Spring Conference in York was Inward-Looking, Directionless and Ageist

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.

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5 thoughts on “Spring Conference in York was Inward-Looking, Directionless and Ageist

  1. I couldn’t agree more. For the first time in 6 years I felt I had more of a connection and alignment with the views of Liberal Youth. Although an older member, the spark I saw in the whole place was from Liberal Youth members. Even Tim’s speech was uninspiring and lackluster. There was an organised contingent mobilised in favour of AWS and ready to dismiss out of hand the views of those who are the future of the party.

    It certainly was inward looking, but also, especially on AWS, grasping at the trends in other parties. I was lectured at that AWS works in Labour and Conservative Parties, the evidence is there etc etc – but the point of the Lib Dems is that they are neither of those parties, not to mention the fact that we don’t have safe seats into which to parachute random women candidates. Plus the fact that discrimination is directly against the party constitution.

    I saw no clear message on the direction of the party. They took away the strapline from the signs, but people were still repeating it, if only in part. We seem to be rudderless and lacking in strategy and direction. We need a clear route. Rather than give in to the premise that “oh the media don’t listen to us, are not interested in us” – make them listen. Be radical and progressive. I saw no clear path and no connected up strategy.

    It left me wondering if I was in the right place.

    Whilst handing out leaflets against AWS outside, however, I was relieved to receive more words of support and thanks for what I was doing than scornful looks. I had allies in places I had no idea of.

    And it comes to something when the President of the party congratulates you on a great speech after the debate when you didn’t even make one!

    I have no idea what is going on in this party, but I think Liberal Youth may be the key to pushing it in the right direction.

    I could go on….

  2. I can understand how frustrated you feel but I do think that it’s the Conference organisers that are at fault here.
    They are trying to cover off too many basis in one go. On May 5th we have the Local Elections, Spring Conference was always about launching the final run up to give our local politicians a final spur on to winning on the back of issues which matter to local people and their local environment.
    I’m based in the Black Country and it’s always been a hard slog to get ourselves established. Since 2010 I have seen our numbers diminish because of our national image and the mistakes of our national politicians.
    In 2013 we had to fight the European Elections on the same day as the Locals. We lost good hard working grassroots Councillors to the Kippers because the local scene got swamped out by European issues.
    In 2014 we had the General Election on the same day as the Locals and guess what we lost some more good Councillors this time to the Tories because people wanted to give Clegg a good kicking.
    This year we thought it might just be our time even with the Referendum as that wasn’t till June, so what does our Spring Conference do? It forgets what its purpose was all about and once again the Locals hardly got a look in.
    You feel pissed off? How do you think I feel. I’ve bust a gut fighting to keep my seat in May. If I win, and I still think I will, it won’t be because we got help from the Party and you know I feel the same as you, for the first time since joining our Party I’m beginning to wonder if I’m in the right one.

  3. I think you are being overly harsh. Tim’s speech was not the same as the one at Bournemouth, but it never was going to be (first as newly elected Leader etc.) I think he was very clear about the route forward and can see no real alternative to coming up with radical, sensible, evidence-based polices (as with cannabis and mental health) and simply getting on with it at local/ward level and rebuilding our profile from there up. I agree entirely about being seen as “the party of small business” and thought Lady Burt’s speech was very promising, as were the interventions in the first debate on the economy (although I must say that I think this is so very much THE issue, I would like to see at least a whole morning or even day devoted specifically to thrashing out a clear and distinct economic policy for us to ‘sell’ at all levels and in which all the various strands (support for small business, pro-EU, anti-fracking etc.) are brought together. (I must also say that, while the Party is absolutely right in opposing Osborne’s disgraceful and pernicious attacks on the working poor, we, as Liberals, need to make it clear we do not support the “merry go-round” of benefit payments to people in work but want to raise wages all round instead.

  4. As follow-ups, I would agree entirely that the stance over Sunday trading was wholly unsatisfactory (I actually believe it was a THREE-way split, with the Scottish member abstaining!). I also think Nick Clegg should be sent to live in Miriam’s holiday home in Spain for the next four years (to write his memoirs and a report into the new Spanish liberal party). His name is still toxic and brings back the words “tuition fees”, “Tory lapdogs”, “bedroom tax” again and again. In other words, he is just toxic for the party (and will unfortunately remain so for years to come). (I thus think it was definitely NOT the right thing to put him up with Alan Johnson on the “IN” side (against the young Tory Outer Priti something or and (yes, it is true – yet again) Farage (!) in the “Guardian” debate yesterday evening!!! Surely Tim’s position is now strong enough to say, “Sorry, Nick, even if you intend to appear in this in a personal capacity, the overwhelming majority of people are going to think you are there representing the Party so I want you to give the place to me instead.” Tough, but a key element of asserting strong leadership is telling others where to get off. (The profile raising for Tim would not have done any harm whatsoever either – and should have been made clear too Clegg (“The public have seen (more than) enough of you in the past six years. Time to step aside and let Tim have a go instead”.

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