UK Politics

Lib Dem conference: What to expect

The Liberal Democrats are gathering in Bournemouth for their annual conference - the first since the party lost all but eight of its MPs in May's general election rout.

A wake or a rebirth?

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Activists are unlikely to be throwing themselves off the pier in despair. That's not really the Lib Dem way. The party has always thrived in adversity. The conference hashtag is #LibDemfightback.

But it will be a bittersweet experience for some party members.

"This is bound to be an emotional conference for us," writes Caron Lindsay, editor of LibDem Voice.

The party's "brutal" defeat in May is still raw, she adds. "Being with our friends, mulling it all over with laughter, the odd tear and a whole load of gallows humour will undoubtedly help with that."

Here is a full rundown of the main speeches and debates.

Record attendance

The party is talking up the fact that it has gained 20,000 members since May's general election - and about 2,500 of them are going to be in Bournemouth. This is a record, according to party sources, surpassing the number of party members at the 2010 post-election gathering.

"It's going to be a busy, buzzy conference," says Lib Dem activist Mark Pack.

But it will still be a very different kind of Lib Dem conference to those we saw during the coalition years.

There will be no government ministers speaking from the main stage for one thing.

Thin fringe

It is likely to feel more sparsely populated too. The corporate lobbyists who flooded into Lib Dem conferences during the coalition years have all but deserted the party. This means the bars and restaurants will be quieter and there will be far fewer fringe meetings. Far fewer journalists too.

Farron's big test

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The party's new leader Tim Farron has long been a darling of grassroots Lib Dem activists but the general public have little idea who he is.

He will be under pressure to do something about that this week - and also to stake out exactly where the party stands in the rapidly changing landscape of British politics.

He has described the election of Jeremy Corbyn as Labour leader as a "staggering" opportunity for the Lib Dems to occupy the "centre ground" and attract back moderate Labour voters and members appalled by their new leader's hard left pedigree.

"There's no denying we're at one of the most challenging points in our party's history, but if anyone is going to lead us back, it's Tim," says a party aide.

"At conference you'll hear what motivates him, as he tackles the housing crisis, mental health, Europe, business and enterprise, the refugee crisis, and personal freedom."

The focus will be on next year's elections in Scotland, Wales and English local authorities - the first real chance to gauge if the party can revive itself.

Right, left and centre

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Where exactly does Mr Farron, routinely described as a left-winger himself, and who defined himself as a break from the Tory-leaning coalition years, think the centre ground is? Aides say he is keen to dispel the idea, put about by some commentators, that he is "Corbyn-lite".

Party members will be seeking answers at a Q&A session in the main hall on Monday. Mr Farron's keynote address will close the conference on Wednesday.

Love-bombing Labour...

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Tim Farron has mischievously let slip that he has been playing "agony aunt" to Labour MPs in despair at the election of Jeremy Corbyn.

But party sources are talking down the chances of defections any time soon. Certainly not during conference week.

The most senior Labour figure in Bournemouth will be former cabinet minister Peter Hain, now Lord Hain, who is down to speak at a fringe meeting.

Mr Farron and his team will be going all out to make their party look like an attractive option for disaffected Labour supporters.

"We once again see the prospect of a decade or more of Tory rule, and it fills us with dread," Mr Farron will tell activists at a rally on Saturday evening.

...And liberal Tories

Tim Farron will not forget to shower some love on closet coalition fans who deserted the party for the Tories in May, his aides say.

"Britain is teeming with liberals, some of them are not yet in the Liberal Democrats. Some of them are in other parties. But we are their home," he will say on Saturday.

The big debates

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Mr Farron is setting himself up for a scrap with his party over Trident - carrying on in the grand tradition of Lib Dem leaders that have gone before him.

Conference will debate a motion on Monday backing unilateral nuclear disarmament - Mr Farron is planning to oppose it arguing that a cheaper option than a like-for-like replacement for Trident, such as ending round-the-clock submarine patrols, would be better.

He is also set for a rift with activists over airport expansion in south-east England. The membership voted for a blanket ban last year, but Mr Farron has told the Evening Standard that while he is against a third runway at Heathrow, he is "open-minded" about other options.

Clegg speaks

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Former leader Nick Clegg is down to speak to conference on Monday, when he is expected to launch the party's campaign to remain in the EU in the forthcoming referendum.

"He will get a better reception than Tony Blair would at a Labour conference," suggests Mark Pack.

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