Each year I visit all three party conferences. I usually come away from the Liberal Democrat conference feeling somehow charmed and this year is no exception. This year I’m also puzzled.
Party conferences are like Butlin’s for policy wonks. There is a huge choice of activities, some wholesome and some not, from breakfast time to the early hours. Some of the entertainment (aka policy discussion) is rather forced, but everyone is encouraged to muck in and a common goal is assumed. This conference is by the seaside.
The last couple of days in Bournemouth have felt more like a staff away day for a big organisation. There is more emphasis on the main programme in the hall. Things get discussed and agreed. But here’s the question: what will be done to follow up? Tim Farron drifts through the lobby every now and again, like an affable CEO who knows he has to smile at everyone but hasn’t a clue who they all are. MPs – and other party bigwigs – are like managers. Some of them – like Simon Hughes – have dressed down. Others with hope of renewed office, like Norman Lamb, are dressed impeccably. You know that you are at a conference, because the three Michaels (Crick, Deacon and White) stalk the halls looking for stories, and the BBC have set up a thing where you vote with coloured balls – just to remind you that you are in a bleak off-season holiday resort.
Indeed, a Norman Lamb fringe sums up a smoke-and-mirrors feeling: it is uncomfortably packed with humanity spilling out into the corridor. But the room seated capacity is 60 tops, in a huge conference centre which is mainly closed. There’s a very clever metaphor here trying to get out. Twice, I venture into the main hall itself. At Tory or Labour conference I’d find a front bencher delivering a set piece speech with a few carefully-selected and on message questions and answers. Here the hall is full of impassioned debate about the various merits of amendment 2 and amendment 3. The debate is principled, serious (but with the occasional good-natured reference to electoral suicide), comradely and affable. It works and it’s impressive but although the party has plenty of representatives doing elected stuff throughout the country you do occasionally wonder what is going to be the effect of the Liberal Democrats endorsing, or not endorsing, a Trident replacement. Yet having this policy, being a grown-up party, gives the tribe the gravitas needed to oversee local services. It’s a paradox.
The Liberal Democrat party has experienced the impact of a meteor. Curiously their number has increased since the election. Wiped out were the legions who gave the party their support only on the basis of a protest vote. The survivors know they can’t any longer just split the difference between Labour and the Conservatives. They have to articulate a vision of the country and that vision must be true to core liberal values. Indeed, Tim Farron wants to persuade us that we are all really liberals. He references Cathy Come Home but in his exhortations instead channels Withnail’s Uncle Monty: ‘You are a liberal! Embrace that diagnosis!’ Give in to it!
In many ways the party’s meltdown is really an opportunity. A party with serious ambitions to take office on a consistent basis could never be sustained on a protest vote. You could never keep those voters once they had tasted the disappointments of power. (Did Blairites understand this? I’m not sure.) Having said that, nor could (or should) the Liberal Democrats have got off lightly after the broken student fees promise. The country – which judges the Conservatives less harshly – will forgive the Tories’ abstract broken promises on immigration or the deficit but a decision that hits you personally in the pocket won’t easily be forgotten. ‘Students’ is not a word I’ve heard in the last 28 hours.
The question is whether anyone will listen. But that question also misses the point. A party is more than its MPs. The Liberal Democrats have over 100 peers and thousands of councillors. Yes there was a meteor that hit the parliamentary party; no, that does not herald the strange death of liberal Britain. It will take more than that to kill the party of paradox.