Lib Dem conference: What have they done with power?
- 21 September 2011
- From the section UK Politics
The Liberal Democrats have made painful sacrifices for a shot at being in government - including several long-cherished policies - so has it been worth it? What have they actually achieved?
Leader Nick Clegg is expected to reel off a list of alleged accomplishments when he addresses the party faithful at their annual conference in Birmingham later.
And there are plenty on the Conservative benches who believe Mr Clegg's party has got far too much of its own way - that David Cameron listens to his Lib Dem partners more than them.
Some research even suggests 75% of the Lib Dem manifesto has been put into action by the coalition government or is in the pipeline.
Yet Lib Dem MPs - casting a gloomy eye over the polls - fear the only policy the public associate with them is their broken pledge on tuition fees.
We decided to find out what Lib Dem members themselves - the people who will have the job of saving the party from electoral oblivion on the doorstep at the next election - think.
In a highly unscientific, but hopefully revealing exercise, we asked a string of Lib Dem members to name the one coalition policy they can point to as unmistakably theirs.
Few need prompting to answer.
One activist did admit to being "caught on the hop" by the question and asks whether they can "phone a friend" but no-one seems fazed or defensive about the opportunity to talk about the issue.
Pretty quickly a trend emerged.
They regard raising the level at which people pay income tax, which will take hundreds of thousands of the lowest-paid out of tax altogether, as their most solid achievement.
The threshold will rise to £8,105 next Spring as part of a "long-term" aspiration to lift it to £10,000.
"It is the simplest and clearest (achievement)," said Richard Balmer, from Solihull.
"Although we have not got to £10,000 yet, we are moving there. It is a big plus."
While some readily admitted they do not know when this target will be fulfilled, the £10,000 ceiling seems totemic and was mentioned by almost everyone canvassed.
"It may not seem much to you and me," said Margaret Joachim, from Ealing. "But to an awful lot of families it makes a big difference."
Other policies chalked up as successes included the party's commitment to get extra funding for the most disadvantaged school kids in England, an initiative known as the pupil premium.
Earlier this week, schools minister Sarah Teather announced funding will double to £1.25bn next year.
There was also a strong feeling among members that the Lib Dems have stood up for the environment in the face of the austerity drive and scepticism elsewhere in ministerial ranks.
"I would home in on green policy and the support for the Green Investment Bank," said one.
No-one should be surprised to hear the abolition of ID cards is also seen as a notable success, albeit one the Lib Dems did not have to push too hard to get on the statute book as their Conservative partners were equally committed to getting rid of them.
However, it did raise eyebrows to hear one activist cite the referendum on changing the electoral system, in which the party was on the wrong end of an overwhelming defeat, as a success.
"The result of the referendum is different from getting the referendum," they say rather optimistically.
Several delegates were keen to talk up the party's tough stance on breaking up the banks, although there seemed to be an acceptance that this will take time to materialise.
"The legislation will not be implemented until the next Parliament which is disappointing but the process has started," said Sean Brennan, from Sutton. "There is a clear direction of travel."
'Under the radar'
There has been a lot of talk of the Lib Dems being a "restraining" or "moderating" influence on their partners, with president Tim Farron saying the coalition would be a "nightmare" without them there.
One delegate admitted it is difficult to "differentiate" between who has influenced whom but several were happy to count far-reaching changes to the planned NHS restructuring as a Lib Dem victory.
"I think on issues like the NHS, the Lib Dems have managed to move the goalposts," said Mark Packard, from Chippenham.
A recurring theme of this conference is the sense that the public are simply unaware of what the Lib Dems are doing in government and the party needs to get its message across much more clearly.
Nick Clegg has acknowledged that the party needs to communicate its impact much better.
One delegate believed good work is being done in many areas, such as early years education and the equalities agenda, but much of it was happening "behind the scenes" and not attracting media attention.
"A list was published six months ago of what the Lib Dems had achieved. It surprised people," said Sally Hooker, from Greenwich.
"So much stuff is going on under the radar," she added.
"There is a lot of stuff which is really important but you don't see it in the newspapers unless Vince Cable is involved."