First impressions from my first party conference – by a Lib Dem who voted Leave

I joined the Liberal Democrats in April 2017. This was my first party conference. I also voted Leave in the EU the referendum. Should I be in this party? Absolutely.


I sensed that many members didn’t truly understand Leave voters. Nick Clegg seemed a bit more in tune: “why wouldn’t you vote Leave after all you were promised by the Brexiteers?”. Remain is one thing that undoubtedly keeps the party unified. But Remain in what? Jean-Claude Juncker’s vision of a more federalised EU with power centralised? Seems profoundly un-Lib Dem to me.

Nick Clegg convinced me on Remain when he talked about “concentric circles of membership” with the UK sitting on an outer layer, and that is the rub of it. It is not a credible position to just articulate “Remain.” The Lib Dems have to put forward a simple vision for what type of EU we advocate remaining in and how we will make it happen. Nick’s vision or something else that the UK population will buy into? That is how you can convince Leave voters.

The party of the centre

I understand liberalism – it’s why I joined the party, but I still wasn’t sure by the end of the conference, where the ‘centre’ actually is. One member gave Jo Swinson and Norman Lamb a good ear bashing during a session on how to revitalise the centre ground: “why have we gone through 6 conferences, 2 general elections, 1 referendum, and the party still doesn’t have a clear vision on this?”. To own the centre ground you have to be the party that defines it to the public, otherwise you are just emulating others and playing catch-up; to win the game it helps to set the rules.

We need to articulate what the Lib Dem USP is for the ordinary person, defined in a way that is easily consumable and clearly differentiated. At the moment I’m still not sure, and I can’t explain to my wife the unique difference between us and centrist leaning Conservatives / Labourites. Norman Lamb gave us a great starting point when he talked about the business of government being “how to create prosperity and how to share it”. This is the question to which we need some radical answers that differentiate us.


Thank goodness there is an awareness of how important this is. Without it we are just a protest movement talking into the wind. At conference there was a little too much of “we need to look at / consider more broadly / discuss at length” – something all parties are guilty of.

Well thought out policies are important, but innovation is a good new idea implemented well. My plea to the party leadership is now for a clear bias to action. What are we going to do in government rather than what are we going to ‘review’ once we are there? What is our roadmap to government by becoming the biggest party? This is what winning means to me – not just getting back a few council seats. The fluid and crazy state of politics shows that anything is possible. I now want to see some entrepreneurial flair and disregard for what is considered traditionally ‘possible’.

The passion to help everyone in society that I’ve seen over the last four days is second to none, blended with realistic savvy from the leadership who understand that “to govern is to choose”. No other party comes close to this powerful and necessary combination. We can be radical from the centre and win. It’s time to get on and actually do it.

* Keith Bates joined the Liberal Democrats in April 2017

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  • Lorenzo Cherin 21st Sep '17 - 1:56pm


    You are a very welcome new addition to our party.

    And this is an excellent contribution.

    The problem is on this site many decry the centre ground even if radical centre.

    That is where I am and on the moderate centre left too at times on certain issues.

    Too many think we have to prove we are not that but something else or should be.

    The coalition and its Liberal Democrat contribution and Nick Clegg failed because it was pushed to and gave in to the centre right. Ditto New Labour.The government of Blair in its first and second outing did much within the centre ground and moderate centre left that was good. Even Sir John Major , if freed from the”bas*****”, his word, he was dealing with from his right, was and is a decent man in the similar terrain.

    If we think to be what we are is not worth being, we do not need as a party to exist at all.

    We need more belief in the alternative to the extremes.

    The party political broadcast had one good line, we could be the “alt centre !”

  • paul barker 21st Sep '17 - 2:26pm

    Welcome Keith but on Europe – No.
    The consensus in The Party is in favour of “ever closer union” as far as it goes which is not very far. The EU is limited to spending no more than 1% of GDP. Most National Governments spend at least 25% at the Centre. The EU is not & cant ever be remotely Centralised, even in the limited sense of a Canada or Australia.
    In any case, until Britain decides to abandon Brexit we dont actually have any right to criticise The EUs internal affairs.

