Birmingham 2011: What the Lib Dems are thinking

There's a palpable sense of foreboding at the Liberal Democrats' autumn conference. But the commitment to the coalition remains strong.

By Alex Stevenson in Birmingham

Usually political party conferences are a very bad time to test the temperature of the grassroots. The whole point of a gathering like this one in Birmingham is to restore the spring in the partisan step, making light of past travails and looking ahead to the future. Nick Clegg knows this. As he told delegates in Monday's question-and-answer session: "We've had a really bad year, but we've got to stop beating ourselves up about it. A political party that doesn't move forward always ends up going backwards."

So conferences do what they're supposed to: give a shot in the arm to the morale of the party faithful, offer them training sessions, make them feel ready to go back out on to the windy, rainy doorstep and get it in the neck from fed-up voters. Activists are always on the defensive when it comes to journalists, too, making it doubly hard to tap the real party mood.

The conference boost to party morale can only go so far, though. When you're starting from a lower base, it's difficult for politicians to hide it. And this has been a very tough year for the coalition's junior party. "How the hell Nick Clegg is still walking around smiling, I've no idea," Penny Reid says. "He's taken a hell of a pasting."

The party is licking its wounds after a tough year. And although the party leader has urged his members to look forwards, they can't help assessing what's gone before.

First came the tuition fees debacle, in which Lib Dem MPs abandoned their pledges en masse for the greater good of the coalition. It was a "huge body blow", according to Chris Marriage. "It was unfortunate it was such a major part of our campaign." Penny Reid thinks the reforms should have been relabelled as a graduate tax with an added cap. "The party centrally has learned its lesson," she says hopefully.

After a period of relative calm there came the catastrophic local election results back in May. These made a lot of people "very sad and down", according to Isobel McCall. She works with Lib Dem councillors, so spends her working life tapping party's mood in local government before and after May 5th. "It was very demoralising for people who'd worked very hard but lost seats because of the national picture."

All this led to perfectly understandable jitters from some quarters. "I was getting slightly concerned there was too much carping and criticising of the leadership," admits Peter Chapman from Beaconsfield. He decided to come along to Birmingham to test the waters. Who would have thought, given what we've already established about party conferences and morale, that he found himself pleasantly surprised. He's not the only one. "I've been amazed by how the party has taken some very bad knocks, and seems to have come through it," Peter Whyte of Berkshire, who joined the Liberal party 50 years ago this year, says. He's impressed by how organised the Lib Dems now are. They're "quite a big small party, if you see what I mean."

The upbeat message has a tinge of weariness about it, all the same. "We have taken some knocks but we knew it would be difficult," says Nicola Hodge. For her, the unity of the party is what gives her greatest comfort. "We have our discussions and sometimes our disagreements, but the party's still strong," she says. It's absolutely true that there are very few within the party who believe the coalition should end sooner than 2015.

Penny Reid offers a perceptive analysis. She warns that while the "hardcore activists" who attend conference will be bolstered up, those who are slightly less involved – the supporters who might think twice about dropping off those 200 leaflets – are at stake.

"We need them to help. We mustn't let them drop off and become disillusioned," she says.

Getting the message out to supporters is, without question, the biggest shift in the coalition's narrative since the local elections disaster back in May. At every level the Lib Dem focus is on explaining to their supporters exactly what difference they're making in government.

Isobel McCall is upbeat as a result. "The Lib Dems have been asserting our individuality over the last few months," she says. "Perhaps that's why party members are happier. People feel rejuvenated, ready to go out and do battle again."

Let's not get carried away. This has been a conference with a muted tone, as summed up by Vince Cable's somewhat apocalyptic speech about the economy on Monday. "There weren't many smiles," says Peter Chapman afterwards. "It was almost doom and gloom. I'm keeping myself braced for more than five years of austerity now. From what Vince said, that's what we can expect."

There are four years to go until the next general election. Analysts are predicting that unless things change between now and then – the Lib Dems are barely mustering double figures in opinion polls at the moment – they will face electoral wipeout. So the atmosphere of foreboding might just extend beyond the economy to the party's own prospects.

Some are in denial. "Opinion polls? You take them with a pinch of salt," says Nicola Hodge defiantly . It's extraordinary how politicians only accept the credibility of opinion polls when they're the ones in the lead.

Others are still hoping there's time to change things around. "You know how people's opinions can turn around in just a few months, so I'm not particularly despondent," says Peter Chapman.

Peter Whyte says that Lib Dem ministers are beginning to "show their mettle", but wonders whether the political dividend promised by Clegg in his 2010 conference speech will actually materialise. "There's increasing doubt it will come good by then," he says, a bit glumly. "So we'll have to wait and see."

After 500 days of being back in power, the Lib Dems are learning governing is nowhere near as much fun as they'd hoped. The problem is summed up by Isobel McCall.

"This is something that's new to us – being blamed."