“Gladstone” somebody said again. For the eighteenth time today, here at the Liberal Democrat party conference in Glasgow, the grand old man’s name was invoked again. Would he, though, be spinning in his grave? Certainly some Lib Dem policy has been centrist rather than distinctly Liberal in the traditional sense, however I have yet to come across anybody who claims to be SDP rather than a Liberal. Even if it were the case that Liberals rather than centrists flock to conference, that would not explain this anomaly. Policy is decided by a mixture of a vastly complicated and technical voting system (for committees, executives, sub-committees, presidents, etc) and by senior party figures who draft what is voted on. The voters all seem to be Liberals in the old sense; equally it is hard to spot a senior figure who is a centrist either.

The few who are from the SDP, such as Vince Cable, play little to no part in drafting policy. Why then, is the party not producing the kind of radical Liberalism espoused by Jeremy Brown’s Race Plan – a book detailing a return to economic as well as social liberalism? Jeremy Brown is not alone in this regard: David Laws (the key author of the Lib Dem manifesto so far), Nick Clegg (a former Conservative under Thatcher) and Danny Alexander are all economic Liberals, and are all senior figures in the economic direction of the party. There are the Orange-Bookers – a group of economically Liberal intellectuals within the party who very much have their voice heard. Yet despite the predominance of Liberals, in membership, seniority and on the various arcane bodies of the party the policy remains unsure of itself.

The truth is two-fold: part of the party is scared to displease anybody, partly fearing the loss of membership backing senior figures would allegedly get if they forsook all SDP ideas (but any remaining SDPers are few, dead or have drifted even further from their original party), partly fearing that they cannot win Labour marginal seats with any kind of liberal economic policies. The Lib Dems like to believe that if they fought a good enough campaign in every seat, they would win every single constituency in Parliament. There are seats the Lib Dems can never win, many of them are the aforementioned Labour marginal – and if these seats are won (they sometimes are), it is because of the Lib Dem’s huge strengths as a grass roots campaigning party, not on account of their national policies. There is a certain childish obsession with the idea that if only the resources were present the Liberals would have nobody to disagree with – because their policies are the best of every world. That is a view to take, but an absurd one.

The economic policies in contradiction to one another are not signs of the strength of internal debate in the party, but rather signs of a party incapable of dedicating itself to an idea. This does not bode well for a party already pilloried in the media for having a leader who does not stand for anything. But not all is doom and gloom, recent polling shows young voters are very much turned on by economically (dare I say Gladstonian?) liberal principles. They like small state, they like less welfare. The young also like gay marriage, they like social liberalism, and they trust the Lib Dems as being its deliverers. There is a whole generation of voters who could potentially be wooed if the Lib Dems would shake off a decades-long paranoia and embrace their true identity. A commitment to an idea would not go down badly in other generations, polls show that parties with convictions on issues earn the respect of voters- for the Lib Dems their commitment to civil liberties earned them support in suburbia.

The issue now lies with who will take the reins of the party when Nick Clegg steps down (whether it is in 2015 or 2020) – if it’s Tim Farron, he will be economically Liberal to some extent, but he, having lived through the merger, lives in fear of repercussions. Better to choose a committed Liberal in the true sense, in Jeremy Brown or David Laws. The party has a lot going for it, but it needs to make clear what it is going for.

Contributed by Gabriel Barton-Singer