THERE’S ‘one hell of a buzz’, tweeted Paul Braithwaite, the former Camden councillor, about the Liberal Democrat conference in Bournemouth, with the qualification ‘for a minority party’. He sounded both surprised and delighted that even though the Liberal Democrats have been bruised at one election after another – damaged so badly that they hardly have any representatives left in local authorities like Camden, Islington and Haringey, and only eight MPs in the House of Commons – he could still feel a pulse.
If the blood still pumps in a party which you might have forgotten had people in the back of ministerial limos less than six months ago, you could argue it is due to the nuclear war survivors, the rank-and-file members from stubborn constituencies in north London. More than 20, maybe 25, from Camden were in town for what they were determined to not to be a post-mortem; almost none of them have walked away from the wreckage. Flick Rea jokes that Labour will need to apply to English Heritage if they want to remove her. The boulder they can’t budge, she will have clocked up 30 years at the Town Hall next year.
In truth, the Lib Dems on the road in Bournemouth seemed almost relieved that their election defeats at least meant their marriage with the Tories was over, and that they no longer had to defend it any more and that all the expectation and the microscopic media lens had gone. In Camden, there are people who hate the Lib Dems for working with the Conservatives, more than they seem to hate the Tories; a toxic existence which can’t have been much fun when going door to door.
With the pressure of all that released, it meant members could get on with their own projects in Bournemouth, like the motion on air quality minted in Camden, like the good old days. The number of journalists in the press room was almost unrecognisable from the last three or four conferences. I think the BBC didn’t even bother with their ‘night at conference’ slot. Andrew Neil was not summoned.
This all meant, however, that the fringe meetings had more party activists than journalists, and a freedom of discussion from which I suspect Paul Braithwaite could have felt that buzz. The niggling over who had their balls deepest in the coalition seems to have gone on a wider level, and the street by street campaigns, sometimes called ‘pothole politics’ are back in fashion.
It all meant Tim Farron, the new leader, a fact which he probably should be a little concerned has still passed a few people by, could eat his lunch undisturbed in the hotel bar. Selfies will have to wait, but how well he will do, and how far the Lib Dems will get in parliamentary terms under his leadership, seem almost of little interest right now among members who wouldn’t mind starting the fightback with trying to regain a bit of ground in council elections first.
Being back up at the Marriott at the top of the West Cliff, looking down on the amusements and the pier, came with a bit of deja vu. The last time the Lib Dems were here and we were staring at this view, it was the final conference before Gordon Brown’s defeat and the election from which the coalition was spawned. Once in power, it was all big city conference centres for the Lib Dems; x-rays for your bags, armed police and back-to-back trips to Glasgow. Now, almost like a wheel has turned full circle, the coalition is over and we were back in Bournemouth.
As enthusiastic as everyone was inside the conference centre and as buzzy as Paul Braithwaite may have felt, the train to Dorset is far more sedate than a sleeper rail rush to the grey skies of Scotland. Once past peak hours, every carriage has at least one passenger tackling Puzzler magazine. When the train stops at Winchester, there is an echoing comment from the table seats you could set your watch by: Oh, Winchester is/looks very nice. Flick Rea and the former Jill Fraser weren’t knocking the bingo club beano feel of it all, and left their stations to bunked off to pretty Poole last Sunday afternoon.
The question, more seriously, is whether the buzz around new ideas in fringe meetings and motion debates is felt beyond the conference doors. It could clearly be felt inside the conference – I saw much enthusiasm – but what about outside? At the moment, with so much attention on whether Jeremy Corbyn succeeds or fails with the great Labour Party experiment, you’d think the Lib Dems are going to have to fight really hard to fill up that press room again. A good score in the elections in London and elsewhere next year would be a start, and this means Caroline Pidgeon not finishing behind Sian Berry, from the Greens, in the mayoral poll. We’ll see.
It’s interesting that one session for members was titled simply, ‘Fighting Labour’, however, as if Ed Miliband had won the general election in May. The Lib Dems did well in Camden over many years because a share of voters, rightly or wrongly, thought they were more left-wing – or more compassionate – than New Labour. Flick herself said in her own analysis that a share of the residents in the north west of the borough who have supported her and other Lib Dems locally could be described as Corbynites. This historic trend could mean that Farron’s call to scoop up centre left votes, in theory placed into ‘up for grabs’ territory by Corbyn’s win, may have some success in other areas of the country but could prove a testing strategy for Flick and Co in Camden.
The demographics in areas like West Hampstead are changing, but in these quirky constituencies it may be hard for Lib Dems to go from winning here by appearing to be more left wing than Labour – to winning here by appearing to be more right wing, or centrist, than Labour.