5 things we learnt at Lib Dem conference

These are big takeaways from the Liberal Democrat conference in Bournemouth

Ed Davey speaking at Lib Dem Conference

Members of the Liberal Democrats have been meeting in Bournemouth for the party’s autumn conference over the last few days. The event was likely the last conference before the next general election and it therefore gave us a key indication as to what the party’s plans are when the country goes to the polls to elect new MPs.

Left Foot Forward reported live throughout the conference. With the conference now over, here are the five big things we learnt.

1. Progressive alliances are off the table

Until relatively recently, the ‘progressive alliance’ was all the rage. The idea is simple: left of centre parties should agree not to campaign in areas where another party is best placed to beat the Tories.

The idea used to have traction among Lib Dems. In the 2019 general election, the party joined forces with Plaid Cymru and the Greens under the banner of ‘Unite to Remain’. In dozens of seats across England and Wales, only one of the three parties stood a candidate.

However, it now looks like the appetite for such arrangements has well and truly waned, with senior party figures seeming to rule them out in the future.

The Lib Dem MP Christine Jardine told a fringe meeting at the conference that the ‘Unite to Remain’ pact “didn’t work”. Former Lib Dem Leader Vince Cable told another meeting that it was “unlikely” any national arrangement would be come to and there is “no prospect” of Labour participating in one, adding “there is enough understanding now about tactical voting that it isn’t necessary”. Meanwhile in an interview with Left Foot Forward, one of the party’s MPs – Jamie Stone – said such a pact would be “dangerous” and “not clever”.

This pushback on the concept of electoral alliances is particularly interesting against the backdrop of the Mid Bedfordshire by-election. In that contest, both Labour and the Lib Dems are campaigning hard, with both claiming they are best placed to defeat the Tories. The fear among some on the left is that the anti-Tory vote will be split, leading to Rishi Sunak’s party sneaking in and holding the seat. Whether that by-election is a vindication of hostility to alliances or Mid Bedfordshire becomes another so called ‘progressive tragedy’ is yet to be seen.

2. There is a row brewing about Europe

Think of the British political party most likely to be divided over the EU. Your mind probably first jumped to the Tories.

Perhaps surprisingly, it is the Lib Dems who are currently facing internal strife over Europe. That strife was on full display at their conference in Bournemouth.

It began during a Q&A session with the party’s leader Ed Davey. After responding to a question on Brexit, Davey was heckled from the conference floor. The heckler queried the party’s position on rejoining the EU. “We’re campaigning hard on Europe as you know my friend,” Davey replied, before another audience member shouted: “No you’re not!”

The following day, a fringe meeting hosted by pro-Europe group Best for Britain saw senior party figures engage in outright defiance over the party’s position. The dissent is so intense that Baroness Ludford – the party’s Brexit spokesperson in the House of Lords (ie. the person supposed to sell the position on Europe) told attendees that “the leadership has got this wrong”.

The issue appears to be a rift between some of the Lib Dem membership and the leadership over how to talk (or indeed whether to talk) about the party’s long term ambition to rejoin the European Union. Conference goers warn that the leadership is very keen on not marking out a more Europhilic position so as to avoid alienating Tory voters in the so called ‘Blue Wall’.

Indeed, at a fringe hosted by the IPPR, commentators and messaging experts argued that the party should say as little as possible about Europe, unless it has a clear and simple message.

The circle the Liberal Democrats seem to be struggling to square right now is how to balance keeping its militantly pro-EU membership on board with campaigning while seeking to avoid mentioning Europe as much as possible.

3. Don’t mention the ‘c-word’

It isn’t just Europe that leading Lib Dems are trying to avoid speaking about. At all costs, the party’s MPs want to dodge any attempt to pin them down on what would happen in the event of a hung parliament after the next election.

Again, this partially stems from the party’s electoral strategy. At the next general election, the Liberal Democrats are going to be fiercely challenging the Tories in seats where support for the Labour Party is negligible at best. Crucial to that strategy, the theory goes, is ensuring that soft Tory voters don’t get spooked about the prospect of a Labour government.

