The Lib Dems start the long journey back

2015-09-23 12.15.44I’m just back from Bournemouth where Britain’s Liberal Democrats have been having their Autumn Conference. This was the first conference after this year’s General Election completed five successive years of rout for the party, and the first under its new leader, Tim Farron. It went as well as the party could have hoped for.

The depth of the party’s defeat in May can barely be described, as it was reduced from 57 seats to just 8. This was most spectacular in the south west of England, which had been the party’s main stronghold, but where the party lost every single seat. The public were fed up with it, which had formed a coalition government with the Conservatives. Both the Conservatives and Labour were more interested in crushing the Lib Dems that in damaging each other, and neither could the party resist the SNP surge in Scotland. Meanwhile, on the ground, in most places, the party had exhausted itself, and could no longer mount the sort of strong grass-roots campaigns that had seen its rise to 63 seats in 2005. What had been a steady decline after this high point turned into a rout after the 2010 election, and the party’s period in coalition. Its base in local councils bled nearly to death; it fared very badly in Scottish Parliament elections in 2011, and a catastrophic near wipeout in the European Parliamentary elections in 2014, before this year’s humiliation. The party has not just suffered a temporary blip; it has been hollowed out.

But something rather strange has happened more recently. After the election the party experienced a surge in its membership – adding 20,000 in four months. My local party went from about 120 in January to nearly 320 now. Some of these new members are returnees, who dropped out in the coalition. But most are drawn from voters, especially younger professionals, drawn to what they understood of the party’s values over the coalition years. These new members signed up in record numbers to attend the conference in Bournemouth, making it one of the most successful ever in terms of membership attendance – though others, from media to advocacy organisations, shunned the party after its loss of influence.

The main task at Bournemouth was to integrate this new blood with the old-timers, and to forge a renewed political movement. These disparate elements need to be inspired with a sense of common purpose and values. This is an inwardly focused business – the party has to sort itself out before it can seriously chase floating voters and win elections. And, my impression was, this went pretty well. The formal business was somewhat insipid, with very little controversial put up for debate. But this no doubt helped forge common purpose. And, of course, there was the training, the fringes and the socialising. The new member I spoke to on my journey home said the experience was inspiring, and much better than she had expected; and that seemed to be the view of others she had talked to.

The new leader played an important part in this. The leader has three big public performances: the rally speech on the first night, a question and answer session, and the closing speech. I saw the first and last of these. The rally speech was a nicely judged affair, where Tim (as I will call him – I will make no pretence of objective distance) showed his flair for public speaking. The effect was rather spoiled for me by an email follow-up that arrived to one of my mail boxes (one where the party’s database didn’t know I was already a member), attacking Labour, accusing them of not being a serious opposition to the Conservatives. This is more of the bubble-talk of which we have had far to much already. Labour are fired up by their hatred of the Conservatives. There are good reasons to think their opposition will fail, but  that failure has not happened yet. The Lib Dems can push Labour to take a stand on liberal issues, claiming to replace it is premature.

But the closing speech was a barnstormer – and the best leader’s speech I have heard for a very long time. It started a little slowly, and I thought it was going to disappoint at first – but that was just pacing. Three things stood out for me. The first was, as Roosevelt said in despair at emulating Churchill’s public speaking: “He rolls his own.” No doubt he was helped by speechwriters, but it sounded authentically his voice, with his characteristic humour and turn of phrase. This helps him sound authentic. The second thing was that the speech was rooted in the concrete. Leftist politicians have a habit of talking about abstract ideas (austerity, neoliberalism, progress, and so on). Tim avoided this; to make his point he concentrated on three issues: housing, refugees and Europe, and rooted these in real experiences, asking his audience to imagine the world from a different perspective. There was thankfully no talk of the abstract “centre ground”, so loved by his predecessor, Nick Clegg. And the third thing about Tim’s speech was its plain rhetorical firepower. He has a full range of gears from light and humorous up to full-blown, earnest passion. That full range was on display.

With the possible exception of Nigel Farage, the Ukip leader (whom I haven’t heard properly), this might make Tim the best public speaker of all the British party leaders. The contrast with Labour’s Jeremy Corbyn is quite striking. Mr Corbyn oozes authenticity, but he hasn’t got the rhetorical range.

So far, then, so good. The party has to do more inward work before it can really start challenging the other parties, though. That is conspicuous on policy. Tim tried attacking Labour for its irresponsible economics. This is pretty weak, until the party can develop its own distinctive economic narrative, that isn’t just a middle line between Labour and Tory. And the party got a glimpse of how hard this policy thing can be with the only controversial policy debate of the conference: on replacing the Trident nuclear weapons system.

