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High spirits in Bournemouth as Lib Dems plot their electoral resurgence

What, exactly, do the Liberal Democrats stand for?

No doubt many Liberal Democrats were asking themselves this question as they flocked to Bournemouth this week to hold their first in-person Autumn Conference since before the pandemic.

The Liberal Democrats have been rebuilding their Party since suffering their third consecutive demoralising electoral blow in 2019. During that year’s Conference, then-party leader Jo Swinson famously talked up the prospect of a Lib Dem government, and told members she was ‘standing here as your candidate for Prime Minister’. The Lib Dems came out of that election with just eleven seats – Swinson was thrown out of her own – and the party was condemned to five more years on the fringe of politics.

Since 2019, the party’s new leader, Ed Davey, has been picking up the orange pieces left scattered around the country. He’s learned from his predecessor and stayed mostly quiet about Europe – still disgruntled about Brexit but, to the frustration of many in his party, cautious not to be consumed by it and risk alienating half the voting population again. Davey has also learned not to overreach and instead utilise the party’s traditional strength on the local level to zone in on a community’s specific issues, achieving impressive results in this year’s Local Elections and recent by-elections.

Sewage led the agenda at this year’s Conference.  Wearing a wetsuit on stage, the Lib Dem parliamentary candidate for Eastbourne Josh Babarinde delivered a stark warning of the pollution of Britain’s waterways with waste and sewage. The issue of sewage is popular with the party because it cuts through to the public, particularly in rural Lib Dem target seats and, unlike more high-profile issues like the cost of living, they don’t compete with Labour and Tories for airtime on it. 

Cleaning up rivers ties into a wider effort by the party to position themselves as champions of the environment, particularly following Rishi Sunak’s recent backtracking on Net Zero commitments. Lib Dems believe this could be the key to winning back rural voters in the South West who made up traditional liberal heartlands but over time have been eroded by the Conservatives. Recent by-election victories in Devon and Somerset have installed hope for a West Country resurgence in the next election.

The challenge for the Liberal Democrats is reassuring the wider public that, despite the focus on sewage, the rest of their manifesto doesn’t stink. 

Lib Dems have one of the most ambitious Net Zero plans, yet as one disgruntled councillor lamented at a fringe event, a recent YouGov poll revealed that just 4% of the public thought the Liberal Democrats would be the best party to lead the country on environmental issues. The Greens were the most popular choice at 25%, but both Labour (15%) and Tories (12%) also beat the Lib Dems. Their conclusion? People don’t know Lib Dem policies well enough, so the party needs to do far better at campaigning and publicising what it stands for. 

This is true on social issues too. Lib Dem messaging is overwhelmingly aimed at knocking out the Tories, but the party has no truce with Labour either. The Liberal Democrats are resentful that Labour owns issues of welfare and equality despite the influential Beveridge Report and the original welfare state both originating from their Liberal Party predecessors, not the Labour Party. Despite many smaller parties often advocating for a progressive alliance, this is not an area where Labour, which believes it has a responsibility to give every voter an opportunity to vote for a Labour candidate, has traditionally been willing to engage with the Lib Dems.  

Again, this is down to a perceptions issue rather than policy. The Lib Dems have made commitments like restoring the £20 uplift to benefits that was temporarily in place during the pandemic. They also recently unveiled a 5 billion pound-a-year free social care plan – an issue that Ed Davey is particularly passionate about due to his personal experiences of caring for his terminally ill mother. 

Lib Dems believe being vocal about social issues will disturb Labour’s left-wing voter base that is becoming increasingly alienated by leader Keir Starmer, who has made determined efforts to purge his party of Corbyn-era socialists to present his party as credible and ready to govern. This would be quite a seismic realignment for the Lib Dems if they targeted this voter base, as they have traditionally sought to take the middle road between the two warring main parties.  Whether committed socialists would consider voting for the party that went into coalition with David Cameron however, is another matter.      

Judging from this Conference, the Lib Dems seem to have every party in their crosshairs – challenging the Tories’ hold on rural Britain; Labour’s monopoly on the welfare state; the Greens’ title as champions for the environment; and even the SNP, whose internal turmoil is expected to leave a power vacuum in Scotland next election that Labour is currently poised to fill.

This is courageous – especially for a traditionally mellow party – but the Lib Dems are again at danger of biting off more than they can chew. Unseating the substantial Tory majority will be a big enough feat without launching multi-fronted battles. This is already evident in the upcoming Mid-Bedfordshire by-election, where Labour and Lib Dems’ refusal to back down for the other risks splitting the anti-Tory vote and gifting Sunak a victory.

A better electoral strategy may be to make peace with the opposition parties and build a strong alliance to deliver a crushing defeat to the Tories. In theory, this could be achievable with the Labour Party, since most constituencies can be divided between Labour and Lib Dem prospects against the Conservatives and divided and conquered accordingly. However, both the Lib Dems and Labour – which believes it has a responsibility field a candidate in every seat to give all voters an opportunity to vote Labour – currently refuse to entertain the notion.

Such an alliance may even pave a route to Government for the Lib Dems, should Labour fail to win a majority and require a partner, possibly in a coalition but more likely as an informal alliance. 

If this is the case, the credibility of the party as a governing force and the financial viability of its ambitious commitments during an unprecedented cost of living crisis would certainly be put to the test. As a junior partner of any deal they make, the Lib Dems will surely need to compromise on many of its promises and inevitably let down many of their supporters.

In this context, the Lib Dems would be at danger of repeating the biggest blunder of their history. Ed Davey would have to think long and hard whether the taste of power is worth it, considering that nearly a decade later his party still has not recovered from the devastating aftermath of the Clegg-Cameron coalition, of which he was part.