Nick Clegg urges Lib Dems to 'keep winning'

Nick Clegg: ''We are a party of change''

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The Liberal Democrats can "win again" if they show they are a serious party of government, leader Nick Clegg has told their spring conference.

The Eastleigh by-election victory had provided "momentum" and debunked "the myth" that being in coalition has undermined the party, he said.

He hit out at "naysayers" who had written the Lib Dems' "obituaries".

Mr Clegg also promised to fight any Tory moves for the UK to leave the European Convention on Human Rights.

His end-of-conference speech in Brighton came amid low opinion poll ratings and recent scandals involving senior party members.

'Biggest ideas'

Mr Clegg acknowledged some members had a "quiet fear" that teaming up with the Tories in coalition had been "too big" a risk.

But he predicted the decision could pay off in May's local elections and the general election in 2015, saying: "The longer you stand side-by-side with your opponents, the easier your differences are to see.

Analysis

Imagine, for a moment, that the Liberal Democrats had not won the Eastleigh by-election.

The loss would have added to the party's woes and raised questions about Nick Clegg's leadership.

Instead, the victory allowed Mr Clegg to strike an upbeat, optimistic tone.

He wanted to convince his grass-roots that the party can win the next general election - but only by fighting hard.

That included taking on the Conservatives, who Mr Clegg said couldn't be trusted to build a fair society.

It sounded like an opening salvo for the long road to the 2015 election.

It will be interesting to see over the next two years how the coalition partners continue to run the country together, while at the same time gradually stepping up the hostilities.

"We don't lose our identity by governing with the Conservatives - the comparison helps the British people understand who we are."

To applause, he said: "The Liberal Democrats are not a party of protest; we are a party of change. A party that is for things, not simply against things. A successful political party cannot thrive just by picking up the votes that have been lost by its opponents."

He implored delegates: "Get back out there. Tell our side of the story. And we will win again."

"Keep fighting for what we believe in. Keep winning. Building a stronger economy, a fairer society, enabling everyone to get on in life," he added.

Describing his role in the coalition, the deputy prime minister said that "in a fluid, fast-moving global economic environment, sticking to a plan requires government to be flexible, as well as resolute, nimble, as well as determined".

Mr Clegg looked to distance his party from the Conservatives on issues like taxation, education and the NHS, saying it had "all the biggest ideas".

He focused on Home Secretary Theresa May's speech on Saturday, in which she said leaving the European Convention on Human Rights remained "on the table", telling delegates: "Well, I tell you, it won't be on the cabinet table so long as I'm sitting round it. Conference, make no mistake, no matter what the issue."

'Odds against us'

"The Conservative party knows it needs to stay on the centre ground to have any chance of speaking to ordinary people's concerns," Mr Clegg added. "At least the leadership seem to. But they just can't manage it, no matter how hard they try. They're like a kind of broken shopping trolley. Every time you try and push them straight ahead they veer off to the right-hand side. "

He dismissed Labour as a "blank page in British politics", unable to build a strong economy.

Mr Clegg opened his speech to cheers by celebrating the Lib Dems' winning of the Eastleigh by-election, which saw the party hold on to the Hampshire seat with a reduced share of the vote compared with the 2010 general election.

"The odds were stacked against us," Mr Clegg said. "A fierce campaign, under a national spotlight, dogged by difficult headlines from day one. Extraordinary circumstances. Yet we still won."

His speech follows a difficult few weeks for the Lib Dems.

Former cabinet minister Chris Huhne has admitted perverting the course of justice by asking his ex-wife Vicky Pryce to take his driving licence points. Both could face jail when they are sentenced on Monday.

Accusations of inappropriate behaviour against former Lib Dem executive Lord Rennard have emerged, causing the party to launch investigations into what went on and the way it handled the issue. Lord Rennard denies the claims.

Despite holding on to Eastleigh, the Lib Dems' national opinion poll ratings have remained low.

Lord Ashdown, who is overseeing the 2015 general election campaign, told BBC One's Andrew Marr Show that the party - in a coalition government with the Conservatives since 2010 - had been "courageous in the national interest".

He praised Mr Clegg as an "extraordinary and talented leader", adding that the coalition had to "last all the way through to polling day".

Meanwhile at the conference Liberal Democrat activists have rejected the government's so-called "secret courts plan" to allow some information deemed dangerous to national security to be heard in closed hearings.

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