  • Peter Martin 21st Sep '17 - 6:30pm

    I always thought I was a centrist because I believed in a mixed economy. Right now, after we’ve had so much privatisation, that’s considered to be an ultra-leftist position by many.

    “Remain in what? Jean-Claude Juncker’s vision of a more federalised EU with power centralised? Seems profoundly un-Lib Dem to me.”

    Possibly that’s right. But there needs to be a strong Federal Govt in Europe to recycle surpluses between the stronger more prosperous economies and the periphery. That’s just how a common currency has to function. It’s the same for the euro as every other currency.

    The Germans won’t like that one bit. Maybe they are closet Lib Dems? 🙂

  • Keith Bates 21st Sep '17 - 6:40pm

    Thanks for you comments Paul. Consensus is confirmed by a vote which then becomes policy. The Lib Dem policy is to Remain in the EU. Not for ever-closer union. I know because I’ve read the manifesto. I’d disagree on not being able to comment on the EU internal affairs- we comment on other countries and organisations all the time. If you want to sell people Remain then you have to tell them what you are selling them. More of the same didn’t cut it last time and ‘things will get worse’ is not a compelling value proposition. Hope always triumphs over despair (and over logical argument). Just look at Jeremy Corbyn.

  • Frances Alexander 21st Sep '17 - 6:43pm

    No – we’re way out in front!

  • Keith Bates 21st Sep '17 - 6:46pm

    Thanks for your comment Peter. I would have agreed with you on the centre a couple of years ago. The Tories (through think tanks and the media) moved the centre ground to the right over the course of a few decades. Somehow Corbyn managed to bring it back within a couple of years by going so far left. I think Labour’s popularity shows that there is actually space for a mixed economy in the centre ground.

  • I really dont see why Leavers attach so much importance to Juncker’s vision, he is merely a figurehead and noone else cares. I’m far more interested in the practicalities of Europe, I can freely work and trade there and having common standards with neighbours is basic common sense. There are no benefits to leaving whatsoever for me. I will fight for UK to stay in, or rejoin if necessary the EU to my dying breath and I dont care how many Leavers I upset along the way.

  • A very good article. You are certainly not alone in being a member and voting to leave. Moreover there are many former lib dem supporters who voted to leave who are now more than a little uncomfortable with the party’s current approach which goes against a democratic vote. There is certainly a liberal argument in trying to decentralise power as much as possible and Europe still appears to be the opposite of this. Even the money side is an issue. Whatever the amount and it certainly wouldn’t be £350 million – there would certainly be money left over for our own government to decide how to spend. Farming subsidies or NHS? The point is it would be for our government to decide.

  • david
    The Lib Dem position on this is more or less the same as the principle the EU tries (probably not always successfully, but then neither did the Lib Dems when in Coalition!) is “subsidiarity”. This means that there are more than one level of democratic control, depending on issues being controlled. I am surprised there are Lib Dems who believe that “our government should decide to spend” money. Lib Dems believe in decentralisation, which means Councils deciding what to spend and having powers to raise money at their level. The EU extends that principle upwards for those issues that are international / “borderless” in nature. Why is this a difficult concept to understand and go along with?

  • Rereading my comment, what I did not make clear is that Governments have certain appropriate powers and tax raising / spending powers, and so do other levels of what I have called democratic control (ie where electors elect representatives to a particular assembly). If a voter were to be given the choice through referendum what to have powers / spend money on, we might not have any collective decision-making mechanisms at all – everyone would make a different choice! Democracy means losing arguments – very often!

