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14 March 2011

The Lib Dem bells: alarm clock or wake-up call?

“Alarm-clock Britain” does not appeal to the party faithful.

By Eduardo Reyes

The Lib Dem spring conference never used to get much attention. Even among Lib Dem enthusiasts, it was always one for the hardcore activists and those standing for election. Candidates could queue up to have their photo taken with the party leader for their local Focus leaflet, or to trot out a quotable line about their target constituency from the podium for the local press. Even as an enthusiastic supporter in previous years, I went just once, as against ten times for the autumn conference.

With the coalition government ten months old and the AV referendum on the horizon, it got more attention this year. What I find puzzling is Nick Clegg’s big idea this spring: an appeal to “alarm-clock Britain”. I can’t see how it appeals either to the party faithful or to members of the public who voted Lib Dem.

Alarm-clock Britain is a classically Tory demographic, some of whom were won over to New Labour for a decade.

It’s true that this group may have seen its incomes fall, and takes less for granted now than in the boom times – but the alarm clock goes when you have a job to go to. Many in this group may be a month or two’s savings away from bust, as Bill Clinton spotted when running for election in 1991. But they are still in a better place than the groups who don’t set the alarm clock.

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What about an unemployed person who has poor mental health issues? Or someone who was setting the alarm clock till they were made redundant, and now hits “snooze”? What do we think of people whose chaotic personal lives lead them to drift in and out of work or housing, sometimes setting the alarm clock, sometimes not? What about people who work hard, alarm clock and all, but whose ability to work hard is hit by the birth of a child with a severe disability?

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Politicians need the votes of “alarm-clock Britain”. But I don’t think that as an appeal to the Lib Dem party faithful it would get disenchanted members out of bed to deliver “good morning” leaflets on the day of a crucial council by-election.

They clapped and stood for the Deputy Prime Minister yesterday, but it’s not a sentiment that chimes well with the psyche of your average activist. You join as an internationalist, to fix an injustice, to further tolerance, enlightenment, democracy – maybe all of the above.

So why not run away to join the Labour Party, which should be making hay in this area? Well, ask yourself this: what is Ed Milliband’s “squeezed middle”, if not another name for “alarm-clock Britain”?

There is a leadership void in British politics, but Clegg and Milliband seem almost as determined as Cameron to prevent it being filled.

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.