Don’t write us off yet – the Lib Dems are serious about policy at this low-key conference
The big news from the Liberal Democrat conference was that there wasn’t really any news. On Monday, the middle day of the conference, The Today Programme’s 7.10am and 8.10am slots were both occupied by the news of Jeremy Corbyn’s plans for bringing unity to the Labour party in parliament. Again on Tuesday, the day of Tim Farron’s big Leader’s Speech, the Lib Dems did not feature at all.
Of course, it’s not surprising that the Lib Dems are failing to cut through. As the joke doing the rounds of Westminster goes, Parliament went into recess so that 8 Lib Dems could meet for a pint in a pub in Brighton.
But there have been some interesting policy announcements. Norman Lamb, who continues to grow his position as a leading, progressive voice on social care, called on Saturday for a “dedicated NHS and care tax” to offset funding shortfall for health and social care services. This was reinforced by the party leader in his speech too.
Lamb also joined forces with former Shadow Minister for Care and Older People, Liz Kendall and former Parliamentary Under Secretary of State for Care Quality, Dr Daniel Poulter to urge the Government to establish a cross-party commission to examine the future of the NHS and social care. This is a group of three, very credible Parliamentary voices so expect them to make some noise with this initiative.
Elsewhere, there was some good politics. Nick Clegg, in his new role as the party’s EU spokesman, said the Conservatives have “absolutely no clue” about what ‘Brexit means Brexit’ means. Tim Farron doubled-down on this claim, saying it would be “utterly despicable for this Conservative government to impose on the British people a deal that nobody voted for”. Farron’s proposal is, like Labour leadership contender Owen Smith’s, to offer the electorate a second referendum.
However with such a thin fringe guide, this wasn’t a conference for lobbyists. Nor was it a conference for the media (most of the lobby correspondents only attended on Tuesday for Farron’s Leader’s Speech). For the Liberal Democrats, this was a conference about trying to prove they still exist with some opportunities to play to their strengths of pro-immigration, civil liberties, legalising cannabis and the environment. They also sought to point out to the few who were listening that:
- 1 million more people voted for the Liberal Democrats in the 2015 General Election than for the SNP
- in the local elections this year, the Liberal Democrats made bigger gains than any other party – and have gained 13 seats without losing any since May.
I sat with some members of the Lib Dem policy team during a fringe event on early years who frantically noted down all the key facts, figures and ideas of the panellists. It seems the party is very much in ‘listening’ mode – which presents good opportunities for organisations seeking to influence political debate and the Lib Dems can still have an impact, especially in the Lords. With the recent upsurge in Lib Dem associated think tanks (see the emergence of the Education Policy Institute led by David Laws, and which has pinched key civil servants from DfE), there are plenty of new relationships to be built. With Labour in so much turmoil, it would be unwise to write off the Liberal Democrats however low key their Conference.