  • A big day for the Brave Brexiteers tomorrow. Having waved Tinkerbell off from the tarmac while the Levers Chorus accompanied by the combined Brexit Windband sang our new national anthem “We believe she can fly”. I suspect tomorrow they are going to witness a new updated anthem “We believe she has crashed”, what then for the Brave Brexiteers, release the Wee Mogg or let loose Doris. I suppose if we give the Wee Mogg power, it’s gunboats up every European river and Doris well he has a cunning plan. He intends to lead a revolt in Europe by inveigling his way into the centre of power as an old Romany Woman selling pegs, before throwing of his disguise and leading the peasant revolt by shouting “It is I Baron Alexander Boris de Pfeffel Johnson revolt plebs and join the new British empire”.

    Sad as these plans are they actually are more realistic than any the Brave Brexiteers have come up with too date. How sad still no plan and how it shows.

  • Little Jackie Paper 21st Sep '17 - 9:32pm

    Alistair – ‘I can freely work and trade there and having common standards with neighbours is basic common sense.’

    So the Norway option then?

  • Little Jackie Paper 21st Sep '17 - 9:43pm

    ‘But Remain in what? Jean-Claude Juncker’s vision of a more federalised EU with power centralised?’

    Spot on. Back in the early 1990s I was dead-against a referendum on Maastricht. I’m embarrassed at how wrong I was. Up to the introduction of the euro I might (just) about have been able to argue that what we had was what we signed up to in the 1970s. But now we have an EU with EZ IN and EZ OUT countries we have a fundamentally different political construct. Everything flows from there – it’s a political construct. What we see now in the EU is neofunctionalism on steroids and the Juncker vision is the clear articulation of it. There’s nothing wrong with wanting a political project to work better – but that, as others say on here needs an optimum political zone. I fail to see how in the long-term we can have the EZ INs and OUTs co-exist. We see already how EU reform is plainly all about the Eurozone and making it work. Very real problems like the lack of reciprocity in free movement have been secondary to the gamut of EZ reform.

    What we should have done in 1993 is be honest and set up an EU with full-blown political union and an EEA for those who want the economics but not the politics. Now the UK (and maybe others) need a Norway deal. Something that at least stabilises the situation, reduces the volume of EU law and makes contributions that are less political.

    The other option, of course is to go for a full hard remain with the euro, Schengen et al.

  • Little Jackie Paper 21st Sep '17 - 9:57pm

    Keith Bates – ‘More of the same didn’t cut it last time and ‘things will get worse’ is not a compelling value proposition.’

    Exactly. At the referendum the REMAIN argument in précis was, ‘come on everyone, buck up – the EU’s not THAT bad.’

    There may have been lots of different individual reasons but the conclusion was the same – a whacking great vote of no confidence in The System (for want of a better term). All of it. It may very well be the case that there are things that could (should?) be done differently from within the EU. But the REMAN campaign didn’t talk about that. As far as I can see remainers still seem to be taking the Cameron line as though the referendum didn’t actually suggest that there was a problem with the line.

  • Peter Martin 22nd Sep '17 - 7:38am

    @ Little Jackie Piper,

    “But now we have an EU with EZ IN and EZ OUT countries we have a fundamentally different political construct.”

    There was really only the UK which was an “EZ OUT” country in that it hadn’t signed up to the rules of the Orwellian inspired “Stability and Growth Pact”. It’s the rules of that which are much more the problem than the euro itself.

    So countries like Denmark and the Czech Republic are effectively part of euroland even though they still have their own currencies. There’s no advantage to having your own currency if it is pegged too tightly to another currency and arbitrary rules are imposed on fiscal and monetary policies.

  • Peter Martin 22nd Sep '17 - 7:51am

    @ Little Jackie Piper,

    “What we should have done in 1993 is be honest and set up an EU with full-blown political union and an EEA for those who want the economics but not the politics.”

    It’s a nice idea but separating politics from the economics? The two are too entwined for that. My criticism is that the EU have tried to separate politics from democracy. Prior to Maastricht everything worked reasonably well, and could have worked even better in the EEC/EC/EU countries hadn’t been required to keep their currencies in alignment. Greece needs a cheaper currency right now. Germany needs a more expensive one.

    Was anyone asked if they were unhappy with how things were before Maastricht? I don’t believe they were at all unhappy and so there was no need to change anything.

