“Liberal Democrats to call it a day”
Following groundbreaking analysis from the Independent on Sunday, which shows fewer Liberal Democrat candidates standing in this year’s local elections, and a dwindling activist base, Britain’s third largest party have collectively decided to ‘call it a day’.
Rather than facing up to the challenge of a downward trend of political participation – with steadily declining year-on-year membership for all political parties – the Liberal Democrats are the first major party to concede to the wisdom of comment-authors in such papers as the Guardian, who have claimed they will be “consined to thee history books”
Membership officers in local branches across the country have breathed a collective sigh of relief, and many hope this will signal the end of media interest in the party sparked when Liberal Democrats took office for the first time in nearly a century in 2010. One South-West officer, who wished to remain anonymous, commented “the end of the road has finally arrived for many of us who have dedicated much of our lives fighting for the little things: civil liberties, a green economy and greater powers for local people… most of our members are getting on now, and this is our chance to just enjoy a quiet retirement”
Concerns have been raised about who will be left to govern Britain with many - from environmentalists to human rights lawyers - fearing that the Liberal Democrats leaving the national stage will leave the Tories in power unchecked.
But senior figures in the party have sought to dismiss these concerns. Thomas Hamm, editor of GreenLawns.org.uk, which unofficially represents the party at a grassroots level, said “there is a lot of misplaced anger towards the Tories… we might be fundamentally opposed to their view of society, and disagree over a few issues such as secret courts, email monitoring, electoral reform, party funding, the environment, equal opportunities – oh and gay marriage – but being in government is like being in a greenhouse… when things heat up its better to be on the outside p***ing in,”
Most appear to be happy with the decision, which is expected to be approved by a special “dissolution conference” to be called immediately – benefactors of this decision include UKIP who are picking up many of the votes of those who believe two-party politics is no longer the answer, and the Greens who are expected to take in a rag-tag of protest votes, and kind, sensible folk who like putting up posters during election times.
A small, radical group of activists including a handful of current MPs, councillors and young people who describe themselves as “fundamentally Liberal” have sparked a telling-off from bloggers and commenters across the internet for vowing to fight on seat-by-seat, vote-by-vote to defend a Liberal vision for the country. But with wildly ambitious targets such as recruiting at least 10 members each, it is safe to bid them rest in pieces…
Originally published on Lib Dem Voice
Waking up to the encouraging string of headlines as I did on Monday, I’m suddenly wondering if this is the point where we as a party have started getting it right?
If there are three uncontroversial elements to Lib Dem identity then equal marriage rights, campaigning against Trident and defending the individual (Nick Clegg launching the #thisisabuse campaign) are surely good starting points?
Conference is this weekend, so you could be forgiven for thinking these brilliant policies appear pre-emptively in our packs – but no, it’s almost as if we are a party of government: the Deputy Prime Minister appearing on the BBC; CentreForum’s report featured in the Guardian and our calls for Equal Marriage igniting support across Twitter, and appearing as the Times (£) leader.
I’m very cautiously contrasting this to recent years of the party bemoaning the media bias against us; the constant struggle to show people that the policies they so agree with can be implemented if only they gave us power.
I think this might just be the start of our comeback.We had a Liberal Youth meal last week, and someone pointed out that this was probably the last parliament before all parties start turning their attention towards the fight of 2015. We’re nearly 2 years into a coalition government, and the Liberal Democrats are in power, playing a vital role in shaping the government’s identity and initiative.
Let’s make the most of it – playing a positive and influential role, celebrating our successes and being the engine of reform and progress in government. We’ve finally broken through the establishment to show the press, and the public that we can hold power and be effective, now we have to capitalize on it in local elections in May, and continuing to shape the government’s agenda for the rest of our time in power.
When Roy Jenkins left the Labour party in the early 80s rather than defecting to the Liberals, David Steel encouraged him to form the SDP in order to capitalize on a wider base of support for a future alliance.
Three decades on the Liberal Democrats are a merged, centrist party in government for the first time. With a hugely diverse membership base we are (proudly) the most democratic party in British politics, and recently this has formalized into a number of groups within the party.
Longest standing is the libertarian group Liberal Vision. Last week Liberal Left were making headlines calling for us to work with the Labour party. Arguably these two are fringe groups, but nonetheless represent valid opinions and ideas from party members.
More influentially the Social Liberal Forum are doing excellent work in promoting our fight against inequality, and acting as an internal party brake on the pressure exerted by our coalition partners.
Today the launch of Liberal Reform completes a span of the spectrum. Describing itself as “defending four cornered freedom in the Liberal Democrats: social, political, personal and economic” Liberal Reform is seeking to promote & expand economic Liberalism as a key aspect of the Liberal party’s historic identity.
