Why this year’s Liberal Democrat conference mattered
As the former Liberal Democrat special advisor-turned-lobbyist Sean Kemp wryly noted on Twitter over the weekend, the worst thing that can happen to your party conference is for “journalists to snap with boredom or fatigue because the party has no news, and they basically go feral and destroy your conference.”
Thankfully, that didn’t quite materialise in Brighton this year – but there is no doubt that most of the headlines relating to this year’s conference took us less seriously than is deserved, given our substantial influence over British politics in the last decade.
In fact, as my train pulled away from Brighton on Tuesday afternoon I reflected upon the number of deeply important issues that had been thoughtfully considered by our party membership. This conference was about discussing the ideas that will shape the future. A whole range of radical policy proposals were raised and debated by an optimistic crowd of delegates drawn from all walks of life, and spanning the generations.
There were a number of key takeaways for me. First, we were right to oppose Brexit, and to predict a bad deal. A People’s Vote is the only way to resolve the impasse and reach a settlement that is in the best interests of the British people.
Second, immigration has been a force for good, but we need to tackle public perceptions. As Vince Cable said in his keynote speech, this is not an issue to be managed like other parts of the economy. A liberal approach to managed migration and a compassionate approach to the refugee crisis is not only the right thing to do but, positioned correctly, it could be popular.
Third, we need to be far better at harnessing business and technology for the betterment of our economy and society. Businesses have to pay their way and be good corporate citizens, but we must also recognise that they generate wealth in a way that the state cannot, and tech is key to all of this.
Fourth, and finally, the Liberal Democrats are the only party with the ideas and the mettle to deliver a better Britain. Under the last government, the Tories stole our clothes on a whole range of issues, taking credit for flagship and wildly popular policies such as free school meals, and a significant increase in the personal income tax allowance. As for Labour, whose leadership has been concerned with in-fighting over whether or not it should adopt the IHRA definition of anti-Semitism, it is not clear that a once-great party is remotely concerned with developing a credible programme for government.
We have laid the foundations for a popular and progressive manifesto, whenever the next general election rolls around.