Earlier this week, I was lucky enough to be invited to speak on a panel at a fringe meeting in Brighton at the Labour Party conference. Organised by Compass, the theme was Building progressive alliances for a new economy. The main thrust of what I spoke about is below, but I thought it might make for an interesting blog post to share some of my thoughts about the conference and the mood in the room.
As I pitched up in Brighton, it felt like any other Lib Dem conference I'd attended. There were lots of people walking around with lanyards, rushing to the next fringe meeting, or propping up the Metropole's bar. There were journalists, famous political faces from now and days gone by, and plenty of eager young charity execs trying to thrust flyers in to the hands of hungover delegates.
But I soon realised a difference in just how much bigger it was than a typical Lib Dem convention (n.b. despite our own membership boost since the General Election, it's notable that more people have joined Labour since Corbyn's victory than the entirety of the Lib Dem membership). As I wandered through the maze of corridors to find the room Compass had booked, I realised that the majority of the hotel is simply not opened up for the Lib Dems. Vast halls and rooms exist beyond the partition walls that enclose a Liberal Democrat conference, and in any fringe slot, there are dozens and dozens of simultaneous meetings going on.
The second thing that struck me was a) how many young people were there and b) how many non-white people there were by comparison to our own conference. Our diversity is woeful. Atrocious. Unacceptable. We need to reconnect with voters, and we can't do that properly when the vast majority of our parliamentarians are white, middle aged, middle class, heterosexual, Christian, and male.
I arrived at the fringe meeting about ten minutes early, and as the room started to fill up, it suddenly struck me, that I've never before been perceived as being the most 'right wing' person in the room! I got a few suspicious looks from some attendees but once we got under way, it of course became immediately evident that you could probably put a cigarette paper in the political gap separating me from people like the excellent Chair of Compass, Neal Lawson. What united everyone in the room, was the need for progressives to pull together on issues of common interest.
It's not just a challenge for the UK. Only 8 out of 51 centre left parties are now in government across Europe. But those centre right and right wing parties in governments, aren't there with enormous democratic mandates. Few, if any political parties in Europe currently command more than 30% of the vote. This isn't the kind of democracy we should be proud of, and we need to figure out how to make pluralist politics work.
And that shared belief, is what made the fringe so uplifting. Lisa Nandy (the impressive new Shadow DECC Minister - and someone I think could succeed Jeremy Corbyn as leader one day) Caroline Lucas and Clive Lewis, all made the case for proportional representation, and more than once did I hear the phrase, 'no single political party has a monopoly on wisdom - we can all learn from each other'. There was a real appetite for collaboration in the room. Lisa reminded us to look to the cooperative movement for inspiration and said, 'the clue is in the name!'. Caroline encouraged us to build trust by working together on less contentious issues first to give us a more solid foundation for collaboration on the tougher stuff. And Clive took us on his journey from being against, to being in favour of electoral reform. He said, 'First past the post just pits the good guys against one another'. No one disagreed.
There were at least 20 questions at the end and I left buzzing. If we want to rise above the pathetic tribalism of some in our respective parties, we can. There are enough enlightened, talented and energised people with a will to collaborate. If we're clever, we really can stop the Tories at the next election.
Here's some of what I said at the fringe. (It's not exactly the same, because I only had speech points).
"In 1959, after Harold Macmillan won an unprecedented third consecutive Tory General Election victory, Jo Grimond the then Liberal leader, called for “A realignment of the Left.”
Many thought Grimond meant hooking up with the revisionist Gaitskellite wing of the Labour Party with its “Future of Socialism” agenda drawn up by Tony Crosland. But he didn’t. He meant joining forces with the likes of Sydney Silverman, a libertarian Socialist who had been mainly responsible for the abolition of the death penalty. See, Labour have done some pretty liberal stuff over the years.
Others regarded him as a Fellow Traveller and as such perilously close to the Soviet Union. The Soviet slur was a calumny but it is interesting that Grimond’s instincts was to reject the sort of managerialist politics espoused by Crosland and the Gaitskellites.
The parallels with today’s political scene are obvious. Jeremy Corbyn is vilified as being an ultra-Leftist, worse than Michael Foot, by the revisionist architects of New Labour (and I hasten to add by some former SDPers in the Lib Dem party), while he gathers support from a public that has grown weary of the vacuous mutterings of what’s left of the New Labour “narrative” and strongly reacts against the austerity politics of George Osborne. The SNP has thrived on exploiting this public mood in Scotland and Corbyn seems to be resonating in a similar way in England.
So where does this place the Lib Dems? Some argue that Corbyn has effectively seized the centre left ground, scuppering any aspirations on the part of social liberals. This has encouraged the Cleggite, Orange Book centrist element, whose approach proved such an electoral disaster for the Lib Dems last May. The problem with this line of thought is that the Centre is always defined by the other on either side of the divide and gives them most of the initiative. It’s neither politically appetising nor, more importantly, operational.
As my party flounders with a miniscule number of 8 MPs and an overblown number of Peers, shell-shocked and still largely in denial, some urge a re-vitalisation of ‘pavement politics’ in an attempt to garner grassroots support, while others seek a modernisation and restatement of liberal principles. Tim Farron offers a greater energy than Grimond was ever prepared to exert, but lacks the intellectual support Jo was able to mobilise. It’s very un-British to say so, but the problem with UK politics is essentially an intellectual one. The start must be to recognise how the nature of western democracy is changing, not least in the UK. The new populism and the increasing role of social media, are making for total change. And we, too, will have our Donald Trumps, Le Pens and others if we haven’t already got them.
I believe Farron would like to fashion a Left-of-Centre stance. I would encourage him in that: there’s no point in paddling around in a boat being buffeted by the waves created by others. He must address the issues that both the SNP and Jeremy Corbyn have seized upon. First and foremost is inequality: inequality that stems from income, gender, ethnicity and, not least, regional differences.
We need to get on with this PDQ if we are to formulate a distinctive Lib Dem USP! Unless the Lib Dems can come up with a relevant, convincing and distinctive set of policies on inequality, my party will be lucky to have 8 MPs in 2020.
Jo Grimond may have been 60 years too soon when he called for a realignment of the left, but he wasn’t wrong. There is much that unites progressive liberals in all parties (and yes there are even a few in the Tories!) and we must work together on issues such as Europe, the slash and burn of public spending and the egregious attack on the most vulnerable in our society by the now unbridled Tory party.
In the Lib Dems, we often say that the Tories are the opposition, and Labour are the competition. Well I come from a business background, and in business we’ve long cottoned on to the benefits of the collaborative economy. In the 21st century, collaboration is the new competition. And so it is incumbent upon us all, to go back to our constituencies, and prepare for collaboration."
Naomi Smith is Chair of the Social Liberal Forum. You can follow her on Twitter @pimlicat.