All of these groups represent different core elements of Liberal ideology. Whether it is social or economic, there is much room for overlap. David Laws recently claimed “we are the party that best fuses social justice and economic liberalism”. And of course as Nick Clegg made clear in his conference speech last year “we are not on the left, and we are not right, we have our own label: Liberal”.
But there is a risk that commentators will fail to understand this. To be fair to them the internal workings of the Liberal Democrats are complex enough as it is, but these groups have an important role to play in shaping the party’s policy and identity. The more debate & discussion we have, the more we can claim to be a truly diverse and representative party.
Committed campaigners may rightly wonder why we aren’t spending more time out on the doorstep, but don’t underestimate the ability of internal debate and democracy to motivate and engage our membership. It is important that people feel engaged and able to influence party policy, and these groups can play a key role in membership development & recruitment if they gear their efforts towards it.
So a challenge to those joining & co-ordinating these groups: yes engage on party policy, on shaping our identity and celebrating our unique ideology. But also endeavor to be inclusive: encourage co-operation and good-natured debate between the groups; use them to expand our membership both internally and externally whether it is through media presence, affiliations or targeted campaigns.
And finally the most obvious, but undoubtedly most important: remember we are all Liberal Democrats. We are members of the same party, fighting from the same political base. Each of these groups will succeed if and only if they are united in seeking to take our party forward and expand our membership, not divide it.
What are the Liberal Democrats doing in government & what do we stand for?
Reflecting on the coalition after 18months am I happy with what my party are doing in government? Do I feel like I am in the right place? Absolutely.
I would characterise the fundamental, and often controversial thrust of the coalitions agenda as opening up the state. But it is not just to private providers & market principles as the Left fear, it is devolving power to communities, to customers, to citizens - heavily guided by Liberal principles.
Having seen Ed Davey speak a number of times last year, and the opportunity to speak to him directly I am encouraged and inspired by the hugely innovative steps he (and others) are taking to introduce co-operative policies, empower workers & shareholders and totally re-invent business practises in this country.
After 13 years of New Labour throwing money at problems and running up the colossal debt now hanging over us it really is a breath of fresh-air to have ministers ushering in innovation, parallel to public services & welfare reform to slim down the burden of the State.
I have no doubt that Conservative motivations alter from our own - indeed our Liberal approach to market principles is a recognition of how they can encourage competition, diversity & growth but (unlike the Conservatives) a recognition of the self-interest aspect which can characterise free market interactions.
And with strong left-Liberal voices like Simon Hughes we remain steadfastly committed to reducing inequality and extending responsible capitalism. Ed Miliband’s rump of a Labour party have tried to pull Vince Cable’s language & policy away from him more than a year after he staked out our position as the party of social justice.
The coalition, guided by the intellectual influence of Orange Bookers like David Laws, Ed Davey & Nick Clegg is really carving out a core Liberal Democrat identity as “the party that best fuses social justice and economic liberalism” (Laws 2011)
This is the innovative, centrist Liberal identity which will secure our influence in British politics.
I believe we are slowly winning over the confidence of markets, businesses, commentators and eventually voters by showing that we have something significant - and different - to say for how Britain should be run.
The Liberal Democrats have shown that the environment can be at the heart of policy-making by including it in every section of their manifesto.”
The Liberal Democrat party has always been the party willing to commit to green investment and environmentally responsibly policies. Following the release of the party Manifesto, eco-group ‘Friends of the Earth’ have strong praise for the Liberal Democrats for renewing this commitment and their willingness to take the steps needed to create a sustainable environment and save the world’s resources.
Read the release here
—John H. Newman” —(via altroa)
“Tory bashing” has been a key phrase this autumn as the Liberal Democrat rank and file use conference to let off some steam. The Daily Politics’ Andrew Neil notably dropped his warm, fuzzy style when grilling Tim Farron over his premonitions of ‘divorce’ – but we seem to be retreating back to ours. “Cuddly Liberal Democrats,” as the Prime Minister put it to his own party conference.
And David Cameron may be outlining the message of the Conservative party for 2015 – with a theme of “Leadership for a better future,” his party are opening up a dialogue between the country and its political leaders, whilst we are having a ‘Tory-bashing’ paddy on the sidelines of British politics.
My concern is that the difference between us swiping at the Tories while they outline a pro-business, forward-looking message is not simply one of placating members: it is an entire divide in the mentality, the strategy, and the maturity of both our parties.
