18 September 2019

Love-in at the Lib Dem conference masks rumbling discontent

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Party conferences are, by definition, odd affairs. No normal person chooses to spend hundreds of pounds to pass days in a seaside conference centre hearing from MPs and discussing the minutiae of party policy. Oddity levels are particularly high in the case of the Liberal Democrats. But the sandaled party faithful who gathered in Bournemouth this week had every reason to be positive. The party is riding high, winning elections and defections on a regular basis.

Geoff Payne, the chair of the party’s Federal Conference Committee, told me that there have been “a vast number of people” at the conference. “There’s an energy about the place”, and it has all come on the back of opposition to Brexit, something strengthened by the decision taken at conference to revoke Article 50 if they win a majority at the next general election. No Labour-style constructive ambiguity for the Lib Dems.

Despite the seemingly narrow focus, newly elected leader Jo Swinson has adopted “a really distinctive approach,” Payne insists. The stop Brexit message remained front and centre in Swinson’s keynote address yesterday. In many ways this is totally understandable. After all, the number of people who voted Remain in 2016 is significantly greater than have ever voted Lib Dem before.

For the time being, the clarity of purpose and message also seems to be paying off for party members of the front line. Lisa Smart, a councillor in Stockport and the Lib Dem’s candidate in the Hazel Grove constituency commented that “the reception on the doorstep is as good as I’ve known it in the decade plus I’ve been a member. Not everyone agrees with us on Brexit…but I’ve had people tell me they respect that we’re clear where we stand”.

This is all well and good, but the Lib Dems need to show they can offer something beyond a Brexit policy if they are serious about wanting to be in government again. They must remember they are a party not a pressure group.

An election seems inevitable in the coming weeks. While it will undoubtedly be seen as quasi-referendum, and parties will have to make their approach to Brexit clear, other issues will still be on the ballot. Simply just being the ‘Remain’ party will only get a the Lib Dems so far.

Indeed, while Jeremy Corbyn’s continued Brexit fence sitting is pathetic, the unequivocal message offered by the Lib Dems brings with it its own issues. Someone who has stood in various elections for the party told me that they have now left. They are one of many Remainers not comfortable with simply saying bollocks to Brexit and pretending the last three years had never happened. There are undoubtedly voters in key seats who feel the same way.

Later in her speech, Swinson did start to outline a broad, almost utopian, vision of a Liberal Democrat Britain, urging people to look beyond GDP numbers to find value. Which is fine, but it does not do people much good if there is no money in their account at the end of the month because of poor (or nonexistent) economic policy. The Lib Dems need breakthrough with serious policy offerings for the modern world, as it is. They need to show that they can deal with causes of Brexit vote, as well as the consequences.

The Lib Dem leader’s personality seems to be a key factor in winning new recruits, but this kind of rapid expansion inevitably causes its own growing pains. The arrival of Phillip Lee prompted the resignation of the chair of the Lib Dem’s LGBT organisation, declaring the former minister a homophobe and a xenophobe. I gather there is continued disquiet amongst members about his presence in the party. A look at his voting record shows it often differs markedly to that of his new colleagues.

While political parties must be broad churches to thrive, they do have to have firm values that unite them. At the moment, opposition to Brexit appears to be enough. It has brought the Lib Dems new MPs and given the party a renewed lease of life.  But it cannot hold the party together in the long-term. These new MPs and members need to be liberals with a small ‘l’ as well as a big one.

When the Lib Dems were in government back in 2010 there always seemed to be a culture clash between MPs and activists who embraced being in government and the compromises that involved, and the purity of the longstanding members who had spent decades delivering leaflets and thought winning their council ward was the only thing that mattered. Once Brexit is eventually done, the Lib Dems will approach such a crossroads again. What matters more to them – principles or power? Those that joined to stop Brexit may realise that they do not have much else in common with other Lib Dems. It is at that point we will discover the strength of Jo Swinson’s leadership.

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Charlotte Henry is a writer and commentator, and author of 'Not Buying It'.