Page last updated at 14:21 GMT, Sunday, 8 March 2009

Has Clegg discovered a new cause?

By Reeta Chakrabarti
Political correspondent, BBC News,

Balloons and free wine kicked off the Liberal Democrats spring conference to celebrate the party's 21st birthday - born as it was of the merger of the Liberals and the SDP.

Nick Clegg
Can Nick Clegg reach out beyond the conference hall?

Like most young adults it wants to put a cool distance between itself and the older generation - to be seen as the bolshie anti-establishment party that challenges the status quo and is rude about what has gone before.

With Vince Cable his rebel-in-chief, party leader Nick Clegg has this weekend made change his clarion call.

Labour is a "spent match," he said in his big set-piece speech, it is the Lib Dems who carry "the torch of progress now," Brown and Blair were a continuation of Thatcher and Major in appeasing the City; a new way of doing things must be found.

Mr Cable, in his speech a day earlier, duly laid into bankers, greed, "fat cats", bonuses, and even civil servants who have got above themselves.

Like the other main parties, the Lib Dems are trying to catch the public mood as the recession deepens and people's anxieties about their jobs and savings grow.

Labour attacked

But there are concrete electoral reasons for wanting to take the fight to their rivals at Westminster, particularly Labour.

The leadership is frank about the fact that the party's chances of making gains at the next general election come almost exclusively at the expense of Gordon Brown's party.

With the Conservatives now at least 20% ahead of the Lib Dems in the opinion polls, the chances of them making gains in Tory marginals in the south of England are, the leadership concedes, remote.

The days of beards and sandals and wildly off-centre policy motions are not that long ago

That focuses the attack on Labour.

Leader Nick Clegg's closing speech was, inevitably, mainly about the economy - painting the Lib Dems as the answer to a new way of doing things.

In some ways, Mr Clegg was simply recasting existing party policies in the light of the recession - so tax cuts for low and middle earners were characterised as practical help to make ends meet.

But other passages were more specifically about the current crisis - calling for failing banks to be nationalised, their directors to be disqualified from sitting on company boards, and for a split between retail banking and more high risk investment banking to be enforced as part of a new financial system.

Bigger challenge

The conference hall enjoyed all of this - but getting the message out to the wider audience is the Lib Dems' perennial problem.

They like to blame inadequate media coverage - and it is true that their standing often rises in the run up to an election, when they are guaranteed more airtime. But their challenge is bigger than that.

Although their national polling has picked up a little in recent months - one poll last week suggested only 9% thought the Clegg/Cable pairing was the strongest of the three parties on the economy.

For a party that is proud of having made some of the running on the economic crisis, that must be worrying.

And while the party may want to stress its credentials as the party of "change" it does not want to be seen as too different.

The days of beards and sandals and wildly off-centre policy motions are not that long ago.

New cause?

Every policy announcement, every spending commitment is - under the stewardship of Vince Cable - carefully and minutely costed to show that this is a party that has thought it through and can be trusted in government.

To those who snort with derision at that last line, think again.

The Lib Dems could hold the balance of power at the next election if neither Labour nor the Tories win an outright majority.

In the meantime, though the party still needs to answer the question that continues to dog it - what are the Liberal Democrats for?

Since Iraq they have sometimes been seen as a party searching for a cause.

Nick Clegg is trying to make the recession, and eventual recovery, that cause.

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