Joe Bulman, second year on the Politics and Media degree, attended the Liberal Democrats Party conference in Bournemouth late last month and reflects on his experience below.
After what has been a busy summer for me personally, I must admit I nearly forgot they existed. They may have had a hand in government only 5 months ago but they now only have 8 MPs (a party with this few MPs doesn’t even have the right to ask a weekly question and PMQs) and the announcement of Tim Farron as their new leader seemed barely to make the headlines. Still, they chose Bournemouth to host their annual party conference last week so I thought I’d check it out.
Now you’d think, given their humiliating demise in May, that this year’s party conference would be a glum event. However this certainly didn’t appear to be the case. In fact, this year’s event saw a record crowd and the mood was unquestionably upbeat. Speakers such as Simon Hughes were remarkably cheery and seemed almost unfazed by the crushing defeat – despite the disappointment of losing his seat in the Commons after holding it 32 years.
Unlike the current situation within the Labour camp, there was no bitterness and no crisis over values. A far happier-looking Nick Clegg, who you’d imagine not to be immensely popular given the party’s extreme shrink taking place under his lead, was even greeted with a standing ovation when he made his speech. You sensed that it was almost refreshing for the Liberal Democrats to have now separated from the Tories after their brave 5-year marriage.
The popular opinion outside of the conference (not least from the Sky cameraman waiting for interviews outside the Bournemouth International Centre) is that the Liberal Democrats are dead and buried. Along with the optimism inside though, it is worth noting that 20,000 new members have joined since the General Election – a statistic that supports the event’s regularly repeated slogan: “join the fight back” kindly.
I am not predicting when the Liberal Democrats will be able to return to third party status, but I do believe from what I observed at the conference that they are going to thrive off having nothing to lose now. Remember Clegg at the 2010 TV debates as the man with nothing to lose? It was arguably this advantage that got his party into government in the first place. The Liberal Democrats certainly did not seem dead and buried – they seemed more alive than ever.