Liberal Democrats left York with spirits as bright as the sunshine which brought 17 degree warmth to the historic city. Seriously. I was quite surprised about how genuinely upbeat people were. It’s not that they’d forgotten that we’re defending 12 European Parliament seats in 74 short days’ time. By the way, if you think that’s along time away, remember that 74 days ago was Boxing Day. Everyone knows the scale of what we have to achieve by then and nobody is taking anything for granted.
Even the more, how shall I put this, hardened Awkward Squad (not an insult, definitely a badge that many of them would wear with pride) were saying things that could only be described as positive. Actual positive, not just lacking in complaints.
Why the good humour, then?
People love fighting a European Election about Europe
Liberal Democrats are by their nature internationalist. If it involves working together and building global alliances to make the whole world better, we’re happy. And that, to be honest, is what the European Union is all about. It’s about making sure that our young men don’t have to meet up somewhere on the continent and kill each other every few decades. If you look at the last couple of thousand years, that’s pretty huge. Yes, there are lots of other benefits that have a real practical relevance to people’s lives, but peace and stability across 350 million is the Big One.
Over the last, well, as long as I can remember, speaking of our love for the EU too fulsomely has been discouraged. It’s not as if anyone thought there was anything wrong with it, it’s just that nobody had found a way of communicating it in a way that didn’t make reading a phone book seem thrilling in comparison. While the Eurosceptics’ menacing message was communicated succinctly, the case in favour was always far too reticent. And we have to take our share of the responsibility for that. We fought our European elections on the national, even local issues. Yes, we’ve done the right things around new treaty powers and the like, but we’ve not worn it on our sleeve as much as we could have.
Finally, we seem to have found a way to proudly communicate the positives, spurred on by the fact that if we don’t do it, nobody else will. We’ve found a way of saying that this matters, it’s about yours and 3 million other people’s jobs. It’s about the future of the planet. It’s about catching criminals. It’s about being stronger together and weaker apart. That, to be fair, is very similar to what we were saying in 2009, but while Nick Clegg might have been saying it on tv, local leaflets were not all as pro European as they could have been. We are now doing it in a way that means something to the significant numbers of EU enthusiasts in the UK.
Claiming that space when others flinch, the Tories because Europe is such a toxic issue for them, Labour because they are too timid, should stand us in good stead in May. Someone needs to stand up to UKIP and it’s going to be us.
An agenda that Liberal Democrats like
When we last met in Glasgow, much was made of the various scraps between the economic and social liberal wings of the party. We certainly had some robust debates about policy. These were necessary debates, but they weren’t divisive. What people don’t really get about us, even with the wider scrutiny we’ve had over the past 4 years, is that we might have a good debate but we don’t split off into factions. There are certain issues that unite us. Obviously Europe and international issues are in there. But so, too, are things like political reform and civil liberties. Well, what do you know, there was a motion covering everything from federalism to electoral reform yesterday and one on a Digital Bill of Rights today. There was even a motion on curbing the powers of pubcos yesterday. There was a lot on this agenda to make Liberal Democrats feel happy.
When we met in Brighton this time last year, people were still talking about a double dip recession. Now we can see the effects of growth. We know that 1.3 million jobs have been created on or watch. The patient may still need lots of careful nursing but we’re moving forwards and in a much more sustainable fashion. Our campaigners know from their experience on the ground that many of those who voted for us before are willing to consider doing so again. There are more smiles and fewer snarls on doorsteps. That helps.
An infrastructure fit for the challenge
Tim Gordon, in his two years as Chief Executive, has done much to modernise our organisation. He has carefully re-organised the party’s systems so that they work better. Our infrastructure is in better shape and things that should have been sorted out long ago are being tackled. Old databases and tired looking websites are being replaced by much more useful and shiny, sparkly new equivalents. The new party website, our shop window to the world, has been transformed in recent weeks into something that people actually want to read. It’s bright, it’s interactive, it’s engaging, it’s interesting.
Not only that, but membership is growing for the first time since we went into Government. Local parties are feeling the benefits of that in their bank balances, with a new rebate arrangement that rewards efforts to recruit and retain members. Self-evidently, if you have more people, everything else becomes easier.
Gordon has shaped a team and infrastructure that is much more capable of meeting the party’s needs in the run up to 2015 and beyond. We are much better prepared than we were 5 years ago for the European elections. There’s more consistency in our messaging and our campaigning and we have the technology that makes it worlds easier to get the job done.
A beautiful historic city with fabulous real ale pubs, restaurants offering mouth-watering delicious food and three days of pretty good weather definitely helped the feel good factor.
All in all the conversations on the stalls, in the bars, were as much about getting on with the job as they always have done. But there’s a definite change in the mood. There’s real enthusiasm backing up the determination and cause for hope and even optimism. People are trusting the evidence of what they are feeling on the ground. Election campaigns don’t start in April. People have been campaigning for months, years even. They feel the change and they see reason to hope.
* Caron Lindsay is Editor of Liberal Democrat Voice and blogs at Caron's Musings