You may not have been aware of this, but the Liberal Democrats have just met in sunny Bournemouth for their autumn conference. The mood was not the much anticipated dreary dirge of the defeated but buoyant, full of hope and optimism, and I was there.
At this point, you can probably cry bias. I am after all, a Liberal Democrat card carrier. But I can prove, I think, with some empiricism, that the Lib Dems are not simply putting a brave face on things. They genuinely believe that the party can come back, and are doing everything in their power to make sure it does so, and I have to say, I’m beginning to agree with them.
Firstly, autumn 2015 was the best attended Lib Dem conference in living memory. This is unsurprising with the surge in new membership since the election, but it is encouraging from the party’s perspective that so many were willing to make the trip down to the south coast. The words “are you one of the new members?” were to be heard all across the venue, fringe and hotel bar for the duration. The party leadership knew this, and geared the conference to galvanize their newfound manpower and activist base, right down to the #libdemfightback slogan, which, if a little cringey, hit the mark with the membership and indicated a conference which was going to look inward at building a new and enthusiastic grassroots, at least for now.
Yet the manner in which that inward focus materialized itself was both interesting and deeply important for the chances of that fight back actually occurring. An initial criticism of Tim Farron’s recovery strategy focused on his presumed commitment to localized, community politics as a fit-all solution to Liberal woes. For those of us who supported Norman Lamb in the leadership election, we preferred the latter’s emphasis on owning certain key issues which will likely be amongst the chief political concerns of our time. Norman Lamb’s work on mental health is often used as a worthy example, and his Q&A on the subject at conference was seen to bring several members to near tears.
Farron by contrast, seemed content to focus on the buzz phrase Pick a Ward and Win It, which led me to fear that the party would decide that clearing up the dog mess in half a hundred parts of suburban and rural England was the only route back for liberalism.
The new leader however, showed at conference that he did not plan to allow the party to slip back into old comfort zones as the nice, eccentric, locally minded people who always lose when it really matters. Keen to exploit the electoral gap left by Jeremy Corbyn, Farron’s big tests would be on the conference floor, particularly over Trident.
The unilaterist camp on the left of the party seemed intent on using its disproportionate power on the Federal Conference Committee, along with the party’s new found opposition, to restate the case for unilateral nuclear disarmament. At one point, it looked as if they might win, but a wrecking amendment tabled by the party top brass was hammered home after a succession of big name speakers (a sure sign of the way the leadership wants a vote to go). Farron, it seemed, had made his stance on the issue clear, and the left were soundly beaten.
What followed next was a vote on One Member One Vote, an issue deeply important to the youth party and the party’s classical liberal wing. This passed overwhelmingly, despite the vicious opposition of a number of elderly local party bigwigs, one of which was forcibly ejected from the hall after a nasty altercation with Lib Dem blogger Mark Pack, who had summated in favour of OMOV
This vote was plausibly even more important than Trident, as its effects could be far reaching for the parties long term ideological balance. The youth party, to which a disproportionate number of the new members belong and who are far more likely to describe themselves as supporters of Clegg and the coalition, have just become the single largest voting bloc in the Lib Dems.
In even worse news for the party left, the Social Liberal Forum bloc vote, which had been all powerful when it came to party committee elections for the powerful Federal Conference and Federal Policy Committees, as well as the Federal Executive, has been shattered by OMOV. A leading SLF member and member of the FPC was heard to remark that he was likely to lose his seat on the committee following the new rules.
On the final day then, came the leader’s speech, and it was another interesting sign that the Lib Dems were not going to respond to defeat in the way many commentators had prophecised. Farron’s first conference leader’s speech was a slightly more subdued affair when compared to his usual charismatic, good humoured rhetoric. Farron is more of an oratory sprinter when compared to the likes of Nick Clegg or the PM. He performed admirably, but not at a level that some activists were used to from his shorter offerings.
However, whilst the speech did not set the heart on fire, Farron’s address was important, for several reasons:
He started, continuing the theme of the conference thus far, by addressing the room, and made it clear from which side he was going to lead the party, the centre.
Farron refused to rule out future coalitions with any party, despite one of the senior figures in his election campaign, David Howarth, saying just that in the immediate aftermath of the election. He launched a ringing attack on Jeremy Corbyn, and on those in the party who enjoyed the comfort of opposition, who were unwilling to deal with the ideological impurity that came with power and the chance to implement party policy.
Then, for the first time all week, he addressed the nation. The message was clear, the party under his leadership was going to be the progressive opposition to the Tories, filling the space vacated by Labour. Farron seemed to understand that when Labour go to their conference, he wanted them to remember him stood there. As people watched bearded, tweedy Jeremy, who will likely come to speak off the back of one of his shadow cabinet members supporting mandatory prison sentences for people who don’t recycle, before calling for the Falklands to be handed back to Argentina, he wanted people to remember him.
Farron was clean cut, well dressed, talking about modern, electable progressive opposition to the Conservative government. He spoke after having held the line on multilateral disarmament, having enfranchised the new membership and, deliberately or not, done little to stop a marked rise in what might once have been called the Orange Book wing of the party. And for the first time since he was elected leader, the right saluted him, despite their early scepticism, and I was among them. He threw further red meat to the centrists and classical liberals with a commitment to balanced budgets. He was brave and radical on refugees, bold on infrastructure and made a key and constantly restated commitment to regional development, in contrast to Tory fixation on London and when they feel like it, Manchester. He was going to own the big issues of the future, including mental health, which came up on several occasions.
In the smoking area after the speech, one leading Social Liberal commented it was the best speech they’d heard from a leader in their lifetime, although I dispute whether or not that said more about his hearing skills. The right were more demure, but a lot were smiling, they had a sneaking suspicion they might have just won.
My take on it all is that the Liberal Democrats still might not come back from the brink. But if they don’t, it won’t have been through lack of effort, or because the strategy was wrong. It’ll be because it simply was not possible. The strategy the party seems to be taking is the right one, the message is clear and decisive, and political conditions are more favourable to a Lib Dem comeback than anybody thought possible just a few months ago. So don’t write off the Liberal Democrats, at least not quite just yet.