LIB DEMS IN BOURNEMOUTH: ‘How Rose Garden moment left us looking like we enjoyed working with the Tories’
25 September, 2015
LIBERAL Democrats were punished at the ballot box for looking as if they were enjoying their coalition with the Conservatives too much.
This was the frank assessment from the party’s last surviving councillor in Camden as members met for their annual conference here in Bournemouth this week.
Asked whether local members regretted the national leadership’s decision to go into partnership with the Tories in 2010 – the moment many of the party’s recent electoral defeats are traced back to – Flick Rea said: “I think one of the problems was the rose garden moment.”
She was referring to the appearance of Nick Clegg, shaking hands, all smiles, with David Cameron in the Downing Street garden after the coalition deal had been struck.
In Camden, almost two decades of growth has been followed by council and parliamentary election defeats, with Cllr Rea bearing witness to the Lib Dems’ fall from being the leading party at the Town Hall to having just one councillor in the chamber.
“One of the things that I always thought was that we shouldn’t have made it look like we were enjoying it so much,” said Cllr Rea, speaking to the New Journal in a clifftop hotel between conference debates. “It should have been a bit more ‘dragged to the altar’ rather than leaping down the aisle with a bunch of flowers.”
She added that a local coalition administration with the Tories – the partnership which ran Camden between 2006 and 2010 – would have been a better example to follow.
“We knew there were differences in Camden, but knew it had to be done,” said Cllr Rea, who will have served 30 years at the council this time next year.
“We didn’t particularly socialise with them but it was a necessity. In Camden, it didn’t look like a love affair. Nationally, we could have done things differently. We could have done confidence and supply with the Conservatives.
“But it was a combination of the rose garden and tuition fees which made it look like we were doing it for the wrong reasons. I suppose you can understand it because after 50 years or something out of office the chance of getting your hand on a lever of power is very exciting.”
She added: “Although people still say we could have gone in with the other lot, we couldn’t have. The numbers didn’t stack up. It’s sad, but if you can’t deal with it then you shouldn’t be in politics.”
The conference on the south coast was given the slogan “Lib Dem Fightback”, the first headed by new leader Tim Farron. More than 20 Camden members were in town for it, and while the wounds of last May’s council elections are still healing, the party insists it can rebuild.
Former council leader Keith Moffitt said: “We are getting new members who have come in and said they want to help. They feel almost guilty, saying if we’d known all of this was going to happen, we’d have done more.
“The main topic of conversation for people joining or coming back to the party is the European Union. They like the fact we are unequivocally in favour of the EU, and they are worried where the other parties may take us. There are a lot of people who were on the edge, but have now actually joined as members.”
While Mr Farron has said Labour MPs disenchanted with the choice of new leader in Jeremy Corbyn could be thinking about defecting to the Lib Dems, locally members are realistic that some of the people who voted for them in Camden in the past were “Old Labour supporters”.
Cllr Rea admitted: “Some of them voted for us because they didn’t like Blair but we’ve seen you can’t predict what will happen. Every election is a completely different election.”
The Lib Dems recruited writer Maajid Nawaz for their parliamentary campaign in Hampstead and Kilburn earlier this year, but his high profile could not keep the party in contention. The constituency had been a genuine three-way contest at the previous general election.
“I think, and this is genuine, we were more depressed in 2010 when we lost control of the council and didn’t get Ed [Fordham] elected because it was actually unexpected,” said Mr Moffitt. “We thought there would probably be the continuation of a partnership administration. Since then we know it’s been tough and we’ve been expecting it. But I think the public are only just beginning to realise – now we have a full Conservative government – that we did actually do some good things in government.”
The Lib Dems cite the introduction of free school meals, work on mental health and equal marriage as the party’s achievements.
“There was a front page of the Daily Mail which we had pinned to the wall which had David Cameron saying: ‘If it wasn’t for the Lib Dems, I’d rule like a real Tory’,” said Mr Moffitt.
He said the years of growth in Camden had not been wasted, and that the machinery for rebuilding was there: the party has an office which it didn’t have before its years of success, and its own leaflet printing press.
And the party is now looking to a new face, Zack Polanski, a hypnotherapist who is standing for the Lib Dems in next year’s London Assembly elections. He caught the eye of delegates at the opening night rally for his speech and then by singing Ain’t No Mountain High Enough with a clapping choir.
Mr Polanski said he had spoken to 2,000 new members personally about their hopes and fears, telling the conference: “When Nick told the nation our party will come back, we will win again – it will take patience, resilience and grit, we said they are qualities we eat for breakfast.”
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