The Liberal Democrats held their autumn conference in Bournemouth between 19th and 23rd September.
By all rights, it should have been a wake, following their disastrous May 2015 general election results. They have been reduced from a party of coalition government to a fringe party with just 8 MPs. They are no longer the third biggest party in Westminster – it is now the SNP by some margin – and no longer entitled to ask two questions at PMQs. They have noticeably fallen off the radar of television chat and panel shows.
But the mood was overwhelmingly optimistic. The theme of the conference was LibDemFightback, and there are signs to show just that. The Bournemouth conference hall was packed for the key speeches, party membership numbers are continuing to climb and have passed the 60,000 mark, and new party leader Tim Farron has an abudance of enthusiasm and dedication.
There was one point of sadness, and that was reflecting on the loss of Charles Kennedy. Many kind and tearful words were spoken in remembrance of him, culminating in a video tribute and standing ovation. In Farron’s closing speech, he cited Kennedy’s death as more devestating than the general election result, saying: “Charles’s death has robbed us of the sharpest mind, the wittiest tongue and the nicest bloke.”
It was this closing speech from Tim Farron that really stood out, and it showed all of the reasons why the Lib Dems chose him as their leader. He was easy to relate to, with his soft Lancashire accent telling conference about his humble background and daunting first days in the House of Commons. He appealed to a broader sense of liberalism, saying that it is the party’s duty to represent the unvoiced and disadvantaged. He was strong on policy issues when he was talking about what the Lib Dems achieved in government, and what they plan to do now in focusing on housing, including a call to build 10 new garden cities. But he was absolutely sublime on the refugee crisis, starting with a reflection on his trip to Calais in August and ending with an indictment of the government’s response:
“I met with people and heard their stories of harrowing risks, dangers fled and desperation for their children. I have to tell you, not a single one of them mentioned coming to Britain to draw benefits. Indeed, more than that. Not a single one of them had ever heard of Britain’s benefits system.
They wanted to come to Britain to be safe, to work, to contribute. They see our country as a place of opportunity, a place where you can make the most of yourself, a place where you can be the best you can be – a liberal place.
Because I tell you frankly: you don’t risk everything clinging to the bottom of a truck if you’re looking for an easy life.”
“And what we’ve had from David Cameron is a careful calibration of what it will take to manage that story, the minimum effort for the maximum headlines. And a policy which will not directly help a single one of the hundreds of thousands currently on the move across Europe.
It’s pitiful and embarrassing and makes me so angry. Because I am proud to be British and I am proud of Britain’s values, so when Mr Cameron turns his back on the needy and turns his back on our neighbours, I want the world to know: he does not speak for me, he does not speak for us, he does not speak for Britain.”
Farron’s delivery of “he does not speak for me, he does not speak for us, he does not speak for Britain” was perfectly paced and drew a huge round of applause from the conference hall. He went on to speak of the compassion shown by Britain taking in refugees from Uganda in the 1930s and following WWII in the 1940s, calling for the UK government to sign up to the EU quota “to take our share of the refugees to be relocated throughout the continent.”
So, a promising beginning, and the party faithful are on boad with both Farron and the fightback. Now comes the real challenge for the Lib Dems: showing the necessity of their survival to the rest of the nation.