Whilst George Osborne explicitly acknowledged the role of the Liberal Democrats on delivering a stable economy, and keeping our debt interest down, we grimaced at Sarah Teather’s puns on his past. Our general-election critique of ‘Punch & Judy politics’ seem distant now, and instead of taking ownership of the coalition as the ‘new politics’ Nick Clegg promised, we are being dragged down into the kind of tribalism which crushes us between the two larger parties.
The way forward is not just about how we perceive ourselves, but how we communicate with the public. We need to learn to be a party of government, of responsibility and communicate what we are achieving in power, rather than using conferences to be self-congratulating about every time we’ve thrown ourselves on the pavement and stopped a Conservative policy.
With current and upcoming debates on issues which form our core identity, such as human rights and Europe we have the platform to portray ourselves as equals – the voice of sensible, centrist Liberalism – and set out our case from within government, to the country, or else show ourselves up as the squabbling younger sibling of British politics, throwing a paddy at the very mention of something we disagree with.
And it is on these sorts of issues – where public opinion is broadly against us – that if we don’t set out a rational, well-reasoned case, the Conservatives will dismiss us as holding them back, and ask the public for a majority in 2015.
Our infidelities with the Labour party, and talks of an alternate coalition at this early stage will only increase perceptions of a petulant child, playing our parents off against one another. We can’t hope to pick up soft-Conservatives and swing votes if we’re perceived as opportunistic, and willing to ditch our partners at the nearest possible opportunity.
One of our greatest strategic gains from this coalition must be to show we are competent and mature – a party of power, not simply a pressure group – if we are ever going to advance beyond third party status. I felt in the minority when I was willing to give Nick Clegg the benefit of the doubt when he talked about an 18 month ‘ownership’ strategy of coalition policy: overlooking our Leader’s extensive experience in Europe, and knowledge of coalition politics, the party were more keen to hear what we’re stopping from happening, than what we are achieving.
The issue I’m raising here is fundamentally one of strategy and communication: put simply we must be outward- and forward-looking as a party if we are to advance in the polls, and develop our public perception. The alternative is navel-gazing conferences, where our ministers attempt convince us of tussles at the cabinet table, and predict our inevitable ‘divorce’ from a volatile marriage. Just don’t be surprised when the public blames us, and take the Tories’ side…
One of the big initiatives of our campaign is to engage local teenagers and finally take some action on Youth Services. This isn’t helped by swingeing cuts from the County Council, but we believe that we can secure the resources and take the most important step which is to ask local kids what it is THEY want to see and get involved with.
For as long as we can remember every level of local government in and around Fairford have been saying how important Youth Services are. We’ve seen brief projects such as ‘Flix in the Stix’ which have been noble in intention, but not worked out in practise. The missing element is letting our target audience lead. Over the course of the last year I (Sean) have travelled around with Paul Hodgkinson and others to visit local schools and sixth forms in the Cotswolds. We’ve taken questions on Tuition Fees and defended the new system where every graduate will pay less back per month, but we’ve also listened to what the students have had to say – and let me tell you, it makes a huge difference.
We also recently visited the Cirencester Cyber Cafe which does excellent work in giving local kids somewhere to go after school and stay off the streets. And this is where we answer the big question of why youth services is such a priority for us: Boredom is the biggest tyranny amongst the younger generation locally. Boredom is the main factor that leads to hanging around on street corners and drinking, vandalising property and so on.
If we could get the local teenagers to lead on something they care about and can get enthusiastic about then not only does it turn that energy into a creative and positive force, but perhaps most importantly it begins to develop a sense of ownership and belonging in Fairford.
We believe in a matter of months we could seriously get something going, and in turn we would see the next generation of Fairford residents playing an active role in the community – there is no end to the things we could achieve with an active Fairford Youth Group volunteering and leading out in the community
Yesterday at a full council meeting Sean Davey asked Cllr Lynden Stowe (Conservative)
“With a massive lack of affordable housing, swingeing cut to youth services from the county council and a cabinet whose youngest member is approaching half a century, what assurances can be given that young people aren’t being forgotten or abandoned by the council?
The Conservative response was to claim “We can’t nanny every single person in this district”
- does this mean that providing affordable houses, encouraging local businesses to create jobs and helping hardworking young people to get a foot in the Cotswolds is “nannying” them? Cllr Stowe seems to be saying that despite the ridiculous housing prices (driven higher by the endless building of holiday homes) the District Council won’t put local people first, won’t offer them support or even allow eager developers (who Stowe described as “constipated vultures”!) to provide affordable housing. If you are hardworking, ambitious and want to call the Cotswolds your home but you can’t afford the prices then ‘Tough luck! Move somewhere else’ the local Conservatives seem to be saying!
