Lib Dem Conferences have always been activist focussed, less so since entering government certainly but (possibly excepting a couple of larger set piece speeches) the primary audience is usually the one sitting in the room wearing garishly yellow lanyards. What has come to the fore through those speeches, fringe events, and the conference bar (always the best place to feel the tone of a conference) is, even more than usual, is one of defiance and rallying troops for the ground war.
War stories of past adversity are brandished proudly from every corner, whether Paddy Ashdown (seemingly speaking at every event) talks of pollsters predicting he’d lose his seat (or the infamous asterisk poll) or the grass-root tales of fighting elections in the dark days of the 1950s and 1960s, or going to the polls with Jeremy Thorpe heading towards the dock to defend himself on charges of conspiracy to murder. We’ve seen of worse and we can do it again is the declaration of faith made (often over pints of real ale) as much in hope as in belief.
It’s a long-running joke (that’s contains a grain of truth) that the true central principle of the Liberal Democrats is a commitment to leafleting. The belief that whatever swing the national polls suggest or dire predictions national media figures put out, down on the ground the foot-soldiers can pound the pavements into submission and canvass their way to embarrassing the critics (there have also been plenty of references to Iain Dale failing to fulfil his exit poll wager to run naked down Whitehall).
The release of the Ashcroft poll only boosted this confident defiance, even as Professor John Curtice and Peter Kellner sounded more pessimistic notes in fringe events (Paddy Ashdown on hand at both events to launch a more optimistic rallying cry to the listening troops).
This is the most underrated asset of the Liberal Democrats, years of experience all kinds of electoral adversity runs through the party
This carries with it a risk, if you start shutting out the most pessimistic opinions then you risk misjudging reality. The advantage that comes with it is confident activists are activists motivated for a hard ground war.
‘Once more unto the breach’ is about the only motivational quote I haven’t heard used yet (and I probably just didn’t make it to the event it feature at). Rallying behind party unity (in the face of membership decline) has been the message of the leadership and the tone of the conference overall. It’s why Lord Oakeshott is now a punch-line, and Nick Clegg (as Mike beat me to writing) is secure through 2015.
The Lib Dem forces are lining up (manning the barricades was the most apt description I heard) and will trust their tactics through what is likely to be a painful European election and difficult disengagement from the coalition. My own expectation is that the Lib Dem vote numbers will be well down but local MPs (boosted by the YouGov poll that saw them rated much higher, and the only positive rating, by their constituents and local campaigns will see a strong number of yellow islands after 2015 (the current spread is at 37.5 and I would go slightly over that, which since I’m a Lib Dem conference probably means they’re right).