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Liberal Democrats look to new blood and ‘moderates’ to stage comeback

Camden members head to Brighton for annual conference get-together

20 September, 2018 — By Richard Osley in Brighton

Camden members on the seafront in Brighton

LIBERAL Democrats believe they have survived an existential crisis in Camden, but need new blood – potentially drawn from disenchanted Lab­our and Tory supporters – to continue a comeback.

There was hope among members at the party conference here in Brighton this week – where the European flag was raised and many delegates wore blue and yellow berets – that the party will adapt to make it easier for the “politically homeless” to get involved, particularly those encouraged by a clear anti-Brexit message. But there was a warning too that Lib Dems must hang onto any new supporters beyond the EU debate by not being seen as a single-issue party, and by steering clear of coalitions with Jeremy Corbyn and Theresa May.

New councillor Luisa Porritt, who was among several Camden members on the south coast this week, said: “Most people recognise that Brexit is the most important issue facing us, everywhere, and we’ve taken a strong and clear stance. It was often the conversation that opened the door for people at the council elections and there will be people who have national politics in mind when they vote in a local election. But realistically if Brexit alone could win us seats then we would have won a lot more seats at the local elections.”

Cllr Porritt on whether people attracted to the party’s anti-Brexit stance will stay for the long term

The Lib Dems were the largest party on Camden Council 10 years ago, but were reduced to a single councillor in 2014 after Labour staged a recovery. This year, however, Cllr Porritt and Tom Simon won seats in Belsize ward to create a three-member group with Flick Rea, victories which the party hopes are the first shoots of a post-coalition recovery.

Like several new card-carriers in the Camden membership, Cllr Porritt joined the party only after the EU referendum two years ago, but is now considered one of the brightest hopes for the future. She was asked to explain how the local party had won seats at a fringe meeting on Saturday afternoon.

The former journalist is among members who now support reforms advanced by leader Sir Vince Cable which could allow “registered supporters” to help choose the next leader and permit non-MPs to stand for that role. Sir Vince has already said he will be leaving the post before the next general election, or when Brexit has been resolved.

Sir Vince Cable souvenir teddy at the gift stand

This discussion led to divided opinions in the conference hotels’ corridors with some members suspicious of Sir Vince’s call for “moderates” to consider joining the party. Cllr Porritt said that nobody was trying to oust Sir Vince, but there was a need to modernise, and that some of the reactions had been “alarmist”.

She said: “There is so much appetite to bring in new members and fresh ideas and energy now, but we need the balance of experienced members who know how things work within the council, how to win campaigns, but also lots of new members who want to kind of shake things up.”

In Camden and other areas, past election results appear to show a sharp backlash against the Liberal Democrats’ decision to go into government with the Tories in 2010 – a pact which led to concessions that included a broken promise on tuition fees.

“I’ve found it comes up less and less on the doorstep as a criticism,” said Cllr Porritt. “Actually even the reverse is now happening, where it is referenced as a positive for us. They go: ‘You did have a tempering effect on the Conservative government and you did introduce good policies as well.’ “It’s not just about forgiveness, but also recognising how much our presence led to a very different style of government.”

This meant the Lib Dems were “not a toxic brand”, she said, and there was no need to merge into a new centrist party – with a new name.

“The whole point of having a supporters scheme is to be able to bring people into our party to create a movement, but we would also show that we do have fundamental values that we are not giving up,” she said. “I don’t see Labour or the Tories getting their house in order any time soon. I think these shifts within both parties – the lurch to the left and the right respectively – are probably here to stay.”

Cllr Porritt says she is not in favour of another coalition

She added: “One of the uniting factors we have is Brexit so in that sense it doesn’t matter if you were Labour or Conservative before. There are a lot of people who are small-l liberal that sat in these two quite arbitrary camps, and we can appeal to both. “In Belsize we found a lot of Remainer Conservatives. In Fortune Green it was much more Labour but actually there were a lot of moderate Labour voters who were upset with the party’s Brexit and the way they’ve handled the anti-semitism allegations.”

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