Readers of my blog will not be surprised by Labour’s desperately close shave in Heywood and Middleton. It was just as important a result as Clacton because of its implications for Labour across the North. As in Scotland Ed Miliband is not cutting through and it’s too late to remove him. Clacton gives UKIP their first MP but Douglas Carswell was the popular incumbent.
Following these results it is increasingly difficult to predict which combination of parties will hold power after the General Election. What we can be certain of is that they will face a deficit north of £75bn.
Assurances were given in Manchester, Birmingham and Glasgow that balancing the books was the aim. However the pressures of the forthcoming election have led to the usual sweeteners for the voters and some small measures to increase taxes. Nobody dares tell us what governing after 2015 will really be like.
Labour is still just in the lead in the opinion polls and yet had the most downbeat conference. The Conservatives convinced themselves Ed Miliband was not going to make it to No 10 and staged a premature celebration. There weren’t a lot of Lib Dems in Glasgow. I know that because a steward ordered me off the balcony seats to make the stalls look more crowded! Those that did turn up appear to have concluded that things couldn’t get any worse and the only way was up.
If the General Election was not just months away, Nick Clegg would surely have been held to account for the complete decimation of his councillor base in the North along with the party’s MEPs this summer. Many victims of the Town Hall massacre hadn’t the stomach to come to Glasgow but Chris Davies, the defeated North West Lib Dem MEP, was there and plans to head up the North West Party Association soon.
Only Lib Dem MPs have so far been spared the wrath of the voters. They were elected on the very day that the party began to negotiate with the Tories, a toxic deal for many of their followers. Next May they could lose so many seats that their credibility as a coalition partner could be called into question. There was talk in Glasgow of Labour winning most seats, the Conservatives most votes, UKIP coming third but the Lib Dems still being in government with Labour. Would people feel that was legitimate?
Nick Clegg will probably take his 2010 stance that he will work with whoever gets the largest number of seats but his activists were pressed to come off the fence at a key fringe meeting. Neil Lawson is in charge of a think tank called Compass. He is Labour but not tribally so. He challenged the Lib Dems to come off the fence and acknowledge their “progressive” nature. Lawson’s key point, which I think has merit, was that faith in the old party structure is breaking down to such an extent that Labour, the Lib Dems,Greens and progressive nationalists are all going to need to get together after future indecisive election results.
Nick Clegg pleaded with voters to forgive the Lib Dems for the one promise they had broken (tuition fee rises) and credit them for raising the tax threshold for 25 million people, the pupil premium and keeping right wing Tories in check.
Clegg reminded his party that it had split asunder under the strain of coalition in the 1920s and that had not happened this time.
It remains to be seen if this was the last time the Lib Dems will hold a party conference while in power for another ninety years.