You have probably heard of the Liberal Democrats, Westminster’s third party, an option that is neither Conservative nor Labour. The party that spent five years in coalition with the still-in-power Conservatives, and who may be in Government again after the next election, although with Labour this time around. Last week they held their annual party conference in Bournemouth, the first in-person one since before the COVID-19 pandemic, as last year it was scuppered by the death of the Queen.
Since the last general election, the Liberal Democrats have been in the news when winning byelections, which has caused their number of seats in parliament to go up to 15 from 11 in 2019. This can hardly be the extent of the narrative they want, the tiny party only able to run hyper-local campaigns to turf out the Tories, so in their conference, they armed themselves with a “pre-manifesto” of ideas to present to the electorate. Despite that, party leader, Ed Davey, made it clear as he wrapped up the conference that the Tories would be the Lib Dems’ main opponent at the next general election – whenever that is. The Liberal Democrats will not form the next government, but they can help oust the Conservatives. Davey is attempting to build a base in the so-called “blue-wall” of seats in the south-east of England where Conservative-leaning voters have been put off by the last few years of Tory shambles [and Brexit?]. Although, to actually win seats, the Lib Dems need both efficient tactical voting from Labour supporters and a large enough swing away from the Tories. To butter up the Labour voters he might need, Davey has hinted that his party might back a minority Labour administration, and has ruled out a repeat of their Conservative coalition days, where he was in cabinet.
A major difference between the Liberal Democrats and the two major parties is their endorsement of proportional representation, claiming that it ensures that every vote counts. Davey has recognised that he needs to be distinctive in his promises to the electorate. He wants to impose windfall taxes on banks and oil companies to fund “free” social care, whilst promising a legal guarantee that anyone referred for cancer treatment will be seen in two months. The Lib Dems do want a “balanced” budget so will face questions over how it will pay for the latter as they have dropped plans to put a penny on income tax. The Liberal Democrats do seem to have borrowed Labour’s clothes as at the conference they were casting themselves as the party of the NHS; a bold but credible claim as a Liberal did actually invent it. By identifying a problem with our healthcare system they may not just be boosting their own policy offering, but may also be forcing their bigger rivals to deal with it. Whilst the Liberal Democrats are trying to create a distinctive policy offering prior to the next election some of their efforts are focused on wooing the Conservative voters they will need to win seats. They ruled out taxing the rich but struggled to maintain party unity on the subject of a housebuilding target .
If you want a list of which motions did pass at the very democratic conference they are listed below: [Not even a true politics nerd can tell you what they all mean.]
- Combating Human Trafficking and Modern Slavery Policy motion, which seeks to repeal some government legislation
- A Fair Deal for the Armed Forces Community
- Bring Back the Industrial Strategy
- A Better Start in Life
- Restore Standard in Public Life, a response to all of the scandals
- Ending Period Poverty
- Making the Fight Against Climate Change Accessible
- Fixing Fast Fashion – Reduce, Reuse, Recycle
- Transforming the Nation’s Health
- Young Liberals’ Representatives to Party Committees
- Investing in our Children’s Future
- For a Fair Deal
- Protecting our Neighbourhoods – A Return to Community Policing
- Connecting Communities – Building a Transport Network fit for the 21st Century
- Food and Farming
- Scrap the Voter ID Scheme, surely a bipartisan one? Even Jacob Rees-Mogg has admitted it is gerrymandering
- Tackling the Housing Crisis
- Standing with Ukraine
- A Child Maintenance Service that Works for Children
- Tackling the Nature Crisis
These policies the Liberal Democrats have put forth may not result in real change for a while, but if they gain more power in the next election they may filter into the mainstream.
So who are the Liberal Democrats?
No longer a party with the sole focus of taking Britain back into the European Union, the Liberal Democrats have become aware that they may gain more power in the next election. This means they need to widen their appeal, rather than being seen as Remainers. No doubt they will gain some ground, if their byelection wins can be translated into wider success, boosted by a Labour party not so scary to middle England as it was under the leadership of Jeremy Corbyn. They may even take the role of kingmakers if there is a hung parliament. They may also be worth a vote if you want to keep the Tories out, but are voting in a seat where Labour has no chance, but if you want to lend them your vote, you might as well know what they seek to achieve.