With around two thirds of members new to the party since GE2015, I was curious as I set off to conference this year to discover if the party would feel any different. Surely such a big influx would have a big impact.
What I found was surprising. All these new members have certainly infused the party with fresh vigour and assurance. But there’s been no discernible shift in the party’s politics at all. It’s as though all these newbies have slipped on their Liberal Democrat membership and discovered that it fits them like a glove.
This was visible in the debates, as speaker after speaker affirmed that this was their first time on the podium at conference — by my count at least half the speakers were from the 60,000 or so who have joined in the past two years. Their ages ranged from 18 to 80, their accents from home counties to the Wirral and beyond. But they all spoke with one heart.
Monday’s debate on terrorism and civil liberties followed exactly the same pattern. For me, this is a totemic issue — I’m in the Liberal Democrats because it’s the only party that refuses to compromise our democratic freedoms. Among more familiar names — including Ed Davey MP, longstanding councillor Fran Oborski and one-time London Mayoral candidate Brian Paddick — there were a diverse range of first-time speakers, including Muslim members and a former bomb disposal expert in the British Army. And running through every contribution was the same concern for civil liberties and respect for diversity that I’ve known in this party in more than four decades of being a member.
I was also reassured by the emphasis on social justice and public services in the motions that conference delegates chose for emergency debate. The selection exactly matched my own preferences in the ballot on Saturday morning — universal credit, treatment of disabled people and teacher recruitment.
I was not able to stay for Tuesday’s session but Monday’s debate on Universal Credit included some harrowing accounts from councillors and others who have witnessed the appalling hardship being caused by the Government’s mishandling of Universal Credit. This is the other thing that makes me proud to be a Liberal Democrat — politics isn’t a theoretical debate for us, it’s about making a difference for people in the real world.
A virtual universe beyond
But how representative is conference of the wider party, of those who aren’t committed or involved enough to spend their weekend debating politics? The one thing I wondered about is, where were all these new, digital grassroots organizations?
I looked in vain for exhibition stands by the likes of LibDem Expand, LibDem Newbies, Radical Association and Radix, or for other opportunities to connect (I know Radix had a fringe meeting but it took place after I had to leave). I have a sense that there’s a virtual universe of LibDem activism that wasn’t plugged into conference this year and that’s something perhaps the party or these grassroots movements should look at co-ordinating for future events.
On the whole though I came away from conference feeling confident and optimistic about the party’s direction. All this new blood is reinvigorating our commitment to everything the Liberal Democrats stand for. It’s like all these new people who’ve joined have simply come home to where they belong. Now all of us must work to unleash this huge potential.