This is my eighth year of Lib Dem Conferences. It’s fair to say they are never the same – from the Coalition Government, significant election defeats, and the rise and fall of different leaders (I’ve counted five in eight years).
As this conference was online, it was particularly unique. The tech platform worked quite well for users (although there’s always one who can’t work it), but less so for speakers. There was a classic situation where speakers in a fringe event, including former Leader Jo Swinson, were discussing how they were going to run the session and who in the audience they thought would be ‘chatty’, without realising everyone could hear them. Also unfortunate was speakers being stuck in waiting rooms and unable to speak to motions, particularly when it happened on a controversial motion on banning conversion therapy, leading to the chat function exploding with conspiracies.
More broadly however, it was an online system that allowed the Party to continue with its party functions fairly smoothly. Lib Dem Conference, similarly to Labour, has a purpose – to vote in policy debates, under a one-member, one-vote system. Voting was quick and easy, and policies were debated thoroughly.
However, it is clear that fundamental issues remain for the Lib Dems. The Party has seen its membership drop by 27% on this time last year and disquiet on policy matters is rumbling in the background. Some members feel the Party’s focus on ‘nimby-ism’, in their opposition to planning reforms, has led to younger members distancing themselves from the Party and there was noticeable backlash when Home Affairs Spokesperson Alistair Carmichael spoke about the Party’s opposition to vaccine passports.
The Party is not about to waver, however, as these policies are considered necessary to “smash the Blue Wall” and appeal to Conservative voters. Carmichael spoke about the need for the Lib Dems to oppose reforms of ID cards as they would create an “illiberal society”, which is what the Party fundamentally stood for. Campaigns around planning reforms also led to the Lib Dems’ shock win in the Chesham and Amersham by-election with a swing of 25%, indicating that their policy was working. I have to add, the lessons of the Chesham and Amersham by-election were flaunted throughout conference as gospel – there is a clear belief that the potent impact of nimby-ism isn’t going away anytime soon.
Ed Davey’s leader’s speech on Sunday therefore focussed on safer ground, announcing policies on education and social care. The speech went well – there was no unfortunate “erotic spasm” moment – but it didn’t make a splash (as is now usual for the Party). Davey focused on a “massive COVID education catch-up plan” that was “urgent” and announced that the Party would give families a £200 voucher per child to spend on activities such as extra tutoring, music or sports clubs. As expected, Davey also spoke to one of the Party’s (and his) strengths, carers, criticising the Government’s health and social care levy and pledging to “empower carers” by giving them their own budget and control over care provision.
All in all it was a rather underwhelming conference for a Party that needs to motivate its campaigners and prevent membership dropping further. The Party has a clear focus now, to “smash the Blue Wall”, but it also needs unity on controversial policy matters if it is to run successful campaigns on the scale of Chesham and Amersham. Davey is doing his best to steady the ship but I don’t think the Tories are too worried for now.
The image was taken from a physical Cicero/amo event hosted with Sir Ed Davey in 2019.
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