Not many people were really bothered about the Lib Dem conference this year. The party polls regularly below 10%, has just 12 MPs (some of whom don’t even turn up to knife edge Commons votes), and has failed to inspire voters since the heady days of Cleggmania. The interest in Westminster was so low that the Brighton conference could easily have passed you by.
The interest of the nation was recaptured when Lib Dem advisers promised journalists that Vince Cable was going to describe Brexit using a sensitive and newsworthy metaphor during his keynote conference speech.
This could have been a crude attempt to cause a blunder from the Labour party, whose dominant faction has difficulty understanding basic metaphors. Yet, regardless, Cable bottled the moment – leaving the whole country perplexed and a bit embarrassed.
If the episode made you break out in nauseous laughter, you weren’t the only one. But, on a more serious note, it has exposed some major problems for the former coalition party – now that the queasiness has subsided.
Primarily, it shows that the Lib Dems have a very vague understanding of political communication in 2018. It appears as though they’ve looked at Boris Johnson and said “hey, he gets a load of air time for spouting nonsense, why don’t we do the same?”
They’ve failed to recognise that Boris, and similar loudmouths on the left (Aaron Bastani), receive lots of media attention for their reckless ramblings, but in the process they sacrifice credibility. Boris’ assorted buffoonery has kept him out of Downing Street (and has made him a running joke at the foreign office), while Aaron Bastani was recently appointed to a prominent think-tank and then fired before he even started the job, because of his infamous social media reputation.
And when you’ve lost 17% of your national vote share since 2010, it’s probably not wise to burn the shred of credibility you have left, all for a sick joke.
What’s more, the underlying premise of the gag wasn’t even convincing. Cable was essentially saying we should feel sorry for Theresa May, because she’s being held hostage by Brexit fantasists who are positively infatuated with the idea of no deal. Perhaps this argument would be persuasive if it was made by a leader with something to be smug about. Unfortunately for Cable, he is probably the only mainstream party leader who attracts more pity than the prime minister.
And this all adds up to a more damning truth: the Lib Dems are incapable, for the foreseeable future, of reviving liberal social democracy. The party’s brand is toxic, its arguments aren’t serious, and it lacks the imagination and energy to inspire even its own supporters.
Indeed, Cable’s ‘Momentum for moderates’ plan epitomises this lack of ingenuity. People aren’t inspired by moderation. It’s simply a fact of politics. Presumably the tagline for moderate Momentum would be: “down with this sort of thing,” or “What do we want? Workers’ rights. When do we want them? Sometime in the next few years, depending on prevailing economic conditions”.
Modern political movements are built on the promise of radical change, not the prospect of incremental advances.
As Polly MacKenzie (director of Demos and former adviser to Nick Clegg) has pointed out: Cable would be better off trying to rebuild the intellectual foundations of radical, popular liberalism, rather than trading in stomach-churning witticisms and hair brain Labour-imitation schemes.
And so the 2018 Lib Dem conference did manage – eventually – to attract the attention of the media and the nation. But at what cost to the party, and to us all?
A Backbench report