Lib Dem conference 2010: an example of collective cognitive dissonance

The current Liberal Democrat party conference has witnessed an effort by the party leadership to assuage the fears of members that they have sold their principles for a place in government and the power such a position brings. Nick Clegg has tried to underline how, as part of a full coalition, the Lib Dems can act as a progressive bulwark against the Conservatives’ more extreme economic measures more effectively than if they were acting as part of the opposition. Party delegates are of course greatly concerned that the Lib Dems are being used as human body shields by the Conservatives, a means to underpin their ‘we’re all in this together’ discourse while attacking the living conditions of the working population and letting those who created the current economic condition off scot free (aside from small bank levies and the possibility of breaking up the banks).

Most party members will be aware that the Libs face electoral evisceration in next May’s local elections and the general election of 2015 if their spending cuts are as disastrous for low and medium wage earners as numerous economists expect. The party have gained much of their support from disaffected Labour voters in recent years in working class areas that are likely to switch straight back to Labour come the next election.

For these reasons Clegg and the rest of the leadership are walking a political tightrope, attempting to both appease the left of the party faithful, while not able to condemn the most egregious ideologically motivated policies of their coalition partners. However, this attempt to hold the centre-ground or pull the Conservatives in a more progressive direction is highly unlikely. This is in no small part due to the current Lib Dem leadership being drawn from the ‘Orange Book’ wing of the party. This group of Liberal Democrats (including Nick Clegg and Vince Cable) are ideologically committed to stressing market solutions to social issues such as healthcare and the environment.

A good example of Clegg’s own ideological proximity to the Conservatives was offered prior to his party’s conference, when he began softening the public up for attacks on the welfare state by attacking welfare ‘dependency’. This of course has been a line oft-repeated by neoliberal ideologues for the past three decades.

In his conference speech today Vince Cable attacked ‘corporate short-termism’ as well as blind acceptance of the logic of the ‘free market’. Cable is to claimed that the government’s political-economic agenda is not one of laissez-faire. Although Richard Lambert and Lord Jones (head and ex-head of the CBI respectively), have already responded angrily to leaks of Cable’s speech, David Cameron should unperturbed by Cable waxing lyrical about the evils of unfettered capitalism. Such talk merely acts as a release valve for all those disaffected Lib Dem voters and party members who believe the party sold them out by joining a coalition with the Tories. David Cameron and co can only gain if opposition to public spending cuts from within the coalition is limited to angry speeches at the Lib Dem party conference, of little interest to the wider public and likely to underpin support for the coalition amongst the grass-roots.

The Conservatives coalition with the Liberal Democrats aims to create a veneer of non-ideological rationality for the attacks on the weakest sections of society. This is of course for public consumption only and masks the very ideological reasons the government is dismantling the state and institutions which ordinary people rely on (and ironically enough, capitalism relies on in many ways). Although Nick Clegg and other Liberal Democrat members of the coalition will claim otherwise, they have been co-opted into political coalition by the Conservatives in way which makes gaining support for their more reactionary policies amongst the general population far easier. Lib Dem grass-roots activists and the public watching at home should not allow themselves to be fooled by a leadership claiming they stand for anything but the policies they are instrumental in implementing.

A guest post by Pete O’Connor


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