Seaside resorts like Bournemouth have long been reputed for refreshing and rejuvenating even the most battered of souls; the Liberal Democrats could not have chosen a more apt locale for their 2015 party conference. Much as the Victorians came here to return to health, so too has the party. Having accepted their electoral defeat, the loyalists coalesced in Bournemouth to gather strength and rally round not only a new leader but also a new raison d’etre.
After five years of government this relaxed conference was a return to form. Without the pressure of power, debates happily drifted into the esoteric and policy motions were given over to topics like family holiday rules and tourism taxes. Elderly gentlemen in suits took in the sea air and enjoyed an ice cream by the pier, their orange lanyards the only giveaway that they hadn’t just popped out from one of the local convalescent homes. Former ministers leisurely browsed the paper on the train down (the Observer, naturally) and sipped cocktails at sunset. No doubt they all were cheered by the young delegates in their midst; the party has attracted 20,000 new members since the general election.
Bournemouth also allowed the party to welcome its new leader, Tim Farron, and bid farewell to former ministers. In their well-received auditorium speeches, both Nick Clegg and Norman Lamb made abundantly clear that they support Farron without reservation. However, judging by the rapturous applause both received at the end of their speeches, their supporters may need a bit more time to adjust. The former ministers are also clearly still adapting to their new roles—at a small panel discussion Ed Davey delivered his speech with such energy and authority that he seemed out of place.
As the new leadership takes shape, Europe is already its rallying cry. Much as the Conservatives relate every policy back to their long-term economic plan, so do the Lib Dems with Europe. All discussions, from healthcare to manufacturing, came with a clear endorsement for the EU—a timely point of distinction from Labour and the Conservatives. Peers and MPs were particularly keen to impress upon the few attending corporate representatives that they welcome briefings and evidence supporting the EU.
While the restorative sea air of Bournemouth cannot return the party to rude health overnight, it appears to have done it much good. Indeed as the evening fringes concluded on Tuesday night, rain gave way to a resplendent sunset. A rainbow briefly bisected the horizon, its middle swathe of goldenrod shining brightly in the distance. What exactly this omen portends for next five years remains to be seen. In the meantime, there’s still time for one more cocktail.
Jennifer Brindisi, Account Director, Public Affairs
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January 21, 2021