You may be forgiven for thinking that the Lib Dems are a spent force in British politics. After a general election in which the party was reduced to just eight seats in the House of Commons, marking a low point for a party that just months ago was the junior member of a coalition government.
But judging by the party’s recent Autumn conference in the sunny seaside town of Bournemouth, that is not the case.
Over two thousand members crammed into the Bournemouth International Centre (BIC) to witness Tim Farron’s keynote leader’s speech, policy debates and the fringe events. Five hundred of these were new members that had joined up since May 8th. The policy debates were perhaps party members’ highlight of conference with a popular debate on Trident.
Trident proved to be a controversial issue. There was near unanimous agreement that Trident held no place in the UK’s defence plans and should be decommissioned. However, there was disagreement over whether a unilateral or multilateral approach should be taken. The debate resulted in a confirmation from MPs that they would vote against renewing Trident next year and that a working group of experts would be set up to determine whether a unilateral approach (decommissioning Trident and expecting other nations to follow suit) or a multilateral approach (trying to negotiate a treaty concerning many nations and holding off decommissioning Trident until an agreement is reached) is best. Unlike the Liberal Democrats, the Labour Party refused to debate the issue. The result means that if the Lib Dems come to hold the balance of power in the next general election, it could be curtains for Trident.
Another policy debate which caught the eye of many members was a debate on youth services. No one spoke against the motion calling for Liberal Democrats to oppose the devastating cuts to youth services caused by Conservative cuts to local government budgets. An amendment was tabled which called for youth services to be a statutory provision by local government and this was widely supported. As with Trident, it will be interesting to see what Labour and the Conservatives make of this commitment if it comes to a possible coalition deal.
But people weren’t just there to see policy enacted, keynote speeches from Nick Clegg, Norman Lamb and Jo Swinson all made the conference more enjoyable and injected some much needed inspiration into the ranks of the bedraggled membership.
There was a moving tribute to Charles Kennedy which saw a nearly five minute long standing ovation for a hero to the Lib Dems. It was only supposed to last a minute and a bleary-eyed chair had to ask delegates to sit down or they’d, quite understandably, have stood clapping until their arms dropped off.
Now for anybody unaccustomed to the weirdness of Lib Dem conference, the last night before the leader’s speech is one that can seem somewhat eerily reminiscent of a cub scout’s sing-along by a camp fire. The Glee Club is now well established as Lib Dem legend and featured a wide range of songs made better through politicising the lyrics. ‘American Pie’ was used to demonstrate animosity towards the LibLab pact that was seen as Charles Kennedy’s project. I am sure Tony Blair feels a tingling sensation every time the words “Tony Blair can f*** off and die” are screamed down the microphone.
Perhaps most inspiring of all was Tim Farron’s leader’s speech the next morning. His passionate rage on David Cameron’s response to the refugee crisis earned him a spontaneous standing ovation halfway through his speech. Tim spoke on refugees, social housing, the working poor and on young people and it was a fitting end to a conference where members were inspired to go back to their constituencies and make some noise.
If liberalism in British politics died on May 7th, the Liberal Democrats are about to give it one heck of a revival!