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Public Policy|Southampton

Conference special: LibDems16

Walking the narrow path between euphoria and despair; an account of the Liberal Democrat autumn conference.

The Liberal Democrats entered the Conference season on 17th September with their annual gathering in Brighton. Participants were surprisingly cheerful – fuelled by the unexpected recovery the LibDems have experienced since their defeat in the May 2015 elections. Since June 23rd, thousands of new members have joined the party, brining membership to a 10-year high. Spirits were further heightened by a series of wins in local by-elections since the 24th of June.

The party of the 48%

Self-proclaimed the party of the 48%, the LibDems have been successful in galvanising the frustration and sense of despair of many British voters since the decision of the UK to leave the EU. The conference hall was filled with former members re-joining the party accompanied by new members making their debut in party politics.

In an attempt to position himself as the only credible opposition to the new conservative government of Theresa May, Party leader Tim Farron, did not miss a chance to highlight the lack of direction and plan of the Conservative party in managing Brexit. He is taking the chance to appeal to pro-Europe Labour supporters and disappointed Tories alike.

Brexit – squaring the circle

But the overall euphoria was overshadowed by a deeper sense of despair and utter incredulity over the situation in which the UK found itself in the wake of the EU referendum. For this traditionally pro-European party, it is trickier than it could appear to an external observer, to determine its position on Brexit.

On the one hand the party leadership is rejecting Brexit, promising to campaign on keeping the UK in the European Union in the next general election. Farron launched a campaign for a second referendum on whatever Brexit deal emerges over the next couple of years. Simultaneously, many members and senior party figures know that if they want to be a credible opposition, they will have to hold the government to account and push it to secure the best possible deal.

It will become increasingly difficult to combine both their plea to reject Brexit with their promise to secure the best possible post-Brexit deal in a coherent and credible message. Fulfilling Tim Farron’s plan of becoming the new opposition party might prove trickier than it seems. At the moment the LibDems stand at a mere 8% in the polls and count on just eight MPs. Then again, as Winston Churchill once said: ‘Success consists of going from failure to failure without loss of enthusiasm.’

Read the party motion on ‘Britain in the European Union’ approved at Conference for further information on the LibDem’s position on Brexit.

The LibDem Science and Higher Education agenda

Although much focus was geared towards the consequences of Brexit and how to regain power in the wake of the EU referendum, an air of normality characterised conference debates. Conference participants debated traditional LibDem policies such as criminal justice reform, civil liberties, data protection & privacy, green economy and drug policy reform. New topics topped the agenda, most important of all education and research.

On Higher Education and research, the LibDems passed a motion on ‘UK and European Collaborative Research and Erasmus’. Members unanimously called for a clear and unambiguous commitment to all undergraduates, all academia, all research institutions and all companies involved in innovation that the government will:

• Make available funds to support all research activities that are in progress, however long these existing programs last.

• Fund in full all EU funding mechanisms for company innovation, research and academia, such as Horizon 2020, FP8 and all other such structures.

• Pay a fair share of the administrative costs associated with the running of these schemes.

• Maintain the ongoing Erasmus program for student exchange.

Education has become one of the new top priorities of the LibDem leadership. With the creation of a working group, the LibDems promise to present their policies on education soon. One thing is known already, they want to base their positions on evidence provided by experts. In response to the ‘post-truth politics’ that have characterised political debate during the EU referendum campaign, the LibDems have made evidence-based policymaking their mantra. Good news for academia.



Julie Cantalou

Senior Policy Manager, Public Policy |Southampton






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