It’s party conference time again. Liberal Democrats are first to have their major annual get together in an unusually sunny Bournemouth for the time of year. Sunshine was a welcome change after a very stormy night in the UK General Election. As you’ll recall, the Lib Dems entered the election with 57 MPs, and limped out the other end with eight – enough for a people carrier, but a tad short of the 124 MPs their former leader, Nick Clegg, had repeatedly committed himself to delivering.
Many predicted this disastrous performance would spell the end of the party. The Bournemouth conference told a different story. For reasons not entirely clear to outsiders, the party had a very upbeat convention. Delegates were claimed to reach an absolutely party record, and the membership is said to have risen by 20,000 since May.
Why might this revival be occurring? It might be caused by the speedy departure of Clegg from the leadership, and his replacement with activist-friendly Tim Farron. Mr Farron is respected for having taken ‘the long way up’ to power, having served as an activist himself for many years, including as a local Councillor in North West England.
I’ve known Tim since the 1980’s, in student politics. He was impressive. His leadership is certainly one refreshing factor for a party. Another factor could be liberalism itself. Even if a party does badly, the concept of independence and personal liberty is more compelling and enduring than a single political movement. So, while the Lib Dems may have taken a tumble, these ideas still need a home. The increase in membership could represent a flow back into what many could regard as the natural counterbalance to the authoritarian
Farron’s closing speech left the party in apparently good fettle. Nobody under-estimates the size of the re-building task, as the organisation starts the arduous process of repairing the massive damage to its campaigning resources. Yet tThe remarkable resilience of the movement is not to be underestimated.
There was also one notable sign the delegates’ more assertive outlook. A motion to give the leadership more power to veto conference decisions – something Clegg did without such a veto – was thrown out before that particular debate even ended. Conference belle Linda Jack made the conference laugh from the podium by starting her response to this dubious proposal by shrugging her shoulders with her hands in the air, and uttering the simple phrase ‘where to start?!’ Democracy can sometimes express very
strong words, softly spoken.