The Liberal Democrats conference in Bournemouth was a heady affair. With a new leader, and new members flooding in, including six MPs from other parties, conference goers sensed they were on the verge of something thrilling. Jo Swinson, that new leader, got a standing ovation when she suggested that she was candidate for prime minister. What to make of it all?
The Times cartoonist showed the party bird emblem morphing into a flying pig. Scepticism is warranted, of course. I was particularly struck by this article from Financial Times political correspondent Robert Shrimsley, and in particular this comment:
If this moment does indeed offer a historic opportunity for the Lib Dems, they do not seem ready to grasp it. The strategy seems entirely short-termist, worrying about the rest once they’ve got a few more seats. Little suggests the birth of a credible new Macroniste third force.
It is easy to see now Mr Shrimsley came to this view. Brexit dominated the conference, and in particular the party’s promise to revoke the UK’s Article 50 notice to quit if it won a majority in a general election. Many commentators dismissed this as a gimmicky promise made because the party assumes it will never be in a position to implement it. A parallel was drawn with the party’s policy against university tuition fees in its 2010 manifesto, which it reversed in coalition, with disastrous consequences to the party’s standing. Indeed many members worry that this is the wrong way to overturn a referendum result; I myself voted to remove this from the relevant policy motion on Brexit, though it did not stop me from voting for the motion after this vote failed. When Ed Davey gave his Shadow Chancellor’s speech, he said a lot about stopping Brexit, but nothing about managing the country’s finances. He also spent time developing the Remainer trope that people voted for Brexit as a protest from left-behind places, and that public policy should therefore address their needs. The conclusion may be sound, but the premise is weak. The bulk of the Leave vote was from people who did not like Britain being part of the EU because they dislike the shared sovereignty it implies and because they are sceptical of the benefits of greater openness. And even the protest voters still want the result to be honoured as a mark of simple respect.
So a party that reduces everything to an argument over Brexit, and whose core Brexit policy is a promise that nobody thinks it will have to keep. I share some of these misgivings, but I disagree with Mr Shrimsley. There are three reasons: the leader, the members and the big idea.
First the leader. Jo should not be underestimated. She has brought a determination and focus to the role that many may not appreciate. She did not become Britain’s youngest MP in 2005 by accident, but through hard work, leadership and determination. Besides, busy working mothers don’t have time for shilly-shallying (if I can be permitted a sexist comment…). People who get in her way are pushed aside. Local parties are learning this as they select their candidates for the next general election – and the leadership manages the process to an unprecedented extent. She is not a Jeremy Corbyn, who became leader almost by accident. But she isn’t a Boris Johnson either; she is equally ambitious, but lacks his biddability of political beliefs. She has clear ideas about where she wants to take the country. In her closing speech, after the disposing of Brexit, she developed some of those ideas: tackling climate change, a focus on wellbeing rather than GDP (an area where I have helped her develop party policy), prioritising mental health, and tackling youth crime. She has thought through the Revoke policy and I am giving her the benefit of the doubt. It may upset political commentators but the party will not break out of its third party hell by conforming to the wishes and expectations of the chatterers. It has to play hard and that is what its leader is doing.
A further striking thing about the party is its membership. Overwhelmingly it has joined since the catastrophic general election of 2015, and especially since the referendum of 2016. These new members are replacing the old hands and shaping a fresher political party; many of its parliamentary candidates are now from this generation. Amongst the new members are, of course, three sitting MPs elected as Labour, and three elected as Conservative. Five of these six were prominent in Bournemouth. I saw three of them up close (the three ex-Labour ones, Chuka Umunna, Luciana Berger and Angela Smith). All were very impressive, and a cut about the defectors that the party has seen before. They were met with a wall of love. Chuka in particular sounded fully integrated as he urged members to get out on to the doorsteps. He and Luciana were clearly ambitious politicians in mid-career, with no thought of retiring quietly. What all the new members shared was the sense that they have found a new home where they felt comfortable. This influx does feel like the beginnings of a Macroniste movement, especially in the way that it is drawing strength from left and right.
But what is the big idea that is bringing all these people together? Opposing Brexit obviously, but why? A commitment to being open, fair and tolerant. Surely all parties say they are that? But both Labour and the Conservatives have gone in a different direction. In members’ eyes the Brexit campaign was led by narrow and intolerant politicians who wanted to roll the clock back, for a variety of dark motives, and the Lib Dems present the antidote. This might strike outsiders as being stretch. The “Bollocks to Brexit” slogan was still much in evidence – a very short step from “Bollocks” to 17.4 million people who voted to leave. And the sixth MP who was not at the conference (or who kept a low profile), Philip Lee, would have had a much more difficult time, due to the interpretation that some of the things he has said and done were homophobic. Some prominent activists resigned when he was accepted into the party; others were in no mood to even give him a hearing. [See further discussion in comments below on this issue – I was probably not being quite fair on Philip – and the angry activists were probably a small minority] Lib Dems might claim to be open and tolerant, but they only manage it up to a point. But with both main parties riven by deselection issues, and treating bullying as politics as usual, the Lib Dems are clearly cutting through to a lot of people as representing a new style of politics. Interestingly, this is what Mr Corbyn tried to do when he took on the Labour leadership, but he has clearly failed. The Lib Dems might fail too, but for now the floor is theirs.
And so there are parallels between what the Liberal Democrats are trying to do and the rise of Emmanuel Macron’s political movement in France: a mix of firm leadership, centrist policies and a fresh style of politics. Sceptics should stay sceptical – but they should also keep an open mind. The party is about a lot more then Brexit.