A view from Liberal Democrat Party Conference

 

Adapted from Rankeelaw on Flickr https://www.flickr.com/photos/42135512@N02/5588241705 under Creative Commons licence
2014 saw the Lib Dems in Glasgow for a second year

Leapfrogging

The usual order of play for party conferences was disrupted this year by the Scottish independence referendum. Alex Salmond bagged the date that would have been the start of the Lib Dems’ conference for the referendum, meaning they had to change their plans. This meant, ironically, they were back in Glasgow for the second year in a row as other venues had been booked up. Unlike last year, I heard no grumbles about the distance from London. A reflection perhaps in part of the referendum debate and in part the delegates’ belated realisation that Glasgow’s a very nice place to visit.

Leapfrogging the other party conferences meant the Lib Dems came last in the conference calendar, rather than first, which brings some advantages. Lib Dem president, Tim Farron, grasped the opportunity, starting his conference speech with a reference to Ed Miliband’s: ‘As I was walking in my local park, looking for inspiration for my speech, I kept meeting people who, amazingly, reinforced exactly the things I already think. Which was enormously convenient.’

(You can read my colleague Charlotte’s blog for her take on the Conservative and Labour conferences.)

Best of enemies

While it was the Conservatives who bore the brunt of high-profile criticism, with the Lib Dems laying into their coalition partners as they try to make clear their differences ahead of the general election, it doesn’t seem senior Lib Dems consider Labour to be a preferable potential coalition partner.

If there was one party it was clear that the Lib Dems weren’t interested in partnering with, though, it was Ukip. Vince Cable gave a proudly pro-EU, pro-immigration speech, Nick Clegg laid into the ‘false comfort’ of ‘us-versus-them politics’, while Tim Farron reiterated the party’s liberal measures, such as their proposal to move drugs policy from the Home Office to the Department of Health.

Good news

The conference was topped off with a major government announcement on mental health, a significant win for Mind and others who have been campaigning hard. Their first experience of being in government doesn’t seem to have lessened Lib Dems’ willingness to engage with charities. At a Living Streets fringe meeting, for example, Baroness Kramer praised walking and cycling campaigners. Their work has changed attitudes in government and business in just a matter of years, she said, noting that she was now routinely ‘lectured’ on such issues from people she wouldn’t have expected to have any interest at all.

Organisers can consider the conference a success. There may have been no great excitement for journalists, but nor did they drop any real clangers. The party avoided the errors, forced or unforced, of the Conservative and Labour conferences: no defections and no forgotten deficits. The word I most heard used to describe the event, from party members and observers, was ‘convivial’. Despite jostling over the party’s future presidency and leadership the prevailing sense was of a party that has realised it is better together, whatever its differences.

Polling

The renowned pollster Robert Worcester comforted members by saying he had not revised down his prediction of last year that the party would retain 25-30 seats. Even in the face of single-digit overall support levels, experts think the party can expect to retain MPs in many areas where it has built up strength and local relationships. The increasingly complex electoral picture may disadvantage the Lib Dems in some areas, but may help them in others – Lib Dem/Tory marginals where Ukip may draw more supporters from Conservative than Lib Dem voters, perhaps. I mention this to make the point that no campaigner should be disregarding the Lib Dems. While their national appeal dissipated during this government, they may still be part of the next one.

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Aidan Warner Aidan Warner is NCVO’s external relations manager. He writes about charity communications. He has previously worked at the BBC, the General Medical Council and Mind, the mental health charity.

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