Liberal Democrat conference begins in Bournemouth this week, and CAF will be heading down to see how politicians and activists are reacting to their party’s electoral defeat. After five years of serving in coalition with the Conservatives, the parties went their different ways at the election, with dramatically different results.
Whilst David Cameron’s party surprised pollsters’ predictions of a hung Parliament and won a small majority, the Lib Dems saw their number of MPs slashed to eight, losing seats directly to the Conservatives, as well as to Labour and the SNP. Compounding the result was the loss of high-profile figures such as Vince Cable and Danny Alexander.
Nick Clegg held onto his seat in Sheffield, before falling on his sword the next day during a thirty-minute period in which three party leaders resigned. (Although Nigel Farage would be back in his post as UKIP leader less than a week later.)
Over the summer, the Liberal Democrats leadership contest saw a battle between former party president Tim Farron, and Norman Lamb, who had served as a health minister in the coalition government. Farron was ultimately successful, building on the support that he had built amongst party activists, and will give his first big speech as party leader down in Bournemouth.
Farron has also put his new leadership team into place. Lamb becomes health spokesperson, with other posts going to Tom Brake (Foreign Affairs), Alistair Carmichael (Home Affairs) and Baroness Susan Kramer (Economics). Former leader Clegg chose not to take a position in Farron’s team, joining Mark Williams as the only Liberal Democrat MP without a brief.
Although the election result was catastrophic for the party, there are glimmers of hope on the horizon. There has been a 30% increase in membership since May, and internal debates over the direction of the Labour Party may encourage some Lib Dem defectors to rejoin the fold.
The mood at conference will be interesting. Whilst a glance at the conference programme suggests that fewer organisations will be attending than in previous years, the enthusiasm for Farron amongst party members means that the mood may not be as bleak as may have been feared. It’s also fair to say that some Lib Dem members were uncomfortable with the decision to go into coalition government with the Conservatives, and a return to the party’s roots could help to rekindle the enthusiasm of activists.
Shortly before becoming leader, Tim Farron outlined plans to encourage Lib Dem staff to spend some time working for charities. The aim of this would be to “sharpen their campaigning skills,” and hints at the desire for an improved relationship with the charitable sector in the aftermath of Liberal Democrats support for the Lobbying Bill. Although at present the Lib Dems are diminished as an electoral force, the cyclical nature of politics means that a bounce-back is likely in the future, and it is important that charities develop bonds with senior Lib Dems with an eye on the future.
In Bournemouth, CAF will be hosting a dinner in partnership with ACEVO to discuss how charities can work closely with Lib Dems in the coming years. We’ll be joined by a series of high-profile attendees who understand the need for their party to develop stronger ties with the charity sector, and looking at how we can build upon the policies proposed by Lib Dems at the election to create a stronger charitable culture in Britain. This dialogue is just the start of the journey, and we look forward to hearing what ideas exist within the party about working with charities.