The mood at Liberal Democrat Party Conference and prospects for the future.
The Liberal Democrats have gathered for their annual party conference in Brighton, their second such conference since the 2015 General Election and a result that can be described as just short of annihilation.
The main conference agenda featured its usual mix of internal party reports, policy motions and speeches and the main auditorium at the Brighton Conference Centre has been reassuringly full at all the key speeches. The exhibition area was understandably a little thinner than in coalition days with far fewer corporate stands although HM Government of Gibraltar had sent a delegation.
The fringe was vibrant with a wide range of often clashing events and a good number of book launches by former ministers on their time in government.
Can the left work together?
The Social Liberal Forum hosted a vibrant discussion with Caroline Lucas, the Green MP for Brighton Pavillion and Lisa Nandy the Labour MP for Wigan looking at how the left can work together in a progressive alliance to defeat right wing parties in key seats.
There were no announcements of any pacts but the principles of collaboration were discussed albeit with no precise details on how it might work in practice. Caroline Lucas set out that the EU referendum had highlighted key issues such as immigration and de-industrialisation which have been underrepresented in British politics. Lucas pressed that urgency is needed for parties on the left to work together as the impact of the alternative – Conservative rule for the foreseeable future – is becoming increasingly clear. On electoral reform she said we don’t need another referendum but called on Labour to put proportional representation in their manifesto in order to bring much needed reform.
Lisa Nandy set out that the main challenge is the increasing power of multinational companies that are becoming more powerful than nation states as predicted by Marx. Nandy said that a politics of unity is needed but stressed that the clash of ideas is a good thing even at the same end of the political spectrum – she pointed to the role the Lib Dems played in opposition when Labour went too far on civil rights infringements and the role Labour played in calling out the true impact of austerity policies under the coalition.
Chris Bowers spoke for the Lib Dems and set out that an inspiring vision is what is currently lacking in politics. He said that the “optimistic wing” in British politics needs to show its ideas to the public and engage them, something that none of the parties on the left are doing successfully at the moment. However, he did note that lessons could be learnt from the SNP who have managed to put forward a positive vision for change, independence or no independence.
Andrew George, the former Lib Dem MP for St Ives, talked about the work he is undertaking with funding from the Joseph Rowntree Foundation to identify marginal seats where a progressive party can win and then develop a bespoke plan for each seat in partnership with those parties.
The event took place in a chock-full room and there was much enthusiasm for the ideas as well as raucous applause for both Lucas and Nandy. Nevertheless, there was also a keen realisation that such things have been talked about in the past and that when it comes to the crunch at election time whether any of the parties will commit or will it be business as usual would remain to be seen.
The discussions were based on a book, The Alternative, which sets out a series of essays and was edited by the speakers.
Questions to the Leader
Tim Farron MP, the not so newly elected Leader of the party, took questions from a packed hall. The first question was on what the party should be doing in terms of getting traction in the media and raising its profile. Farron said that when he won the leadership he had done so on a pledge to build back the grassroots. However, things have changed since then with the outcome of the EU referendum and the situation with Labour means that the Liberal Democrats now more than ever need to hone their national message. He said this would require focus on three areas where the Lib Dems are distinctive and have a clear offer: 1) ensuring that the post-Brexit deal is properly scrutinised and gets public endorsement; 2) an honest offer on the NHS and 3) that the Liberal Democrats are the decent opposition that is needed at a crucial time in British politics. This third message is more of an aspiration that will need to be delivered in what the party does between now and the next election.
Farron also got questions on what the party is doing to make itself more diverse. Historically an area which has caused division for a liberal party Farron pointed to the motion that was passed at last year’s conference which supports intervention from the party in selecting its candidates and therefore making its representatives more diverse. This highlights a break with tradition under Farron’s leadership where the party has previously favoured not intervening on this issue on grounds that it is illiberal to do so.
During the questions Farron also set out the party’s strategy on the EU referendum result. He made clear that it is not his ambition to deliver a “second referendum” but rather a new referendum on whether or not to accept the new deal that has been negotiated in favour of remaining in the EU. The logic behind this is that the public voting against the EU is very different to the alternative which was not on the ballot paper and varied between different camps in the leave campaign. However, whilst this logic may be sound, articulating this to the media and the public at large will be more challenging and the party could be accused of dismissing a democratic result – which for a party that holds democracy as a core value could be pointed to as an abandonment of principles.
In conclusion, did Brighton rock? There was as ever an optimistic feeling to Lib Dem conference but there was also a sense that whilst the party is at a low point electorally things are moving in the right direction. There were a lot of notable absences in former MPs and their staff, although many of these did attend.
Nevertheless, many of the local party chairs were scrambling around to meet with their new members, many of whom have joined since May 2015 and even more recently following the outcome of the EU referendum. The Lib Dems have always been very good at harnessing local enthusiasm and building support and then converting this into successful local campaigns. Given the number of people for whom this was their first conference there is a big opportunity for the party to build on this positivity and begin the fightback to electoral success.