Post Hartlepool, the Liberal Democrats may be feeling on the up. But Don MacIver urges caution.
After a run of by-election successes and an improved position in the opinion polls, the Liberal Democrats feel they are on a roll. Only three or four weeks ago, Hartlepool was not considered to be a realistic target for the party. But three weeks is a very long time in politics.
At the Lib Dems' annual conference two weeks ago, Hartlepool candidate Jody Dunn was flown in by private plane. She made a rousing speech about how she would win and the audience took her to their hearts.
In an almost inexplicably emotional response they cheered and chanted "Jody, Jody" till they were told to stop. She was the unexpected star of the conference. And although she didn't win, coming second with a swing of more than 19 per cent from Labour - with Labour's majority reduced from 14,000 to 2,000 - is no mean feat. The fact that the Conservative vote collapsed was also good news for the party.
But it was not just Hartlepool and the general election that made this year's conference a notable one for the Lib Dems. In the first place, it was one of the biggest ever. There were about 1,800 delegates, which is almost on a par with the other major parties. There were large delegations from southern and western counties, where local branches tend to have larger memberships. The gender balance seemed in good order, reflecting the important part that women play in the party. Indeed, Matthew Taylor, chair of the parliamentary party, reportedly told one women's group that he thought the party was more from Venus than from Mars, whatever that meant.
There was also a very good cohort of young people, even though some of them were attending as employees of the party or of lobby groups. The conference coincided with the beginning of term in most universities, but Lib Dem students had an active presence and an exhibition. The Association of Liberal Democrat Students has been well supported in recent years, and on many campuses it is the biggest political group. A recent poll revealed that 47 per cent of students intend to vote Liberal Democrat at the next election, which could be significant in some constituencies. The party's position on the Iraq War and on tuition fees will no doubt help to sustain this support.
Second, many leading party spokesmen, notably Menzies Campbell and Vincent Cable, were very impressive. Charles Kennedy, the party leader, was in fine form and looked in good shape. He is the youngest of the major party leaders. He said at least twice at the conference that he was nearly 45 ("why do you think I am so interested in pensions?"). Recent concerns about his health and fitness seemed to have vanished.
Third, the Lib Dems believe that they are on the move and that they have some momentum. They talk of being the real opposition to the Government and the next official Opposition. The younger activists especially are very optimistic and talk about overtaking the Tories at the general election.
They think they can hold the seats they took at the past two elections and that they are more likely than the Tories to gain in Labour marginals. In fact, this seems a tall order for the next election. The Lib Dems are second in only about 100 seats, while the Tories are second in about 400.
On the other hand, some seasoned Tories with a finger on the pulse, such as Steve Norris, have said they might be able to do it. One favourable indicator is opinion-poll figures, which suggest that the party could be on course for its best result for 80 years.
The Lib Dems tried to present a confident face to the nation at their conference and they were undoubtedly taken more seriously than in some previous years, with a lot of attention in the broadsheet press. The tabloids are split. The Sun thinks they are all wild high-spending Lefties, while the Daily Mirror thinks they are a bunch of extremist crypto-Thatcherites. Others dismiss them as a protest party that does notJ know what it stands for. The leader cleared all this up by saying that a vote for the Liberal Democrats is not a vote for right-wing or left-wing policies, but for Liberal Democrat policies. This clarity was somewhat obscured by the appearance of the recently published Orange Book , edited by David Laws and Paul Marshall, which suggests, to the great displeasure of the leadership, that there might be some disagreement about Liberal Democrat policies.
Much of the conference's success was attributed to high-quality organisation. Meticulous planning and implementation were certainly much in evidence, and there were even rehearsals for events such as the leader's entry to the hall for his major conference speech. Perhaps the ultimate tribute to the organisation came from a few old-school grumps, albeit good-humoured, who thought that things were just a bit too well-organised.
Business from the hall included party management, such as the installation of the new party president, chosen by a postal ballot of members. Simon Hughes was elected, which means that he has to ensure the party organisation is in shape for the general election. He was full of enthusiasm and energy, but he may have to put a brake on his chief election strategist, Lord Razzal, who said that the party was going to form the next non-Labour government, probably the government after next. Kennedy, in his leader's speech, steered well clear of that one. Perhaps mindful of David Steel's famous Llandudno gaffe in the 1980s ("go back to your constituencies and prepare for government"), he contented himself with saying that his party was becoming a party of power rather than a party of protest. They were already the real Opposition while the Conservatives as the official Opposition had pathetically failed. In many parts of the country, he said, the Conservatives could not win and a vote for them was a wasted vote. Kennedy also said there would be no Lib-Lab pacts, no special arrangements with other parties. After years in which the party has inclined towards Labour under Steel and Paddy Ashdown, there is a new game in town. Kennedy called it three-party politics.
However, most Liberal Democrats know that for the moment at least they are still the third party. They also know from hard experience that third is a hard place to get out of and that it takes more than a run of by-election successes to do it. The party has come a long way since it nearly disappeared in the 1950s. The Liberal "revival" of the 1960s was a false dawn. They thought they had a breakthrough when they came close to 20 per cent of the vote in 1974, only to lose ground in the late 1970s. Then they made another advance in the 1980s only to fall back again. They made steady progress through the 1990s, culminating in the gains of 1997 and 2001. It has been a hard journey, two steps forward and one step back all the way.
What happens next is not clear, but most will simply journey on. They will go back to their constituencies and prepare for more trudging round the houses, knocking on doors and putting leaflets in letterboxes.
Don MacIver is senior lecturer in politics and international relations at Staffordshire University. He was editor of The Liberal Democrats , published by Prentice Hall.