Monday, 14 March 2011

Why did Nick Clegg cross the road?

Because he said he wouldn't!

So read one of the more insightful placards outside Sheffield’s City Hall last weekend, when the Liberal Democrats held their Spring Conference.

It must have been a bit of a shock to the LibDem psyche to find twice as many demonstrators outside the hall as inside. Their previous conferences have only required the security provided by one man and a dog to deter the occasional lobbyist demanding ‘Cannabis on the NHS’ or ‘Free the Heinz 57’.

This year, the policing costs alone came to more than £2 million, somewhat throwing into perspective the claimed £2.5 million economic benefit to the city. Clearly, the hotels, restaurants and bars did well from the event, but city centre shops took a battering.

Many people have questioned the cost and scale of the policing and security arrangements; after all, £2 million could easily have been spent on better things. The police have said that the outcome justified the cost. There were no big problems and just one arrest – of some chump who thought waving a flare about in a crowd was sensible. He’d obviously missed his route to an Italian football match.

Of course, the police couldn’t win on this. If there had been problems, they would have been accused of bad planning and under-estimating the scale of the challenge.

But I am reminded of the Tommy Cooper sketch where he marches on stage wearing large mouse ears. When challenged, he says they’re to frighten elephants away. The sceptical audience is then invited to look round the theatre to see if there are any elephants present. Of course there aren’t, so Cooper claims that the ears have achieved their purpose.

Some observers say that, because the demonstration outside the conference was smaller than anticipated, people are either supportive of or reconciled to the Tory-led coalition government’s policies. I don’t think that’s the case.

The vast majority of the government’s cuts – increased taxes and charges, reductions in benefits, cuts in a wide range of public services – have yet to kick in. That will happen after April and I think many people will be shocked by the cumulative impact, especially as ordinary families with children will get hit hardest.