Thisattitude is dangerously ignorant of what local people want and need. If the next generation can’t afford to buy their own houses here and are forced to move away then the sense of community and belonging in towns like Fairford will drift away and only the very wealthy will be able to live here. We do have a responsibility to maintain the beautiful Cotswolds scenery, but why can’t we develop the local towns in a way which preserves that but creates affordable housing too?
This issue was covered in Wednesday’s Gloucestershire Echo:
- and you can be sure you will here more from Sean Davey and your local Liberal Democrats, who will continue to stand up for the community and listen to your opinion. Affordable Houses are so desperately needed in the Cotswolds to pass on to the next generation, and with a complacent Conservative administration the best we can hope for is more holiday homes and higher car parking charges!
It’s worth prefacing any comment on tuition fees with our fairness premium - as Nick Clegg outlined at conference he is very passionate about investing in children from all backgrounds from an early age and raising aspirations. This is a wider initiative than tuition fees: as you will have heard it includes the pupil premium; giving schools more freedom; investing in surestart centres and more. This is the first commitment our party is making in coalition to empowering young people so that they have the ambition to go to university and aim higher in the first place. It also represents in excess of £2.5 billion investment which would not have taken place under a Conservative government.
Moving on to the central issue of university fees. The short answer is that yes the leadership have abandoned the pledge to vote against a rise in fees, and there is no way to disguise this or justify it through the coalition agreement which some argue invalidates all earlier pledges. Many grass roots members (including our local councillors, Cheltenham MP Martin Horwood and many more) are much less than happy with the decision to abandon fees, and indeed party policy is still against a rise in fees, though unfortunately the government is not bound by this. It is up to the Deputy Prime Minister and our Ministers to fight for as much of our manifesto as they believe can be implemented, whilst sustaining a strong and effective government.
The situation which the leadership are caught between is a Labour party who introduced tuition fees and commissioned the Browne Review, and a Conservative party who want an uncapped free-market in fees. This is added to the fact that we entered government with a massive deficit and could not afford to invest in areas which we otherwise would have done, and most certainly would have prioritised with a majority Liberal Democrat government. Under these impossible circumstances Vince Cable argued initially for a graduate tax, but this is not a viable option to fund the universities the money they need now, and there’s an article on the BBC website this morning where a Professor argues we must either cut places (which will disproportionately hit state school students) or increase the contribution. So the most progressive but achievable approach is that which is being outlined, including: -
- No up-front fees for part-time students
- Bigger maintenance grants for the poorest students while at university
- £150 million National Scholarship Fund
- No repayments at all unless the graduate is earning £21,000 or more
- Richer graduates to pay a higher contribution than less well-off graduates
You may have heard that this policy is in fact fairer and more progressive than the alternative graduate tax which the NUS is arguing for in terms of enabling poorer students to be there in the first place - through scholarships, maintenance grants, deferred payments and so on. These proposals also mean the more you earn after you leave university, the more you pay, so those who go into voluntary work, internships, low paid jobs and so on will in fact pay much less than they do at the moment.
Admittedly the accompanying rise in fees to £6000 is not ideal, and universities which raise fees to £9000 or more (only permitted in “exceptional circumstances”) will be forced to invest excess profits in subsidising access for poorer students through a new regulatory body. However given the financial situation, the political make-up of the government and the funding universities need now this is the most progressive option available to us (including a cap at £9000 which Nick personally argued for, despite opposition from the conservatives). Further to this Nick Clegg, Vince Cable, Duncan Hames MP and many others in the party are regularly meeting with the NUS, students, think-tanks and so on to discuss what more we could be doing.
The overall message here is not a satisfying one - it looks certain that tuition fees will rise to £6000 a year, and this is a u-turn on the pledges every LibDem MP made. However these fees are not payable upfront, a much more progressive system is being implemented around them. The Liberal Democrat party stands apart from those in government and opposes any rise in fees, but with a strong economy and a majority Liberal Democrat government things would be vastly different. Perhaps in five years time if we have a fairer voting system we will hold more power in parliament (under AV we could have formed a coalition with Labour) and the economy will be in growth thanks to the difficult measures being taken now and this debate will be open to new arguments and options which are more satisfying to everyone within our party.
I hope this goes some way to restoring at some confidence - for so many of us at the grass roots we can only hope that we can weather this debate and continue to hold the Conservatives to account; make Britain a more Liberal place to live and get the economy under control so that the billions of pounds we currently spend on debt interest can instead be invested in education amongst other things.
And when Labour present a policy on which they are all united, and is a fairer and more progressive funding system which actually provides the funds universities need please will someone drop me an email?
