My first Liberal Democrat conference this week was a thoroughly enriching experience. As a dedicated member of a party at its lowermost ebb in recent memory, having the opportunity to collude with like-minded individuals was invaluably refreshing and will do wonders in aiding our ‘fightback’.
In truth, Lib Dem conference is a strange land filled with gospel choirs, jovially witty songs and jokes about the breaking Prosciutto Affair. A place where I’m Paddy Ashdown’s idol, Nick Clegg is a humble giant and Alistair Carmichael stays up to discuss skinny jeans in to the early hours of the morning. However, despite the breezy spirit and happy-go-lucky merriment, the lasting legacy of autumn conference in Bournemouth is a serious one, a clear direction for our party to go to next.
Alistair Carmichael told me that he had noticed me in the auditorium after the Trident policy vote and expressed that he was struck by how ‘pissed off’ I looked – which was fair, because I was. A loaded debate which favoured the parliamentary party’s and established Lib Dems’ stance saw the party defer on making a real policy on Trident either way, this limp-wristed policy is all too indicative of our contemporary public perception – and we need to counteract that.
Economic sensibility is not somewhere we lost votes, in fact, I’d be willing to wager that our economic credentials are considered among the finest in the country, at least that’s what The Institute of Fiscal Studies thinks. Yet, we have lost our identity as a radically progressive party, or at least, it has been diluted and overshadowed by others. Small ‘l’ liberals in this country care about economic sensibility, of course they do, but they care about civil liberties, they care about internationalism, they care about recreational drugs, euthanasia, equalities and social justice and we need to rediscover that unapologetic vibrant liberalism that makes our ideology so popular the world over. It’s as Tim Farron noted in his first keynote speech; we need liberals to become Liberal Democrats.
My views were shared by a friend I made, a long-term party member who was attending his first conference, named Fareed. He and I spent many hours agreeing with our fundamental vision for our party and it was one we relayed to an enthusiastic albeit exhausted Norman Lamb late on Tuesday night. Although, we agreed on our collective vision, Fareed was able to articulate it far more successfully than I, a further testament to how enriching a strong membership can be. The Liberal Democrats need to make noise, we spent five years in a gruelling coalition government and barely anybody knows what we did whilst in power. We didn’t shout loud enough about delivering same-sex marriage, raising the personal allowance and ending child immigration detention centres. When parties and movements make noise, the people follow. UKIP have chirped on and on about the corrupt establishment politics of Brussels and Westminster and have seen a remarkable rise in the popular vote and too a win in last year’s European elections. Similarly, the SNP were able to bang the drum of Scottish independence last year and made such a racket that they won nearly every single Scottish seat in Westminster. People are intrigued by blare, titillated by dynamism and enthused by effervescence; I’m calling on my party to be one of unadulterated, uninhibited loud liberalism that will inspire Britons from St. Ives to Shetland.
My friend Fareed then went on to provide me with a stunning metaphor for our party. He is an avid fan of Classics, and particularly stories from the Iliad. During a lively chat at the bar this week, he told me the story of Cassandra, a woman punished by the gods with the curse of being able to foresee the future but never being able to convince people that she was being truthful about her predictions. It was during this casual sharing of interests that his eyes widened and he uttered the all too prophetic and tragically accurate phrase; “we’re the Cassandra party”. We were right about the welfare state, we were right about Iraq and we were right about the coalition. I, like Tim Farron, am absolutely fed up with being right and losing elections.
It was perhaps fitting that it was actually Charles Kennedy who left me feeling the most inspired to rectify that. During the remarkably observed and excruciatingly emotional tribute to our late, great former leader, a quote eerily echoed around the auditorium, a last contribution by Charles to his party, and a blueprint for our ‘fightback’; “This is what we should be passionate about. If it makes us unpopular in certain quarters, let’s be unpopular for what we care about, what we believe in, and what defines us and what we think is best for our country.”
It really is rather that simple, the sagacity of Charles Kennedy can lead us to the top yet again. We as a party have made mistakes, of course we have, but liberalism is a brand that provides hope for every single person the world over. We need to change, we need to move away from the comfort of vapid centrism and embrace the radical alternative that holds together our every tradition. The time is now to make a racket, take the fight to the government and make liberalism the brash politics that charms voters. Now, four months after our near obliteration, we are convalescing at an encouraging speed. Loud liberalism will save our party and our country. More than ever, the Liberal Democrats need Britain and Britain needs the Liberal Democrats – please don’t let us be right without power again.