Party conference season is upon us! Even though it might not seem like a year since we were last touring the country and engaging with politicians, the calendar doesn’t lie. We’re back in the office now following our trip to join the Liberal Democrats in Brighton, before we head to Liverpool, Birmingham and Glasgow in the coming weeks.
The mood in Brighton amongst Lib Dems was upbeat, even though the past year has been mixed. The 2015 general election created shockwaves across the party, with many taken aback by the reduction in size of their parliamentary party to just eight MPs.
Since then, the outlook has improved to an extent, influenced, somewhat paradoxically, but the result of a referendum in which the party was on the losing side. The Lib Dems were strongly on the side of the remain campaign during the EU referendum, and in the aftermath of the result party leader Tim Farron led calls for the UK to remain in the EU regardless of the result.
One of the challenges for the Liberal Democrats in recent years has been getting their messages heard. With just eight MPs, it is much harder for their politicians to get the chance to speak in Parliament or contribute to media articles. This pattern continued during the political turbulence of the summer of 2016, in which the Liberal Democrats were the only one of the five largest UK-wide parties not to have a leadership election. The relative stability of the party had the effect of making them less newsworthy.
As for the party’s future prospects, what do the polls say? Whilst these will (understandably) be taken with a pinch of salt, the most recent poll of polls has the Liberal Democrats receiving 8.4% of the vote. At the 2015 election the Lib Dems gained 7.9% of votes, so there is still a substantial amount of work to be done if the party is to return to its role as the third largest party in Parliament.
Our activity across party conference season this year explores the role that charities can play in working with government and politicians to build a stronger Britain. We want to get people thinking about the opportunities that exist for charities to help shape the country’s response to the challenges that lie ahead, and make the case for government to put charities at the heart of delivering their domestic policy agenda.
Our fringe event at Lib Dem conference provided a platform to discuss these issues. Chaired by former party President Baroness Ros Scott, we were joined by Tom Brake MP, Lord Shipley, Cllr Gerald Vernon-Jackson and CAF’s chief executive Dr John Low. Together, this meant the event had representation from the Lib Dems in the Commons and the Lords, the current spokespeople for Foreign Affairs, Communities and Devolution, and the former leader of Portsmouth Council who is the leader of the Lib Dem LGA group.
John Low kicked off the event by talking the audience through some of the key findings from CAF’s party conference report – ‘A Stronger Britain,’ which you can find here. Next, Tom Brake spoke about the challenges that charities face when taking over the delivery of services, and argued that charities are well-placed to determine where communities are at risk of breakdown.
Lord Shipley, drawing upon his experience as a former leader of Newcastle Council, spoke of the value of government and charities working collaboratively to agree principles and patterns of working, and also advocated the greater use of social finance. Finally, Gerald Vernon-Jackson talked about the importance of charities offering ‘additionality’ in the delivery of services, and gave examples from his own experience of where the involvement of charities in delivering local services had been good and bad.
Baroness Scott then oversaw a Q&A session, with the panel asked to offer their take on a range of issues including whether more charities should be merging, the fall in trust caused by fundraising practices, and the importance of ensuring that people are provided with opportunities to volunteer once they leave the workplace. It was an interesting discussion, and positive to see that senior Lib Dems are giving so much consideration to the ways in which charities can work effectively across government to build a stronger Britain.
Our next trip sees us heading to Liverpool for Labour Party conference. We’ll have more on that, including where we’ll be and what we’ll be doing, later in the week.