With the Liberal Democrats dipping in the polls and Labour somehow taking the lead at one point we owe it to ourselves to look at what we’ve already achieved as a party in government and compare this with 13 years of inaction on electoral reform, diminished civil liberties and an illegal war. So here is the highlights list:
Cutting the Deficit
Danny Alexander, Chief Sec. to Treasury
After inheriting a massive deficit from Labour, with debt interests double the budget for the Department of Transport at £44bn we formed a coalition to act in the national interest and cut spending to sustainable levels.
Following the spending review business and market confidence are up, the economy is set to grow and investments in various departments are going ahead…
· Investment in High Speed Rail and Transport Infrastructure
· Maintaining Our Commitment to International Development
Fair Votes Referendum
It may only be a referendum on AV, but this is already more than Labour acheieved in thirteen years. This is our chance to send a message that the electoral system is broken - and though AV is undoubtedly a compromise it has ignited debate and would end safe seats and be a step in the right direction…
‘The Green Deal’
Chris Huhne, Sec. of State for Energy & Climate Change
The Green Deal, a Liberal Democrat manifesto commitment will be one of our proudest achievements in government. Businesses insulating homes at no cost to the occupants, this is a new and radical way of making energy efficiency avalable to both home owners and those who rent.
We will reduce our dependency on energy imports: boosting the economy and saving the environment. In addition this could create up to 100,000 jobs over the next five years. Read more here.
· Green Investment Bank with £1bn start up investment
· £2.9bn for international Climate Change action.
· £60m for Offshore Wind Power.
Sarah Teather, Minister of State for Children and Families
£2.5billion invested in giving opportunities to pupils from the poorest backgrounds to realise their potential. This is in the form of a cash incentive for every underprivileged child a school takes: meaning schools in deprived areas will receive cash to develop and improve, whilst the children won’t be hindered by inequality or lack of opportunity. This is part of a £7billion ‘Fairness’ Premium to enhance social mobility and the life chances of all young people. Read More Here and also here.
- Sure Start Centres protected
Earnings Link for Pensions Restored Local Post Offices saved
Scrapping of ID cards, Trident Renewal Delayed
By Tuesday I had a good feel for conference: whether it was putting my watch in my jacket pocket to get through security quicker or voting on conference floor. Lord McNally made the first speech talking about the coalition’s position on human rights, international development and particularly Pakistan. He also spoke warmly about his work with Ken Clarke in the Justice department. Following this a motion on “fairness in a time of austerity” reaffirmed the party’s commitment to Social Liberalism speaking up for students, children and those in poverty. I then spoke in an intervention in the Equal Marriage motion which also featured a moving anecdotal contribution from Brian Paddick MP. This motion which, as I pointed out, enshrined liberty and personal freedom passed overwhelmingly and so Liberal Democrat policy now supports civil partnerships for mixed sex couples and most progressively “marriage” for same-sex couples.
Deputy Leader of the Liberal Democrats Simon Hughes rounded off the morning’s events with his speech. This staked our claim as a continuing independent party, but with new found influence over the governing of our country. Hughes illustrated with an analogy:
“When you move from the touchline to the pitch, there is a risk you may get some knocks and pick up a few bruises – but on the touchline you never get the chance to change the game. Now that we are in the game, one thing that we can say with absolute certainty is that from now we will not be ignored.”
He ended on the note that we will go into the next election in 2015 fighting for Liberal Democrat policies but in the mean time we will stick up for Liberal values as “the strongest Liberal party in Europe”, and he closed:
“…at the next election, when the public see the difference we have made, delivering a Britain which is fairer, freer and greener - they will know that it would not have happened without us.”
Following Simon Hughes’ speech I attended a fringe entitled “Liberal Democrats take on the big society” which featured him, Sarah Teather MP (minister for children) and the chief executives of the RSA and Ipsos Mori. Now I was hoping for this event to be a deconstruction of David Cameron’s patronising “big society”, however Teather and Hughes both pointed out despite the way the Conservatives had gone about marketing this, it represented similar Liberal ideas of community involvement and participation. There was a consensus that the big society could be a foil for third sector cuts and polls from Ipsos Mori showed that people were moderately sceptical: the big society certainly wasn’t helping Liberal Democrats gain popularity and most people were only enthusiastic for “other people” to become involved with public service provision. The conclusion was that only if people could be encouraged to become more actively involved in their communities, if there more opportunities and access from volunteering to public services was this was a positive move.
