The Lib Dems should learn from Jeremy Corbyn, as this boring conference shows

Former ministers could be shouting about their record in government. Instead,we're back to debating tired issues like electoral reform

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The Independent Online

I had a Proustian moment in the Highcliffe Bar in Bournemouth: things appear to be the same but, in the words of the Taylor Swift song, everything has changed.

I first joined a political party because I want to change things, not be part of a pressure group. Being in coalition was hard but I and a majority of Lib Dem members voted for it, and do not regret it.

Most members I speak with want to build on what we’ve achieved in government and do more. When you see Lynne Featherstone, the architect of Equal Marriage, and Jo Swinson, who pioneered the introduction of Shared Parental Leave speak, you don’t want to revert to talking about electoral reform.

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But, looking at our agenda this week there is a retreat to old comfort zones. The issues we’re discussing are far too safe. Many of those, such as housing and the NHS, have been debated many times before. We are simply restating old policies.

Even in the discussion on the refugee crisis, an area where our new leader Tim Farron has led the public debate, as one new member reflected: “It was boring - everyone just agreed on everything.”

Labour’s election of Jeremy Corbyn has created a big opportunity for my party. It’s an open goal, but given this week’s performance there is every chance we’ll fail to score. The danger is we end up being a fringe party slightly less loony than Labour, and slightly less nasty than the Conservatives. Is that all we want for ourselves?

This winter is an opportunity for Liberal Democrats to rediscover our radical edge, but maybe debating on a conference floor is not the way to do it. We should be visible online, at public meetings. We could do a lot worse than learn from Corbyn’s approach. Perhaps we should consider debating issues suggested by the public, not just party members? That’s not just about policy, it’s about credibility too.

 

As controversial as the Orange Book was at the time, it stimulated debate and got members thinking critically about policy matters. We don’t need a new Orange Book, but what we do need is a set of thought-provoking ideas learned from the crucible of government, and from the public.

Our former ministers not be shy to set out what they achieved in government to make Britain a fairer, more liberal place. We must sell our own story. We still know far too little about what difference the Lib Dems made, and now we’re letting our critics write the story for us.

We must state what we would do in government not just now but 20 years from now, and not in coalition but on our own terms.

There is no escaping the fact that we no longer have the luxury of media coverage - and with only eight MPs in Westminster, that’s fair enough. But that makes winning every council by-election going an absolute priority. We need to get out there and listen to people, be humble and win back their trust.

Since the general election, we have signed up 20,000 new members. One third of entire party is new, and many of them joined because they liked what we did in government and want to see more of it. Let’s give them a reason to stick around; let’s come up with something voters actually want to vote for.

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