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11 March 2011

Clegg needs to inspire his party’s members

The Lib Dem leader needs to worry less about the public and more about his party at this week’s conf

By Olly Grender

If you have never been to a party conference, I urge you to go at some point. It is completely different from any other animal. When there’s a crucial debate about a policy issue with passion on all sides the conference hall positively fizzes with energy. The Lib Dems have always prided themselves on the quality of the debate and the Lib Dem spring conference in Sheffield will be no exception. This year’s hot topic: health reforms.

Paul Burstow, the health minister, will be opening the debate on Saturday and has said in the Guardian today that he would leave the government if he thought he was “part of a project to bring in a US-style health service”.

So, for him, the stakes are high. He has a long record of interest in the National Health Service and feels strongly about the proposal for greater involvement of locally elected representatives. Watch out for more councillors joining in the debate.

It will be squashed and sweaty tonight at a fringe meeting on the NHS with Burstow and Shirley Williams, who is opposed to the reforms (£) on grounds of cost, private-sector involvement and patient choice. With two people like that, the tone will be reasonable but robust.

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Lurking in the background are the much-debated wordings in the two coalition agreements and the two party manifestos. A policy expert in the party told me yesterday that he was surprised to discover just how radical our health policy was when he looked again at our manifesto. I have to admit I thought it was radical in both manifestos, but didn’t believe it would happen.

Outside the conference, meanwhile, the Lib Dems have been promoted to full security thanks to 10,000 expected protesters. If you baulk at the cost of this security, remember that, unlike the other two main parties’ conferences, there has never been police security operation at a Lib Dem conference before.

The strategy debate will be long on passion about our unique legacy but short on anything of lasting consequence, save reasserting what every Lib Dem already knows – that hell will freeze over before an electoral pact is formed with the Conservatives.

Nick Clegg’s speech last September was one of the strongest narratives this government has given about why the structural deficit issue cannot affect future generations. For this speech, he will need to worry less about his public audience and more about his party. Unlike him, many of them will face their electorate in two months. They will be looking for powerful arguments to use on the doorstep, like the raising of the tax threshold.

Since last spring the Lib Dems have been on a roller-coaster ride – and it looks set to continue.