Behind the scenes at the Liberal Democrat conference

This year’s Liberal Democrat conference felt very different to any I have attended in the past. Inevitably there were fewer exhibitors and campaigning groups and nowhere near as many businesses and lobbyists lurking around the bars. There were fewer protestors outside than when the party was in Government. There were also far fewer security guards scanning rucksacks and patting down delegates. No-one wants to lobby us at the moment. No-one even wants to blow us up any more.

But that wasn’t the reason the conference felt different. In spite of a crushing defeat at the last general election and being on the losing side in the Brexit referendum, the Liberal Democrat conference in Brighton was full of new members. I realised this during a particularly dreary conference debate on the first day, one which would normally have seen seasoned delegates scuttling out to the exhibition hall for a cup of herbal tea and an organic muesli bar. Instead of an empty conference hall, the chairs were all full of bright-eyed and bushy-tailed new members, listening attentively. It turns out that losing elections seems to create a huge sympathy surge of active new members.

The same new members queued up in a huge line around the exhibition centre to buy Nick Clegg’s book Politics that was launched this week and packed out the largest room in the Hilton Metropole to hear the former party leader ‘in conversation’ with Andrew Rawnsley at an Observer fringe event. The warmth and affection for the party’s former party leader was clear and genuine and inspite of leading the party to its worst General Election result since its formation, Nick Clegg’s only crime seems to be, in the words of the esteemed Observer columnist, to have massively underestimated, “what ruthless b*****ds the Tories are.”
Nick Clegg’s replacement could not be more different to the former Deputy Prime Minister. Tim Farron is from Preston and sounds it. Comprehensive educated rather than Clegg’s public school and someone who cut his political teeth campaigning against the Tories in the Thatcher era. It is impossible to imagine Tim Farron ever announcing a coalition with a Conservative leader in a Downing St rose garden bromance.

Farron is nailing his party’s flag firmly to the dream of Britain somehow coming to its senses and clinging on to membership of the EU. His strategy for this is to call for a referendum on whatever new relationship the Conservatives manage to negotiate with the EU. This is a tricky path to tread, as a party with ‘Democrats’ can’t afford to look like it is ignoring the result of the first referendum. Still it might appeal to the 48% who voted to remain and has already attracted City ‘superwoman’ and EU fan Nicola Horlick to join the party.

Tim Farron’s strategy to re-build the party is to focus on grass-roots local government success. Indeed the Liberal Democrats have picked up a succession of local council by-election victories over recent months. Party President Sal Brinton skilfully used the names of each of the 15 council wards with newly elected Liberal Democrat councillors to boost the morale of the party faithful in her Rally speech on the Saturday evening. All she had to do was read out obscure ward names and she had the crowd applauding and smiling. Just saying the words, “Four Lanes District, Cornwall, Lymington and Pennington Town Council or Sheffield Mossborough ward filled the hall with massive cheers.

In one of his speeches, Tim Farron quoted Winston Churchill (who started his political career as a Liberal) saying that, “Success consists of going from failure to failure without loss of enthusiasm.” Farron went on to argue that Churchill’s definition of success would the Liberal Democrats the most successful party ever. There was certainly no lack of enthusiasm at the Liberal Democrat conference. The only problem is that significant electoral success at a national level for the Liberal Democrats will require a little more strategic re-branding rather than simply spending the next four years re-fighting the referendum.