That’s why Ed Davey is doing his best to avoid giving a straight answer on whether the party would countenance a post-election agreement with the Labour Party after a general election, whether that’s a coalition or something more informal. No doubt, the party leadership is extremely wary about coalitions as a result of its experience from 2010-15, when its government with the Tories triggered a near total wipeout of the party’s electoral representation.

Individual MPs are more explicit in their rejection of the idea of any coalition. Christine Jardine told a fringe meeting that there were no discussions about a post-election deal. She even refused to say whether electoral reform would be a red line if any such discussions were to take place. Speaking to Left Foot Forward, Jamie Stone initially said he “wouldn’t want to get into that conversation at all” before admitting “I’m not interested in coalitions”.

There appears to be little appetite among the membership either. At one fringe meeting, members were asked to raise their hand if they would want to see the party enter a coalition with Labour after the next election. Barely a handful went up.

4. The party is laser focussed on winning Tory seats

You’ve probably worked this one out already, given the previous two points. At this conference, the Liberal Democrats were abundantly clear that they are laser focused on one thing at the next election – unseating Tory MPs in the ‘Blue Wall’.

This has clearly been a part of Lib Dem strategy for some time, with a string of by-election victories indicating the party has found fertile ground in these areas. However, it became even clearer in Bournemouth.

Nowhere was this more evident than during Ed Davey’s closing speech to the conference. Davey spoke for almost an hour and was almost relentlessly on message about how awful the Tory government has been and how the Liberal Democrats can help turf them out of office. “The next election won’t be all about the Red Wall, it’s also about the Blue Wall”, he told attendees, saying that some of the bricks in it had already “broken”, it was starting to “crumble” and was ready to be knocked down.

Tellingly, Davey barely mentioned the Labour Party in his hour on the conference stage. Keir Starmer’s party were mentioned just twice – once to criticise its position on Europe, and later to accuse it of promising the British public to only be “not as bad as the Tories”.

The prospect of the Lib Dems winning big in Tory heartlands has senior Lib Dems walking around at the conference with a glint in their eye and a spring in their step. It’s clear they see winning over the ‘Blue Wall’ as their route to return as a major political force after eight years in the parliamentary wilderness.

5. The Lib Dems remain a democratic party

The most dramatic moment of this year’s Lib Dem conference came on Monday. A fractious debate over the party’s housing policy spilled into a heated argument. The debate centred around whether the party should maintain a commitment to a national target of building 380,000 new houses per year.

During the debate, the party’s former leader Tim Farron accused supporters of retaining the target of pushing a ‘Thatcherite’ policy which was ‘the most right wing thing I’ve seen at party conference since we set Liz Truss off to go and work undercover’. Those comments were greeted with boos from party members, and the Lib Dem candidate for London Mayor openly criticised Farron’s speech on the conference floor.

These open divisions are embarrassing in and of themselves. What’s perhaps more embarrassing is that the party leadership had pushed for the housebuilding target to be dropped, only to be defeated by the membership. In advance of the conference, Ed Davey had spoken to broadcast media saying he supported the attempts to ditch the target.

What does this tell us? It raises questions about how effective the Lib Dems are at managing messaging. It was clearly unwise for Ed Davey to tell the press that his party would be dropping the target before this had been agreed by members.

It also tells us that the Liberal Democrats are a different outfit to Labour and the Tories. The big two parties have policies set and directed by the party’s leadership, rather than by members. Labour members frequently speak of frustration that policies backed by the party’s conference are ignored by the leadership and don’t make it into a manifesto.

By contrast, Tim Farron – despite his visceral opposition to the housebuilding policy – has conceded that it will in fact be part of the party’s platform at the next election. He told Left Foot Forward: “There is almost no chance of that not being in the manifesto now.”

Chris Jarvis is head of strategy and development at Left Foot Forward

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