Published on September 24th, 2015 |
by Eleanor Newis
Liberal Democrat Conference 2015: The New Opposition?
Tim Farron made his first conference speech as party leader at the end of a rather tepid few days: the Liberal Democrats’ stint in government ended in May with a stunning fall from fifty-six MPs to just eight in one night. The 2015 general election, Clegg’s subsequent resignation and the pundits’ talk of the party’s demise, cast an uncertain light on this year’s conference in Bournemouth. Yet, the weather was sunny, so was Farron, and so were at least around a third of the delegates shown on TV during his speech. The new leader was doing fairly well: rallying his audience, outlining familiar liberal policies, and calling on them to, as he put it, march “to the sound of gunfire.” Then, Farron did something unprecedented: he directly told his party, and the media, that the Labour party was now unelectable and he planned to take their place.
Whilst he may not have said so in quite as many words, Farron’s meaning was clear enough. Describing the current political situation of Britain, the new Liberal leader stated that the country “needs an opposition who are economically credible.” He went on to say that if his party does not step up to the proverbial plate, the UK will have a “one party monopoly”; that the Liberal Democrats have furthermore “just been given the chance to take centre stage.” There is a very good argument to say that Farron is right: the election of Jeremy Corbyn as leader of the Labour party has meant a swing to the left in one of Britain’s two main parties; a swing touted as their political death by Tories, some pundits, and even selected parliamentary members. The Liberal Democrats have obviously decided to respond to Labour’s hoisting of the red flag with an almost regimented adherence to a centrist line, one which was reiterated by their new leader – presumably in the hope that this line will lead them back towards Downing Street.
Now, this is not a new line for Liberal Democrats: back in 2010 when we all still liked Nick Clegg, he positioned the party this way for the entire general election campaign. Now I’ve mentioned the elephant in the room after two paragraphs, I’ll just take the opportunity to catch you all up with Clegg’s whereabouts. I can, first off, confirm he is still alive – which some will be pleased by, and others dismayed at – and he was also present at Farron’s speech, and throughout the conference. If you’re wondering what Clegg is doing these days, he’s just set up a new company called Open Reason, to conduct policy research on ‘important’ issues, or pet projects, whichever you prefer. You’ll probably be seeing a lot more of him soon, as he is apparently going to play a large role in the campaign to stay in the EU. I personally think this could be a big problem for the campaign – you know, what with the British electorate’s collective wrinkling of their noses at him in May – but, far from distancing himself from his predecessor, Farron openly declared his agreement with him.
This agreement was not confined to membership of the EU, but extended to a general endorsement of the Liberal Democrat’s decision to go into coalition with the Tories, and their actions in the following five years. Though he admitted that the party had “made mistakes” in power, the new leader stressed that the last five months of a majority Conservative government have demonstrated the party’s influence in coalition – the policies of the last five months, he maintains, are due to the lack of reigning in by a Liberal check and balance. Now, I started by saying that Farron had told the conference that they were going to replace the Labour opposition, and this is how: the Liberal Democrats have changed nothing since May, they are banking on others changing. They are relying on the Labour party shifting unsuccessfully to the left; they are relying on the electorate responding negatively to this, and they are also relying on the Conservative economic plan collapsing.
It is rather telling, is it not, that whilst the rest of the UK is still grinding their teeth at the thought of Clegg, Farron is refusing to disown him. He even quoted him in his inaugural speech. This could be classed as integrity, a continuity that shows the party is really committed to its policies, and in part it probably is. But, I would also argue it is taking full and open advantage of today’s political climate: Farron even declared that “there is nothing grubby or unprincipled about wanting to win, nothing noble about defeat”, and in a refreshing snippet of MP honesty said “losing sucks.” Of course, the Conservative party has always been historically good at mobilising campaigns, forming the machinery which gets parties elected, while the left has struggled. In their claiming of the coveted centre ground, the Liberal Democrats are placing themselves head-to-head with a Tory party who has made the same political move over the course of a good few years, and who are very good at it.
They are also making this political move with a parliamentary party consisting of a grand total of eight MPs, whilst the Tories currently have three hundred and thirty-one. I mean, I know these numbers aren’t all that matters, but that’s pretty significant. But, after all, Farron said in his speech that 20, 000 new members had joined the Liberal Democrats since May – so the support is there on the ground, right? Well, no, actually. Following the speech, a lovely little section on the Channel 4 website called Factcheck, went over the figures and found a few gaps. The Liberals stated on 11th May, after the 2015 election, 7, 296 members had joined, raising their membership to 54, 240; this suggests they had 46, 944 before the election. On Sunday, the party said they now have 60, 844 members – but, if 20, 000 have joined since May, there should be around 67, 000 now. So, there are about 6, 000 Liberals unaccounted for: if you think you have a sighting, get in touch with Factcheck or the Liberal Democrat press office, who were clueless as to their whereabouts.
So, the point of all those numbers is that the Liberal Democrats are going to have a very difficult fight on their hands if they insist on becoming the opposition. They are not only very far away from having the right number of MPs, they are also apparently rather far away from even being able to calculate their own membership numbers. But, all this pales in comparison to the risk they are taking in ruling out a change in their policies, and the way they present them to the public: relying on circumstance is probably one of the most dangerous strategies in politics. Relying on such circumstances as the future of the Labour party, the British electorate’s reaction to a vegetarian Socialist, or the possibility of a lot of MPs defecting to your party, is a whole other level. These things are probably only beaten in volatility by the British weather. Whilst Farron said a few things which were genuinely heartfelt and warmly received – like his powerful stance on the refugee crisis, which received a thirty-second standing ovation – he has not redefined the party, or himself. I can’t help but feel the Liberal Democrats are waiting now – for us all to forget tuition fees, austerity, and Clegg’s increasingly pallor during those five years. Only time will tell if this works, but for now, the Liberals are sticking to their guns.