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Liberal Democrats in the firestorm - time to push the vision

The Liberal Democrat conference went exactly as I expected. Great solidarity, determined to stick to the task of government but the party seemingly unable to tackle its key role of promoting its own vision of a Liberal society.

For seventy years Tory and Labour parties did not need to focus their artillery on the Liberal party. Their political hegemony was not seriously threatened. And for all that time the press could patronise Liberals, praising their good ideas while noting their lack of serious political influence. Today it is very different. With Liberal Democrats in government both other parties desperately seek to undermine the party, and their allies in the media willingly lend their columns to facile denigration - sometimes, as with Polly Toynbee in The Guardian, from activists in one or other opposing party. It is certainly uncomfortable but it is a vivid sign of the party's potential strength.

What did Liberal Democrats expect? An easy ride? How could the party come into government at the worst conceivable time, even though being the only party with no responsibility for the economic crisis? And yet the party is in danger of falling into the elephant trap temptingly laid out in front of it. The falling standards of the press are not only seen in evidence to the Leveson enquiry but in its failure to treat politics seriously and, in particular, in its delight in its collective ability to taint the public mind against one or other politician. I am not speaking of corruption or of MPs' expenses abuses but of its unhealthy sneer or dismissive joke without any basis in fact.

Ahead of the party conference the latest target was Nick Clegg. Poorly researched and slanted opinion surveys are hyped, accompanied by the inevitable comment by a solitary and unwary party member to keep the story running. Very occasionally in politics there comes the need to engender a broad consensus within a party for changes in its leadership, but this has always to have solid causes and never be in the fond hope that it can create some transformation in its immediate fortunes. And certainly never to try and assuage the malign nihilism of the press. Liberal Democrats need to understand the electoral dangers of disunity. The conference demonstrated the real support for Nick but the voices will continue.

The press, and those tempted by critical stories need to get around the country more and, in particular, to attend Nick Clegg's long 'town hall' meetings with party members where he deals with tough questions from anxious colleagues, and demonstrates with considerable capability and warmth why Liberal Democrats are in government and what is being achieved by them. How many members believed that there was any alternative in May 2010 or that the dire economic circumstances thereafter would make for an easy ride in government?

Over my many decades of campaigning for Liberalism there have always been those who believed in the 'magic bullet' theory of politics: that if only we could find such a device it would transform our fortunes. The new charismatic leader, the elusive slogan, the next gimmick, or whatever. The magic bullet does not exist and the real failure has always been the lack of a sufficient belief by Liberals in Liberalism.

Our society today is in the abject state it is because of the weakness of Liberalism as a political force over decades which has permitted Labour and Conservative governments to undermine communities, to destroy local self-government and to promote economic over human values. We are paying a heavy price but we now have the possibility of changing it. In Nick Clegg's words:

We are setting ourselves a high hurdle. To govern wisely on the basis of our distinct liberal principles and to set out a compelling vision for a more liberal future. We have to make this parliament a liberal one.

Of course the party is worried by its low standing in the polls and it is rightly infuriated by the illiberalism of its coalition partners but, whilst it certainly has the task of publicly praising Liberal Democrats in government for their achievements and of privately criticising them for what it believes are its failures, its key task is to keep promoting the party's underlying values and its separate vision. A party's membership and its campaigning zeal come from its beliefs and its heart. The party must always be the expression of these. It would be foolish to be diverted from this and to fall into the trap lovingly prepared by our enemies.