On the one hand was offered a values-based line of getting rid of nuclear weapons altogether. On the other, more mainstream politicians, including the leaders of the Scottish and Welsh parties, wanted something a bit more fudged that would interfere less with fishing for floating voters. And the conference voted narrowly for this less inspiring course.

This blogger will try to make a modest contribution to this policy development, and in particular by suggesting ways forward on economic policy,  public service reform and political reform. More on that another time.

But meanwhile, I am encouraged that the party is gathering strength. I do not expect a major political impact on the wider scene for another year at least, though. The Conservatives, Labour and the SNP all have momentum right now, and it will be near impossible for the Liberal Democrats to break in with a distinctive voice. But the moment will come, and I hope the party will be ready when it does.

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3 thoughts on “The Lib Dems start the long journey back”

  1. Matthew

    I watched as much of the conference as I could and would love to have been able to attend but finances dictate in these challenging times.

    I was impressed with most of the Trident debate, although disappointed with the result which I feel will make things more difficult for the party, esp in Scotland next year. I was happy with the one member one vote decision and will look forward to seeing the detail. I thought Tim came across very well overall but I do have concerns about trying to fight in the centre ground and I am always uncomfortable with the idea of Britishness. I think the party overall can look forward with some opitimism for the longer term but the journey will be long. We will stand out on the EU and Refugee crisis, as we will with the argument for power being devolved to the lowest level.

    I was very disappointed with Willie Rennie, I thought he resorted back to the SNP bad mantra that just does not hold any traction in Scotland, no one is listening to Willie, and the simple fact is in the main the voters are happy with the SNP. Willie is correct of course to point out the difficulties in various services and the centralisation of a lot of services in Scotland, that I think is a vote winner if we approach it in a calm manner and offer solutions. Willie ruins that good work with his SNP bad mantra and his no referendum 2 as if it’s his gift to give. He comes across as anything but a liberal. What he should be saying is that he feels there should be no rush to a second referendum but should it happen then he would like to see the Scottish Liberal Democrats fight to remain in the union and that there would be a third question on the ballot paper but right now lets concentrate on the immediate future and worry about a ref 2 when it happens, but he doesn’t and comes across as a bitter unionist who can’t get past last year.

    I appreciate that I am a yes voter within a unionist party, I appreciate that I am far more left than many in the party but I am glad I joined what I feel is an open minded and welcoming party, esp in Dundee where my fellow members are wonderful people who are there for the right reasons mostly.

    I would give the conference, what I saw anyway, a 7 out of 10 and I think if we are careful, consider our positions and listen we can build a Liberal Democrat Party that is relevant.

    Thanks for the chance to comment on your excellent blog that I find very informative in what is still a new journey into liberalism for myself.

    Bruce

    1. I’m always interested to hear what you have to say Bruce! Willie Rennie intervened in the Trident debate in favour of the amendment. That was quite striking given that anti nuclear weapons seems to be a centre ground issue in Scotland. Indeed if he had come out in favour of the motion, or just kept quiet, I wonder if the amendment would have carried the day.

      I suspect hysterical opposition is a poor strategy for the party against both the SNP and Labour (even if it has more traction against the Tories…). I prefer the idea of challenging them on liberal issues – especially democratic reform.

      1. Mattew

        I don’t doubt that Willie is a really nice guy, he certainly comes across as a really decent man but he appears to blindly just follow. He never once came out against anything in the coalition and part of his speech was for members to follow the leader. He is right about a need to look at public services in Scotland, and more importantly how they are funded, but he has to stop just moaning about how bad everything is without coming up with any solutions. He can’t ignore that the Scottish Government funding has been cut by around 10% since 2010.

        I appreciate there are no easy answers but he is wrong to just attack attack attack, people are not stupid, they can see what is happening around them. He has to argue that the Scottish Parliament needs a Liberal voice, needs a party that will hold the Government to account. I tweeted him about his speech and he sent me a link to his speech, come one he can do better than that. Trident is a huge mistake, Labour are making the same mistake. I just don’t think voters will accept the need to spend that kind of money on a vanity project when people are hungry and services being cut due to austerity. I understand the arguiment about jobs but I think someone said that each job associated to Triudent, if it is 100 billion, is costing around 3 million each. If true that is unreal. But I don’t know all the ins and outs about the costs.

        There is not a lot to choose from in Scotland right now as far as potential leaders go and even before I was a Liberal I always had time for Michael Moore even thought I did not agree with him on the referendum. Willie is going to have to up his game and start listening, if he can’t convince people like me that a vote for the Scottish Liberal Democrats is not a good thing then that says it all and right now he is not convincing anyone that they vote Lib Dem sadly.

        Still hopefully things will pick up leading up to next May.

        Bruce

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