THE last year was a bruising one for the Liberal Democrats. Our opinion poll ratings and local election results have cemented the media view that we are set for total destruction in the General Election and everything is Nick Clegg's fault.
Older members of our party wryly smile, knowing that our party's collective history has seen much worse, but to the everyday voter these poll ratings must seem that our party is at the point of collapse. But whilst I spent a good proportion of 2012 worrying about the direction our party was taking and the seemingly inept way we have been putting over our message the Party Conference marked a change, which I am convinced will see us emerge from one of our darker periods.
That isn't to say everything is fine. Nick Clegg will have to do more than just say "sorry" in order to save his political skin and this coming year will see growing murmurings from within the party if fortunes don't improve. It may be that if by Christmas 2013 we can see no real improvement there might even be attempts to unseat him from the leadership. But if we persist with our new approach I think the opinion polls of this year will just be a vague memory.
That's because fundamentally we are right to keep going as we have been. It is hard, sometimes very hard, to be in a coalition with the Tories. The reality is we share only a few political values so it was never going to be a marriage made in heaven. But I still believe that we made the right choice in joining the coalition. The alternative would have led to short-term gain in popularity, but little else. The economy needed a stable Government and we needed to tackle the debt. Without those tough decisions we would have been in a bigger mess, with, I believe the Tories in power after a second election, sporting a massive majority and no one to say to them "err what about the rest of us then?"
What has changed this year is that we have seen our party mature. We have been fighting quietly in the background to push our policies through but this hasn't always helped public understanding of what we are doing. A highlight for me in the past year was achieving a hard-fought rise in the income tax threshold to almost £9,500, which will mean a £600 tax cut for you and me. We have also made the wealthiest pay their fair share by clamping down on tax avoidance and committing to an anti-avoidance rule. We even managed to squeeze more money out of the Chancellor of the Exchequer for the pupil premium which has now been raised to £900 which in Devon means an extra £16,047,000.
It has been leaked that in future we will say more about what we are fighting for. With a bigger party against us and which has more resources it will be hard for us to achieve, but I am certain we will try.
PHIL HUTTY Lib Dem spokesman for Central Devon