So why on earth would anyone join the Liberal Democrats?

On the mean streets of Bournemouth, a battle for the party’s very soul.

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Something was different in the hall at Lib Dem conference this year: people were announcing themselves new members of the party, and not being cheered. In the past this has been a guaranteed applause line – on occasion, in fact, it’s been possible to get a round of applause at Lib Dem conference simply by announcing yourself as a Liberal Democrat – so its absence was oddly striking. 

But, delegates claimed, it was the result simply of fatigue. The recent growth in the party’s membership had made this the biggest conference in years. There were simply too many people standing up announcing themselves as new joiners to make it worth bothering.

Not all of the new arrivals, of course, are thought worth cheering. Chuka Umunna, the former Labour and Change UK MP now installed as the party’s foreign affairs spokesman, was so well received in the hall that the delegates applauded every time he reached some punctuation. By contrast, the former Tory backbencher Philip Lee – who once put forward a bill that would have insisted on HIV tests for immigrants arriving in Britain, and whose admittance had caused several members of the party’s LGBT+ group to quit the party in disgust – wasn’t allowed anywhere near the stage. Word was he’d been instructed to go on a charm offensive with members instead. 

It’s clear that, to the party faithful, Umunna is a legitimate Lib Dem. So are former Labour MP Luciana Berger and former Tory Sarah Wollaston. Lee, though, is not – or at least, not automatically. 

All of which raises a question: what makes someone a Lib Dem anyway? Come to that: why, in a political system in which a third party is never realistically going to lead a government (no, even now, Jo, don’t be silly), would you choose to join that party?

Asking around, it’s clear there are a variety of motives that have led people to choose the yellow team as their political home. In no particular order:

Liberalism. The belief that the most important things in politics are tolerance and individual freedom.

Centrism. The belief that neither left nor right have the answers and the correct course of action is generally somewhere in between. We sometimes end up conflating this with liberalism, in part because British politics bundles them together in a single party, but they’re not actually the same thing. 

They’re the local opposition. Large parts of the country are so Labour or so Tory that there’s no point voting for the other lot as they’re never going to get anywhere anyway. If you want to eject your existing representatives, your best shot is to back the Lib Dems, and, for some people, that eventually turns into membership.

They’re the local opposition, and the local government are bastards. Same as the above but with more potentially actionable stories about the shady shit the dominant local party gets up to, which I’m not planning to write down in any detail because I like not being sued and/or beaten up. But more than one person told me that their commitment to the Lib Dems came in large part from the fact that activists from another party had threatened them, the voters or someone that they loved.

Specific policies. A lot of people have recently joined the party because of its steadfast opposition to Brexit, just as a lot of people joined 15 years ago because of Charles Kennedy’s opposition to the Iraq War. Other policies – the Lib Dem line on drug reform, for example – have produced smaller versions of the same effect. Or, as one member told me: ”I read all the manifestos and this was the best one”, which is as good a reason as any I suppose. 

The glorified think tank. During last year’s conference, then-leader Vince Cable described the party as an “ideas factory”, churning out policies that the other, more electorally successful parties might want to nick. That description hasn’t been much in evidence this year, now Lib Dem MPs are going around apparently unironically discussing the “next Lib Dem government”, bless ‘em. But there is a logic to the notion that a third party not in serious contention for Downing Street could develop and push ideas that might upset the Daily Mail, perhaps shifting the Overton Window in the process. It would at least explain the passion of Lib Dem policy debates, considering the minimal chances the party has of actually enacting any policy.  

Same faith, different denomination. There are people for whom party membership is an important thread of their life, just as membership of the local am-dram group would be for others. So some people end up Lib Dems because they still want that lifestyle but have fallen out with the party they were already in: they’re effectively just shifting their tribalism. This, on a grander scale, is where the parliamentary defections come into it.

The political Sealed Knot. Looking for all the thrill of political activism – the factionalism! The grudges! The debates! – without any of the danger of actual political responsibility? Then perhaps the Lib Dems are the party for you. 

Whatever your motive for joining: once you’re in, you’re in. Party membership gives people a social network and a tribal identity that can make it hard to leave again, if only because you know it’ll mean losing friends. (It’s notable that some of the Lib Dems who quit in protest over Lee’s arrival in the party were, nonetheless, hanging around the bars of Bournemouth this weekend.) So in a variety of ways, people who joined the Lib Dems for one reason will have come to align with them on other matters. At the same time, a major influx of members can drag a party in a particular direction; that goes double for a party with as much internal democracy as the Lib Dems. 

That, though, can only stretch so far. It’s self-evident that – to pick a couple of unlikely twists – John McDonnell would never find a home in the Tory party, and Iain Duncan Smith would never be welcome in Labour. The boundaries of a liberal, centrist party may feel fuzzier – but the rumblings over Lee’s defection are a reminder of the fact that they are there all the same.

There’s a bigger, philosophical question in play here: what are the Lib Dems for? The debate members are grappling with, one former party member told me, is, “Do you want the Lib Dems to become a big tent party, with the potential to win an election at some point in our lifetime? Or you want it to stay the small, niche thing you like? This goes way beyond Philip Lee.”

Some of the motivations I listed above are more likely to leave those who feel them open to the idea of a big tent Liberal Democrat party than others. And if the defectors are all wiped out in an election before the year is out, the entire debate may soon feel irrelevant once again.

If not, though, the party could be arguing over exactly who counts as a Liberal Democrat for some time to come. 

Jonn Elledge is assistant editor of the New Statesman, in charge of day to day running of the website and its sister site, CityMetric. You can find him on Twitter or Facebook.