This year I marked a decade of being a Liberal Democrat. My flimsy paper membership card has long been lost, and so too had my fighting spirit. Like many other Party members, I was always uneasy with my party’s role in coalition, having grown up staunchly on the left of the party.
With the General Election leaving the Lib Dems with a mere eight MPs, and positioned forth in the polls, I journeyed down to Bournemouth today to see whether new leader Tim Farron could spark the same #LibDemFightBack in me that has adorned our website and messaging since May. If the party is to reverse its fortunes, disengaged members will need to be reenergised into being leaflet deliverers and telephone canvassers.
And so, with a longing to be won over, I sat in a packed-out conference hall (apparently this was “the largest conference in party history”) and listened to Tim do what he does best. With his own brand of folksy charm, reminiscent of the kind of man you might meet at a country pub, he introduced himself to the world, rallied party members, challenged both Cameron and Corbyn in a grown up way, and issued a call to disaffected liberals in all parties and none – to join us.
Farron’s themes were clear: defend the Lib Dem’s record in government (a climb down from his position in the leadership contest); the housing shortage; protect and develop Britain’s small businesses; invest in the green economy; challenge the government on refugees; and ensure the UK remains in the EU.
There were attacks on both the Conservatives and Labour. But unlike previous years, rather than being cheap and tribal they were entrenched in a liberal ethos and a clear policy position.
On housing, the policy area most fleshed out, Farron made a raft of commitments: to build 300,000 new homes a year; use Lib Dem Lords to block the expansion of right-to-buy; give councillors more freedom to build; form ten new gardens cities; and create a new housing investment bank.
On refugees, Farron attacked Cameron’s indifference to the humanitarian crisis on Europe’s doorstep. He challenged the government’s reactionary and calculated response, arguing that they have done just enough to prevent a media frenzy but not enough to help those refugees who need Britain’s compassion. In Farron’s words, “no one clings to the underside of a lorry so that they can lead an easy life on British benefits”. His challenge to Cameron was to stand up to small-minded little-Englanders, and opt-in to the EU’s refugee quota. The hall erupted into a standing ovation.
Turning his attention to Corbyn, Farron attacked his ambivalence toward the EU, calling this a threat to Britain. If anyone was unclear before, they shouldn’t be now: the Lib Dems are the party for a United Kingdom in Europe.
More scorn was poured on Corbyn for his “fantasy economics” and for failing to be a credible and serious party of opposition – the Lib Dems, Farron said, would be that party of opposition. Those who thought Farron would take the party to the left may have been disappointed. He committed to the planned 2017/18 end to the structural deficit and defended our record in government. But he also reiterated that the Lib Dems were the party of the underdogs and the voiceless, making it clear that the burden for clearing the deficit should fall on those with the broadest shoulders. He emphasised that individuals should be free to be the best they can be, and that a liberal is someone who looks for the best in people, not the worst; that everyone is of equal value and that people achieve more together than they do apart.
These are the values that many, including myself, joined the party to fight for. Farron was clear these would be at the heart of his leadership.
Throughout proceedings the man next to me could hardly contain himself, delivering a one man standing ovation at every opportunity. For my part, there were several occasions where Farron’s impassioned calls sent shivers down my spine.
Ultimately Farron delivered the speech he needed to, and the fight back really does begin here. Members were fired up, opponents warned, and sympathisers courted. It is unlikely to bring a poll bump, and with Lib Dems knowing the media has gone back to ignoring us again the ground war must begin in earnest.
A doubter walking in, a stalwart I walked out – Farron laid out a vision I could buy into, and one I could proudly campaign for. I’ll have a bundle of Focus leaflets in hand at the next opportunity (just so long as it stops raining!)