I caught the end of a rally with Floella Benjamin (who gave me a hug afterwards) as part of the “coalition for young people” and then went to see Chris Huhne, Secretary of State for Energy and Climate Change address conference. Huhne delivered an astonishingly powerful speech in which he set out the “Green Deal” which if it goes ahead in full will revolutionise the energy industry in our country
“This is a revolution in our economy. It is as profound as moving to steam, iron and coal in the first industrial revolution. Or to steel, petrol and gas in the second. In Britain, in this third industrial revolution, we will build a new economy of low carbon and clean growth. As we have done before, we will show the world the way.”
I look forward to future moves on Huhne’s Green Deal, which are set to include a shift to electric power (rail, cars, heating), up to 250,000 new jobs by 2030 and a Green Investment Bank to fund research and projects in renewable energy.
Later in the evening a true giant of the party: Lord Paddy Ashdown was interviewed by Andrew Rawnsley which you can see here. He pointed out that the Labour negotiation team were impossible but he was “devastated” at the prospect of a coalition with the Conservatives. But after reading the Coalition Agreement his self-reported response was “f**k it, I’m with you” and now he is a passionate supporter of the coalition, and the most confident of the former leaders in Nick Clegg’s leadership.
Imagine the struggle of a normal Monday morning and add the red wine I was expected to drink as socialising with lobbyists, lib dems and leaders. Of course really it was intellectual discussion that I’d binged on, and I had had a couple of very late night/early morning combinations. So I struggled out of bed, ate my toast and headed off to an even more lively convention centre. The number of people and press present had effectively doubled Saturday-Sunday but Monday it felt like it had gone up by another third or so! The metal detector routine, the escalators, the auditorium were all bustling with activity and I wondered if Liberal Democrat conferences had ever seen so many people! I listened to a debate on free schools and academies where concerns were voiced that pushy parents and religious groups would exploit this policy and redefine “entry standards” out of keep with Liberal and pluralist values. This motion to oppose the coalition policy expressed a break from the Conservatives and showed that we as a party will remain independent and make clear to the leadership what we support or don’t. The motion was passed, and made the papers. I posted a video below which covers this motion and the response.
Lunchtime fringe reinforced the sheer numbers: I cued for the Guardian debate to be turned away due to “health & safety regulations” so instead went to a talk on “A marriage made in heaven? Can the Con-Lib coalition hold?” hosted by the Institute for Public Policy Research and featuring Jeremy Browne MP and Simon Hughes MP and others. Again there was a consensus that the coalition represented the best possibility: Liberal Democrats in government, Liberal policies being implemented, the Conservative manifesto not being fully implemented and of course the deficit being dealt with so that the billions saved on interest can be invested in schools, hospitals and the environment not debt. As I mentioned Jeremy Browne was much more perceptive and personable than in his speech and related how he had fought the Tories for his seat, as many LibDems had, and that if Nick Clegg wanted to become a Conservative politician there would have been many many easier ways than joining the Liberal Democrats who were polling around 3% at the time he joined.
Getting back to main conference after lunch I was told that the auditorium was full and joined what must’ve been a couple of thousand people in an ‘overspill’ hall to watch the Leader’s Speech on a gigantic cinema screen. I was a bit miffed to not be in the room, and I imagine this was to do with the highest ever numbers with around 7500 people attending including a heavy throng of journalists. As anyone interested enough to read this will know, it was an excellent speech and Nick Clegg pointed out the achievements of the coalition and the importance of a Liberal Democrat presence in government. You can read one of the numerous analysis online, however I thought the basics were that it was a brilliantly written and delivered speech - as LibDems and increasingly the wider public have come to expect of Mr Clegg - and addressed the conference’s concerns over being too close to the Tories and losing our identity. Needless to say there was a strong atmosphere of solidarity, passion and a standing ovation.
My evening fringe was a really great talk from MPs David Heath, Jo Swinson and Julian Hubbert about the many roles of a Member of Parliament, neatly summed up by Heath as being “super-councillor”, Parliamentarian, Community leader and more. A lot of lobbyists and staff in the audience. Later that evening I was turned away from a Social-Liberal fringe event, and was really starting to get annoyed at excessive numbers! So I decided to go to the Hilton bar before the South-West reception and was sidelined into an event I hadn’t considered…
This turned out to be possibly the best part of conference for me: chatting with Sir Menzies Campbell and then a brilliant lecture from American pollster and founder of MORI (as in IPSOS-MORI) breaking down the election and outlining the future of politics as firmly routed in coalitions. This was easily the most intellectually stimulating and insightful event I attended, and we were invited back for annual gatherings as a little strategic branch of the party.
