By Sam Payne at Lib Dem conference
To judge entirely by column inches, the most dramatic thing that happened at Lib Dem conference was Ed Davey falling out of a kayak. But behind the scenes in Bournemouth, there was a renewed sense of optimism about the party’s prospects at next year’s election.
The last time the Lib Dems held a conference in person was all the way back in 2019, when Jo Swinson was pitching herself as a future prime minister and her party as the one to “stop Brexit”.
That ended in bitter disappointment, with the party holding just 11 seats and Swinson losing hers in the process. This year, the mood was muted by comparison – as the party lacked a rallying cry with anything like the potency for its activists of “stop Brexit”.
Instead, Ed Davey is a man on a different mission, one that is more limited and realistic in scope. His speech focused on healthcare – and the compelling personal story of losing both his parents to cancer. Party strategists we spoke to said health – and its importance as a route to prosperity – along with the cost of living and the environment are the three issues that internal data shows will make a difference in target seats. They want GP appointments, and they don’t want sewage in their chalk streams.
Where the Lib Dems can win
Buoyed by recent by-election successes, Davey and his team fancy their chances in the ‘Blue Wall’ of seats in traditional Tory heartlands where the party secured a strong set of second places in the last election. Of the 91 seats in which the Lib Dems came second last time around, 80 are held by Conservatives.
Realistically, they’re not going to win nearly all of those, but even tens of additional seats would be considered a significant step forward. Rebuild that power base in the Commons successfully, they argue, and they could yet wield significant influence over a Keir Starmer-led government.
For a Labour election victory is very far from done deal. Sir Keir Starmer will need an enormous swing to secure a working majority. Party sources continue to brief out, including to The Times’ Patrick Maguire, that with the same swing Tony Blair secured in 1997, Starmer would have a majority of just one.
Having weight to throw around
The Lib Dems know that they do well when Labour have a centrist leader who succeeds (see Blair and Ashdown in 1997). With tactical voting of the levels seen in recent by-elections it could be a very good night indeed for Davey. And if Starmer secures a small majority, or there is a hung parliament, he could be entirely reliant on Davey to keep him in Number 10. The party would likely consider a ‘confidence and supply’ style agreement, but senior advisers seem wary of going any further. A coalition could risk their Blue Wall gains and resurrect memories of 2010. And we all know how that ended. Of course, speculation is rife, and a year is a long time in politics.
Instead, regardless of what happens to Labour on election night, the Lib Dems will hope to use their expanded ranks of MPs to become a more visible opposition force that holds Starmer to account. Securing third party status in place of the SNP, with the extra funding and speaking slots that grants, would make a big difference.
Changing electoral landscape
Delve into the data, the Lib Dems say, and you can see a major shift in the allegiances of middle class suburban and rural English voters. Rishi Sunak risks losing these traditional Tories if he doubles down on Red Wall issues. It is also likely that we will see see the character of the Lib Dems’ core vote shifting. But this will help give the party a clearer identity in the minds of the public, representing the part of the country who feel abandoned by the Tories on social and environmental issues, but may not naturally support Labour. How they voted in the EU referendum is decreasingly important – Davey made a big show of telling Conference “the Liberal Democrats are back in the West Country” following by-election gains.
To get there, Davey has to keep his activists on side. Conference was a tricky balancing act. On Brexit, the party still has a clear stance of wanting a “better deal” and a “closer relationship with Europe”, as Davey said in his conference speech. The leadership spent the four days of conference trying to avoid focusing on ‘the B word’, including by whipping MPs and candidates to defeat an attempted rebellion by members over how radical the manifesto should be.
On housing, presenting the Blue Wall-friendly removal of a national housing target as decided policy before conference had even got around to voting triggered a major backlash led by the party’s youth wing, and so the target remains. Instead, electoral reform was given notable airtime, in both the opening rally for members and in the leader’s speech, and was linked to Conservative sleaze and corruption.
What it all means
The narrow focus on the cost of living, health and the environment will continue, but in any discussions with Labour Europe would come to the fore, and inevitable pressure for a shift to proportional representation will be applied. However, anything like a confidence and supply agreement is much more ad hoc than a formal coalition, and by not joining the government Davey would have little say over its programme.
But the party isn’t thinking that far ahead for the most part and they’re not taking anything for granted. First the Lib Dems need to rebuild their MP base, just as they have in local government, and try and win the Mid Bedfordshire by-election to prove to voters they are still a force to be reckoned with.
And for businesses, charities and others who are engaging the Lib Dems on policy issues, this political context is very important. Businesses were at conference on a scale not seen since 2015 to build relationships for the future – the manifesto process is fairly advanced, but those contacts and that awareness will be vital if the electoral outcome Ed Davey is dreaming about comes true.
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