Lib Dems told health reforms could be electoral suicide

Sage Gateshead and Millennium Bridge Image copyright PA
Image caption The Liberal Democrats are holding their spring conference at the Sage Gateshead

In 2009 when the Liberal Democrats announced they would be holding their 2012 spring conference in Gateshead, they must have thought it would be like being on home ground.

At that time, the party controlled Newcastle Council, and had high hopes of winning parliamentary seats across the North East.

They seemed to be on the rise, with legitimate grounds to claim they were the main opposition to Labour in the north.

But as they arrive in Gateshead this weekend, the landscape looks very different.

Last year, they were swept from power in Newcastle, and they seem to be on the retreat in other parts of the North East.

A recent poll suggested they had only 4% support in the region - lower than UKIP.

And the conference will be besieged by protesters, blaming the party for everything from the state of the economy to the proposed NHS reforms.

Welcome to life in government then.

NHS reforms

But Nick Clegg will tell his party this weekend to stop feeling sorry for itself and go and shout about its achievements in power.

He'll talk about the pupil premium, the rise in the tax threshold, and the tempering of Tory NHS reforms.

It seems he'll also get the backing of Lib Dem President and Cumbrian MP Tim Farron too.

Farron is a qualified supporter of the coalition, coming from the left of the party.

But writing in The Guardian, he has also told members to stop apologising for what the Lib Dems are doing in government. He also seems to signal an acceptance of the health service changes as they now stand.

Some of the protesters who'll be standing outside the conference this weekend think differently though.

They say the Lib Dems could be committing electoral suicide by backing the Health Bill.

Clive Peedell and David Wilson are cancer consultants in Teesside, but also determined opponents of the coalition's proposed NHS reforms.

Image caption Cancer consultants David Wilson and Clive Peedell have been running to drum up opposition to NHS reforms

In January they ran 160 miles from NHS founder Nye Bevan's statue in Cardiff, to the Department of Health in London to highlight their opposition.

And this weekend they're running another 42 miles from Middlesbrough to the Lib Dem conference in Gateshead in an attempt to persuade the party to block the reforms once and for all.

Clive Peedell believes if they don't, there could be serious consequences for the NHS and the Liberal Democrats.

He said: "It is going to be hugely damaging because the NHS is going to fail. The reforms will be hugely unpopular and it will finish the Liberal Democrats off as a party long term.

"It's electoral suicide. They need to listen to the professionals."

Lib Dem activists

There are of course many Lib Dems who have also had deep misgivings about the Health Bill, and they will get their chance to debate the changes this weekend.

But there does seem to be a growing acceptance even among Lib Dem activists that the bill will become law, and that the party has now done all it can to temper the original proposals.

That was certainly the view of party members I saw in Redcar - the North East constituency where they achieved a huge swing to defeat the sitting Labour MP in 2010.

Local councillor Josh Mason said: "I think there were some concerns about the bill when it was first introduced and at our spring conference last year changes were proposed.

"Those changes have helped the proposals evolve and I think it is now developing into a potentially very effective piece of legislation."

And even those with some qualms trust their party to ensure it won't go wrong.

Cllr Mike Carling said: "My concern and my party's concern was about the introduction of profit into the NHS, and any suggestion of an American-style health system.

"But it has been back and forth from the House of Lords, and there are lot of people looking at it so hopefully we will get something that will work."

Lost seat

There are though some worrying signs from Redcar of how the political landscape might be changing.

In January the Lib Dems lost a council by-election in a seat they had held in the town for decades.

There was a big swing to Labour, and the winning candidate - himself a former Lib Dem - was Mike Hannon.

Image caption The Lib Dems won the seaside seat of Redcar in 2010, but could voters now be turning away from the party?

Lib Dems said local factors were to blame but Mike Hannon believes voters are now turning against his former colleagues because of the NHS reforms and other policies.

He said: "I think there will be uproar about the NHS reforms. I don't think the Lib Dems would have expected to be in the position they are.

"I think people who voted for them in 2010 just feel they've been taken over by the Tories.

"They've become the whipping boys of the Conservative party and that's why they voted for me."

So there's plenty for the Lib Dems to chew over this weekend as they debate the NHS and other matters.

The delegates know they probably won't return to Gateshead for another conference until after the next election.

It's probably only then that we'll know just how much the party has gained or lost by being in government, and whether the voters will thank them for reforming the NHS.

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