28 Sep 2015 02:25pm

Lib Dem Conference: reclaiming the centre ground

On Monday and Tuesday of this week I attended the Liberal Democrat conference in Bournemouth. Whilst the party is still licking its wounds following a heavy election defeat, going from 57 MPs to just eight, the surge in membership numbers as well as the apparent lurch to the left of the Labour Party offers a glimmer of hope for the Liberal Democrats

Tim Farron, the newly elected leader of the party, was clear about the opportunity current political times offer: "If others wish to abandon serious politics, serious economics, that's their lookout," he told activists. "But you can be certain that the Liberal Democrats will occupy every inch of that progressive liberal space because you cannot change people's lives from the glory of self-indulgent opposition.”

Economic credibility is clearly being targeted as a priority for the party. Farron made clear he remained committed to abolishing the structural deficit by 2017-18 - but not on the back of the poorest and lowest paid, saying: "We must all play our part, based on our ability to pay."

The party’s pro-business credentials were also played-up at this year’s conference. The new so-called start-up allowance worth £2,600, or £100 a week, was announced on the second day of the conference. It is clearly an appeal to the UK’s SME sector. The allowance would be open to anyone starting a new business with a loan from the start-up loans facility, which provides loans and mentoring to help new business owners develop their business plan.

There is a fine line between optimism and denial. While the exhibition area had no corporate/membership body stands – highlighting the Lib Dem’s diminished influence –the genera mood in Bournemouth’s International Centre was buoyant. As Nick Clegg delivered his first major speech to since the last General Election he told a packed hall of activists: “We can be the comeback kids of British politics. As dawn follows the darkest hour, there is now space in British politics for a Lib Dem fightback.”

Only time will tell whether this vision can be achieved and the Lib Dems can once again hold the balance of power. What’s apparent, however, is that the party is very much in listening mode and will be looking to fine-tune its broader strategy over the coming months. It will be particularly interesting to see how successful they are in getting the support of the business world in this process.

Vincent Paulger is ICAEW's public affairs executive

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