How funny it is, how much of a difference half a year can make. When I left Autumn Conference in Bournemouth in September I was in a buoyant mood. The party, I felt, had not fallen into the trap I had so feared it might, that of pulling the proverbial comfort blanket over its head as a strange form of grief therapy over our crushing election defeat.
In September, it looked like we were actually serious about this fight back. We were going to claim the issues, build a solid platform, a new core vote, look to the future and be the party of youthful optimism about a new British century.
At that point I never felt more strongly that I was in the right party. After Spring Conference in York, I have never been less sure.
York Conference was an exercise in some of the worst navel-gazing, message-bereft, soggy, short-sighted internal tambourine bashing I thought I’d never see the like of in a party which is still languishing below ten points in the opinion polls, despite some of the most favourable circumstances for a liberal recovery we could have but dreamed of on that gloomy morning in May of last year.
We have no pitch to voters. None at all. Our press releases fall on deaf ears as no one but our minuscule core vote tune in to hear our latest feel good proclamation. In half a year, Tim Farron and his team have not even come close to sewing together the patchwork quilt of seemingly drop of the hat opinions into anything approaching a grand narrative. We often hear that we should be a party of the youth, now increasingly liberal minded and looking for a positive, new politics to combat their apathy at the old Punch and Judy show. But a robust message is just not getting through.
Many of the stances the party seems to rush to do not even begin to fit together into a joined up vision, and the general platform we are building seems to smack worryingly of the age old barb leveled against us that we are for everything nice and nothing bad, lacking the consistency to be a serious party of government.
In December we were apparently the party of small business, now the party leader and half our parliamentary group are voting against reform to Sunday trading laws. It doesn’t matter what your interpretation of liberalism is, we just aren’t making any sense to the average voter.
On the economy, on the future, on defence, on foreign policy, what on earth are we actually trying to say and can you explain it to someone on a doorstep in a minute, assuming they haven’t got the time to read our policy papers or follow Tim on Twitter? Moreover, what was said at York which made this picture clearer? Legal weed and refugees are a good start, but they’re clearly not enough.
Six months on and we’re even still using the same inward looking, faintly cringe-worthy hashtag slogan. You cannot blame this on the coalition any longer, or tuition fees. This is our fault.
This current renewed focus on “community politics” is the thin end of this wedge of contentedness with being the “nice guys who finish last”. Community politics means that we seem to think the road back from our election defeat, which will have led many votes to simply write us off in their minds as nothing more than a twee, parochial leafleting cult or the punchline to a bad joke, is to go back to being no.1 for cleaning up the dog mess and absolutely bugger all else.
For a man who’s made house-building one of his flagship policies, when was the last time Tim criticized one of the umpteen local parties who oppose greenbelt development? Community politics equals no national message, and we’d be fools to think differently.
By stark contrast, in Liberal Youth we are now seeing some flickering’s of genuine forward looking radicalism. From enthusiastic pushing on making sure we got a real commitment to cannabis decriminalization ahead of Norman Lamb’s excellent work on the issue, to activism on issues like mental health, to the inspiring sight of a whole row of pink t-shirt clad LY women making sure their voices were strongly heard against AWS, Liberal Youth is fast becoming the cauldron of passionate, optimistic liberal debate and activism from all sides of the liberal family.
However, it is increasingly apparent from the rampant and horrifying ageism leveled at young members, that many in this party seem to have adopted some strange borderline conspiracy theories about Liberal Youth. The treatment of young members at York conference indicates that there are many that would seek to extinguish one of the few sparks of genuine fire at an otherwise lacklustre conference, where many who should know better spent the weekend singing the same old songs from a tired old hymn sheet.
Of the motions and amendments LY submitted to Spring Conference, only one amendment was accepted by the FCC. Young members were routinely told they were “naïve” or were “too young to understand” issues. Young women against AWS were accused on twitter of not appreciating sexism due to their age, whilst they were on stage speaking about their experiences of sexual harassment.
On a weekend when some of the supposed “adults” in my party made me ashamed to be a Liberal Democrat, the youth of our party made me just as proud to be one. We must decide whether really, in the end, we want to be a party of the past, or a party that looks forward to a brighter, more liberal future. Because if we don’t show some bravery soon, then the party may have to go on without many of its most promising young members, and some less promising ones, like me.