Later evening was the South & Western Counties reception (I skipped food at the previous event for this!) where I networked furiously - talking to lobbyists from Airbus, PPC’s, Paddy [Lord] Ashdown, and many many more. It was invigorating to see so many people fighting to win in the Liberal Democrat heartlands of the South-West but did deprive me of the early night I’d hoped for!
Rising early Sunday morning I set out to soak up some of the atmosphere on the ground at conference. The foyer was already filling up with press - from Jon Soppel with BBC breakfast to Newsnight’s Michael Crick seemingly looking for trouble! Looking around the exhibitors stalls there was an impressive presence of pressure groups and charities including the Electoral Reform Society, CND and the NSPCC getting plenty of attention. General [open] discussions tended to be centred around the ideological realignment of the party and how the left and social liberalism was being maintained, and of course the cuts. The standard of intellectual perceptions and debate was impressively high and a warm, tolerant attitude underpinned the common Liberal ethos.
Later in the morning Danny Alexander made his speech to conference. Unfortunately the Chief Secretary of the Treasury is more brains and less charisma, but he communicated his agenda and certainly reassured me that the LibDems are standing up to the Tories in coalition and guiding the cuts to be as compassionate as possible. He rightly pointed out that ”we did in thirteen weeks what labour didn’t do in thirteen years” in terms of restoring the earnings link to pensions and lifting 900,000 people out of tax from next year.
For lunchtime fringe I was accosted to “meet Nick Clegg” and entered an almost empty room of nervous staff trying to fill this unadvertised under-35s event. I was sat down for a few minutes when I turned around to see the Rt Hon. Mr Clegg on his mobile at the back of the room! Instead of any event getting underway in the formal sense he came up and greeted us and chatted about giving young people the best start from an early age in the education system, not just training workers, and he spoke passionately about justice reforms. He also mentioned how hungry he was and only half-jokingly asked if anyone had sandwiches he could share! I was impressed to see that in a private, press-free room Nick was still the inspiring, charismatic leader he is on stage, but also down to earth, personable, really funny and most importantly not patronising!
After Nick Clegg left I stuck around for an open discussion with Duncan Hames MP, Martin Shapland from Liberal Youth and Cowley Street staff to talk about educating and reaching out to young people about politics and the party. We had some really interesting ideas about printed media, college visits, online presence and much more and I was pleased that Duncan and the campaigns staff took it really seriously and are going to keep us up to date on what ideas they take forward.
Back to the main conference for the Q&A with the man we’d just been chatting casually to and it was impressive to realise how genuine and passionate Nick Clegg is about the coalition and the new era of politics we are entering. He was exactly the right mix of a familiar face to conference and the second most powerful politician in Britain and there was a constructive, enthused atmosphere on conference floor. Next was Jeremy Browne’s speech as Foreign Office Minister of State. This was much more mechanized and the tiniest bit self-important, but he isdoing important work at the heart of the foreign office and redeemed himself in a more relaxed and intimate fringe event later in conference.
Sunday night things really picked up on the Fringes. I went to a packed Radio 4 recording for Monday’s ‘World at One’ which featured Lynne Featherstone (home office minister for equalities), Richard Grayson (former head of policy and general party insider), and Mark Littlewood (Director of Institute for Economic Affairs and former Chief Press Spokesman) . The food was excellent but the debate held its own and the panel were genuinely convinced the coalition would last and continue to implement Liberal policies and prove the Liberal Democrats capability to govern. There were a lot of clashes between the somewhat disillusioned Grayson on the left and Littlewood very much on the right economically, but the standard of even those moments was excellent and I felt like I learned a considerable amount from listening to the debate. I only regret that I can’t find the recording online!
Following this a fringe on future student funding from NUS President Aaron Porter, Liberal Youth Chair Martin Shapland, Million+ Director Les Ebdon and Deputy LibDem Leader Simon Hughes. This was another sophisticated debate on university funding and how to avoid brain drains, ensure equality and continue to support the country’s intellectual potential. Simon Hughes was hesitantly enthusiastic about future moves on a graduate contribution system regardless of the Lord Browne report and even spoke of a possibility (“I can’t confirm anything” he stressed repeatedly) that the coalition would commit to abolishing fees, and certainly the Liberal Democrats would continue to fight for this.
Finally a late fringe (9.30-10.30pm) with Danny Alexander and the Chief Exec of RSPB which affirmed a commitment to the environment, farming and maintaining biodiversity in the British countryside. There were also interesting points about everything from renting solar panels to getting school children out to see the countryside.