    In other words: “If it ain’t broke don’t fix it!”

  • LJP – any “option” is preferable to hard Brexit. But we are slipping towards becoming a nativist dominated backwater.

  • David Evershed 22nd Sep '17 - 10:30am

    Keith Bates hits the nail on the head when ha

    “We need to articulate what the Lib Dem USP is for the ordinary person, defined in a way that is easily consumable and clearly differentiated. At the moment I’m still not sure, and I can’t explain to my wife the unique difference ……”

  • Keith, David,
    You are correct but I think that’s how the members like it. They don’t seem to want to be a serious political force but an exclusive club where the objective is to somehow agree with everyone else even though the opinions are mutually exclusive. I joined for a year in the hope that the party would fill the yawning gap in the centre ground and gave up when it became a single issue pressure group and the inverse of UKIP.
    The party is defined, in the public mind, as being utterly opposed to Brexit.
    Fine. But what value is that to the average citizen?
    Is the aim to turn the clock back and put all the spilt milk back in the bottle? Will that actually happen? Is the party proposing a Norway option? And has it used every opportunity to point that out?
    To be blunt, being where we are, what on earth could the ludicrous phrase, “exit from Brexit” mean, in practical terms, to the British people?

  • Peter – I dont know what gave you the idea that the Koruna and Krone are effectively pegged to the Euro – this really couldnt be futher from the truth

  • Peter Martin 24th Sep '17 - 11:31am

    The pegging mechanism is known as ERMII

    You might just want to check with wiki on that.

  • Alas and alack Peter

    The Czech koruna jumped today against major currencies as the country’s central bank abandoned its policy of pegging its value to the euro.

    The decision, taken today, was announced with immediate effect, sending the koruna, or crown, up by 1.55 per cent against the euro at the time of writing. One euro hit lows of 26.6 koruna in mid-afternoon trading, down from the pegged level of 27 koruna to the euro.

    Still the Krone is hanging in there

    The Danish krone moves in a 2.5% band with the euro. A valuation problem might be cooking for the probably overvalued Danish krone but I do not think we have reached “maximum optimism” yet. The krone can be depegged, no doubt about it. In April 2017, the Danish central bank complained about increased pressure after the Czech koruna depegged from the euro. The Bloomberg article mentions Denmark’s strong balances make it difficult to keep the krone weak against the euro. This is a nice example of experts ignoring investing statistics. I think the strong Czech koruna could easily mean revert. It is partly a reaction on the depegging. Ahead of the European Central Bank, the Czech National Bank raised its main interest rate. This is a reaction on increased inflation, which is bearish for the CZK. When other countries also raise rates, the CZK might go down again. But relatively high growth is expected for the Czech economy, which is bullish for the CZK.

  • Keith Bates thinks Liberalism has something to do with the centre. In the heyday of the Liberal Party it was not a party of the centre but the opposition to Conservativism. He says he understands Liberalism but can’t explain what our USP is – it is the control of power, to enable everyone to be equally free.

    @ Lorenzo Cherin

    You are correct New Labour and us in coalition failed because we both continued with neo-liberal economic policies.

  • Peter Martin 27th Sep '17 - 11:42am

    @ Frankie,

    The pound was pegged to the US$ in the 60’s. But it wasn’t totally fixed. There was a small amount of movement allowed either way. Something similar to the 2% figures you mention for the krone and koruna.

    These are just technicalities. The Canadian and US dollars have varied in value by some 40% or so in recent years, relative to each other. Sure, the Canadians could limit that if they wanted to. But they don’t. They sensibly understand that their currency needs to float to reflect the changing circumstances of their and the world economies.

  • Peter Martin 27th Sep '17 - 11:58am

    @ frankie

    “A valuation problem might be cooking for the probably overvalued Danish krone”

    I would say undervalued. Denmark has been running between a 7% -10% of gdp surplus in its current account in recent years. This is far too large and a sure sign of an undervalued currency.

    Danish citizens would benefit from a higher currency. We like a higher pound. They’d like a higher krone.

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