferring the “confidence and supply” arrangement that he said would have kept the party in far better health.
This is an unprecedented situation for the party, and it is bound to feel more than a little surreal. When the after-dinner entertainment started, many present were unable to tell if the Shirley Bassey impersonator was the real thing or not — an indication, perhaps, of the disorientating effect of the coalition. I suppose if you look around the room to see the Deputy Prime Minister, the Chief Secretary to the Treasury and the former BBC director general Greg Dyke amid the throng, it isn’t so unbelievable that Shirley Bassey really could have come to sing for us.
Eduardo Reyes was vice-chair of Student Liberal Democrats. He worked for the Liberal Democrats from 1995-98, is a contributor to the Reformer magazine, and has been a party election agent and council candidate.