Here’s the piece I’ve written for the New Statesman:
When the introduction to a politician’s speech starts with a black and white photograph of themselves looking serious, you know there’s a sombre message coming.
So it was with Nick Clegg’s speech ending the Liberal Democrat autumn conference, as he talked of the state of the UK and world economies, about how the party was “not doing the easy thing, but doing the right thing. Not easy, but right”. He was frank about the challenges of being in government:
Liberal Democrats, we have now been in Government for 500 days. Not easy, is it? None of us thought it would be a walk in the park, but I suspect none of us predicted just how tough it would turn out to be. We’ve lost support, we’ve lost councillors, and we lost a referendum. I know how painful it has been to face anger and frustration on the doorstep.
But much of the speech was about a positive message for what the Liberal Democrats are achieving in office, taking on vested interests:
We speak up, first and loudest, when the establishment lets the people down. In the last three years, we’ve seen establishment institutions exposed one by one. The City of London, shattered by the greed of bankers. The media, corrupted by phone hacking. Parliament, shamed by expenses.
It was a good message, well received in the conference hall with close interest in the sombre patches and heavy applause at other times.
The anti-establishment lines got the heaviest applause. But the themes of Clegg’s speech were not ones consistently portrayed throughout the rest of party conference. Indeed, the conference slogan itself (“In government, on your side”) was far more notable by its absence from most of the other conference keynote speeches and in itself is not really an anti-establishment.
So if the “in power but anti-establishment” message is to get over to the wider public, who pay only passing attention to political news most weeks, a lot more work remains to be done.
Nick Clegg’s speech struck a suitable sombre note when talking about the party’s electoral fortunes in May this year and the state of both the world and UK economies. But what got heavy applause were his attacks on the establishment – in the financial sector, in the media and in Parliament. The conference slogan may have been “In government, on your side” but the message from this speech was very much more that the party may be in office, but it still has its anti-establishment roots.