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  1. Politics
19 September 2010

Should the Lib Dems battle to be distinctive?

On the ground at the Lib Dem party conference

By Olly Grender

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.

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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