Can a focus on collaboration and technology make the party relevant again?
With 16,000 new members since the referendum, it seems that some original ideas had also surfaced across the far from fresh Liberal Democrat peers and parliamentarians.
Collaboration and technology seemed to be two big themes of the day across the main session and fringe events.
However it remains to see whether this could be the beginning of transformative change for the party, or if it was simply Ashdown’s effective lobbying for his new cross-party platform, More United.
More or less united?
In the light of a disintegrating Labour and the increasingly unassailable Conservative party, ‘progressive liberal alliance’ was the phrase of the Conference. During his town hall session, Tim Farron repeated that the party’s greatest achievements lay in its ability to collaborate and bring people together.
Rhetoric focused on how the Liberal Democrats could reach beyond party politics to build their base and guard against decades of conservativism. Technology was raised frequently as a pathway to making this happen.
Paddy Ashdown’s answer was More United, a platform he has spearheaded that crowdfunds candidates who support a series of five fundamental, and unsurprisingly liberal, principles.
It was developed out of a belief, Ashdown said, that parties have become narrow sects separate from the people that sustain them.
He pointed to Labour and the US Republican party, as an illustrations of a breakdown in this party-people connection and as examples of the consequential takeover by a people driven movement.
The platform, and concept, received a mixed reception at the conference. With the memory of the coalition still fresh in mind, many members were concerned that the platform would simply permit more Labour candidates and the watering down of the liberal voice.
The role of technology was on the mind of the key business and treasury spokespeople too.
Baroness Lorely Burt, the business spokesperson, emphasised the need to address the role of technology across all industries. During her question and answer session she highlighted the need to look forward and develop a skilled workforce that could address the needs of an economy transformed by technology.
In fact, the business policy-making team have a working policy group solely focusing on disruptive technology with the objective of exploring how a balance can be created between exploitation and monetisation.
Fintech was on the mind of Baroness Kramer, the Party’s treasury spokesperson, who made a point of speaking about the potential of the new industry but warned of the concern Brexit has brought in terms of financial regulation uncertainty and in attracting a competent workforce to sustain it.
Disruptive technology and the sharing and gig economy it brings with it could be something the Liberal Democrats can get right. The technology industry, which contributes 10% of the UK’s GDP, has been shaken by Brexit with the probable loss of the single digital market and endangerment of bringing in skilled workers.
The Right have had acknowledged the sector, but long ignored its problems and the Left seem a frightening concept to any industry at the moment. UK’s tech companies will be looking for someone to understand them.
“We’ve become conventional and intellectually, quite dead” – Lord Ashdown
During a forward-looking IPPR fringe event (brutally realistic in its title ‘Will 2080 be the year we get the next Lib Dem Minister?’) Ashdown was ruthless in his analysis of current thinking in the party. He believed that after the coalition, the party had lost its culture of bringing forward radical ideas.
Whilst this is not wholly true, Norman Lamb has spearheaded creative policies on mental health and amongst other policies, it was the Liberal Democrats that ushered in new approaches to skills through apprenticeships that the recent Conservative government have been taking forward.
— Liz Laurence (@lizlaurence) September 19, 2016
And this renewed spirit of collaboration alongside embracing technology as a tool to do so could be the Liberal Democrats next big idea.
Whilst it may take some time to compete with the Conservative party digital machine, and their connections into business, for a party that is geographically disparate and seeking new allies, it could have transformative effects.