Not much new policy, but a new smartness about coalition negotiations on show in Glasgow

As predicted in my preview of the Liberal Democrat conference in Liberal Democrat Newswire, so far there hasn’t been much in the way of high profile policy fights nor that much headline grabbing in the way of new policies.

But there has been a new smartness about how to make policy announcements which may be put to the test in a hung Parliament.

It’s most obvious on tax. Simply saying the Lib Dems want to raise taxes a bit and the Tories are against raising taxes at all makes for a decent hung Parliament negotiation. Get any tax rises then and it shows the Lib Dems making a difference. Trumpet plans for £x billion of tax rises, however, and then end up with negotiating a far smaller number – well, however unfairly, that looks to many voters like having a policy and then ditching it.

Hence the advantages in talking about wanting to raise taxes in general, specifying some details to give credibility to it, making clear the purpose of the tax rises – but not setting out a full tax-rising package in detail complete with a total figure.

Indicating the direction in which you want to move policy rather than exactly how far is far better suited to a hung Parliament.

It’s better suited to the practical uncertainties of what the future may hold – and is also half a step towards the need to talk about values and principles in order to address the real reason behind people not voting Lib Dem.

The reason the Conservatives so easily came to my fingertips as the example to use when typing this reflects another piece of the political picture being painted by the Glasgow conference.

That is the enthusiasm of the party, starting right from the top in set piece speeches and all the way through to the applause from the furthest corner of the rooms, for openly criticising the Tories again and again.

This isn’t just for public show – it happens just as much in sessions behind closed doors. Partly that is a collective sense of relief of the freedom that comes from getting closer to general election polling day, with fewer worries about keeping the current government ticking over as its own time runs out.

Partly too, it’s part of a pitch about whoever else is in government, having the Liberal Democrats there too will make the government better.

‘Anchoring politics in the centre ground’ has even been dusted off for public use once more.

That’s a gamble. In the past talking of campaigning for a hung Parliament or wanting to always be in office to temper others has not worked well. Alistair Carmichael added his warning earlier in conference: “I don’t think I would go onto the doorsteps and talk about the centre, because that means nothing to people”.

But the party needs a gamble and the displays at both the Tory conference with its love of massive spending cuts, especially in welfare, and at Labour conference, with Ed Miliband forgetting to mention the deficit, certainly leave plenty of ground for the Liberal Democrats between those extremes.

Can that be turned into an election strategy that is more successful than past failures? Or will it become another passing fad? Nick Clegg’s speech on Wednesday will be a good guide.

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