Liberal Democrat Autumn Conference, 2010
Liverpool, 18-22nd September
Once I had made it through the airport-style security checks - reminding us we now have ministers, Secretaries of State and the Deputy Prime Minister of the United Kingdom representing our party and our Liberal ideology in government - I was surprised to enter a foyer of Liberal Democrats in smart suits and with blackberries and iPhones as opposed to the bearded, sandal wearing types the press would lead you to believe are at the core of the party. I was impressed by the clear range of ages and backgrounds and by the overall professionalism which set the tone for my time at the core of the Liberal Democrat party.
Events really began that evening with the Fair Votes Rally. I read a Telegraph write up the next day which described the apathy and “silence” of conference and for the first time I really began to understand the hostility of some politicians towards the press. A conference hall packed tightly with thousands of LibDems and littered with MPs and press throughout created and atmosphere nothing short of electric. Art Malik was a laid-back presence as host, where perhaps we could have benefited from someone who reflected the fiery passion and anticipation of the crowd, however this was delivered in the form of MPs Jo Swinson and Tim Farron and the independent anti-sleaze former-MP Martin Bell. Highlights included Farron’s joke “now that Nick is down the hall from Andy Coulson he doesn’t have to check his own phone messages!”
Then the Deputy Prime Minister of the United Kingdom, The Rt Hon. Nick Clegg MP took to the stage. To deny that he remains at the head of a united Liberal Democrat party who passionately support his leadership would simply be untrue. A rapturous standing ovation greeted him, and delegates sent a clear message that he had our support. You can watch a clip of his speech here: http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/uk-politics-11359715
Following Nick Clegg’s speech I attended a first-timer’s drinks reception - the first of many glasses of red wine to come - and spoke to Tim Farron about the influx of new membership and repositioning of the party as serious contenders for government from now on. I was surprised again by the diversity in the room in terms of age, background and gender especially and doubted a Tory conference would attract so many different individuals.
To round off the evening I proceeded to conference bar where I chatted to Vince Cable no less, who reassured us that despite his deep, lifelong hostility towards Tories he found them professional and at least bearable to work with, and there was no risk of him resigning. He seemed to genuinely believe the coalition was here to stay: a view which was reinforced by MPs at every level throughout conference…
First of all a word on the election: following a swell of support both locally and nationally the Liberal Democrats were disappointed not to see a greater turnout in favour of change and progression. Whilst in the Cotswolds we achieved the highest ever Lib Dem result, we failed in unseating the sitting MP Mr Clifton-Brown who was regrettably embroiled in the expenses scandal, yet remains unapologetic - going as far to claim “you’d all have done it too” in a shockingly arrogant response. This is a dangerous precedent to set for democracy and what we will tolerate in the Cotswolds, and sets us behind the changing tide of reform and transparency for a more open and honest politics.
Moving on to the new and unanticipated political landscape we find a power-share between the new Prime Minister and key Liberal Democrat figures including leader Nick Clegg and Vince Cable. This turn was largely unexpected to all, but has been welcomed as a departure from stale Labour politics and represents an opportunity for real change and progression.
Cotswolds Liberal Democrat Martin Harwood has summed up an atmosphere of cautious support, stating “”I didn’t join the party half a century ago to stay in the comfort zone of opposition. I joined to see Liberal policies being introduced.” and following the Queen’s speech we have certainly seen a heavily Liberal agenda, with many key measures introduced: such as scrapping ID cards and similar waste, tax cuts for all, a reform of the banking system and a clean-up of politics with electoral reform to be debated and voted on nationally.
Locally there is a mixed atmosphere: Leader of Cotwolds Lib Dems, Cllr Paul Hodgkinson, has expressed a mood of cautious optimism. Whilst he and the local Lib Dems offer to openly and constructively work with the Conservatives on Costwolds District Council, they have been met with mixed responses: some of the more responsible Tory members recognize a need to work together constructively to achieve the best representation and decisions for Cotswolds constituents, yet a few select figures within Cotswolds Conservatives are attempting to stifle any attempt to locally reconstruct an atmosphere of coalition and progression, and refuse to put the local people first by getting in the way of co-operative politics.
We can only hope that Liberal Democrats and Conservatives will continue to work together constructively to bring about broadly Liberal measures and help people in Britain and in the Cotswolds to get on with their lives and prosper in work, business and personal life. Liberal Democrats will continue to offer a constructive contribution, and while we will continue to fight the Tories on key issues such as Human Rights, Student Top-Up Fees, Civil Liberties, Fair Tax Cuts we will embrace any offers for co-operation and progression.
The verdict on the national coalition, and whether Cotswolds District Council should make more of a place for diverse voices and Liberal Democrat representation remains up to you, and we will see this reflected in next year’s local elections.