BOURNEMOUTH, England — After years in the political wilderness, Britain’s Liberal Democrats might just be relevant again.
The centrist, pro-European Lib Dems have spent a decade in the electoral doldrums following a coalition with the right-wing Conservatives. But, as the party gathers for its conference in the seaside town of Bournemouth, things are looking up.
Some in the party now dream of playing a serious role in Britain’s next government if a general election, expected in 2024, ends up closer than polls suggest.
Just don’t expect any noisy campaigning to reverse Brexit on the way there.
Buoyed by a series of audacious by-election victories over the last few years, Lib Dem party officials are hopeful they can at least double the number of parliamentary seats they won in 2019’s election, when they struggled to make gains and their short-lived leader, Jo Swinson, spectacularly lost her seat.
“For the first time since 2015, things feel stabilized, there’s a clear strategy and we know the messaging,” Sean Kemp, a former chief of staff to ex-Lib Dem leader Nick Clegg, said.
“And we’re not overreaching either,” Kemp added, in a nod to previous Lib Dem campaigns.
POLITICO spoke to eight Lib Dem MPs and officials, some of whom were granted anonymity to discuss internal strategy, to try and work out where the party now stands.
Learning from their mistakes
The Lib Dems have been here before — but hope things will be different this time around.
The last time the party held a pre-election conference, back in 2019, then-leader Swinson pledged to effectively cancel Brexit. She presented herself as a credible option to become the next prime minister, in a bid to contrast herself with Jeremy Corbyn to her political left and Boris Johnson to her right.
Optimistic officials briefed back then that the party could win more than 100 seats in the House of Commons. But the Lib Dems ended up winning just 11 seats — and Swinson lost hers.
Four years on, an election once again looms, and the Lib Dems spy an opening.
The opposition Labour Party, led by Keir Starmer, has a heavy lead over the Conservatives in the polls. But Starmer’s relative unpopularity with the public and the mountain he has to climb to win an outright majority — thanks to Labour’s thumping defeat under Corbyn in 2019 — means a hung parliament remains a possibility.
An enlarged Lib Dem contingent of MPs could then end up holding the balance of power, and will wind up with real influence on Britain’s next government — most likely in a vote-by-vote negotiation with Labour rather than a formal coalition.
“If there’s a bloc of Lib Dems, that could be an important bloc, particularly if there’s a left-wing bloc of Labour MPs who don’t want to do what Starmer tells them,” Kemp said. “[The Lib Dems] could be more important than they’ve been for years.”
“There’s a real feeling of hope around the party and at conference — that was there in 2019 too,” a current Lib Dem party official said. “But the difference is that this time it feels like there is a solid plan to actually deliver results.”
Friendship ended with Europe, sewage is my new best friend
Few in Westminster campaigned harder to prevent Britain’s exit from the European Union than the Liberal Democrats. But the party’s top brass are by no means ready to campaign for re-entry — and, this time around, seem at pains to avoid the subject of Brexit.
As if to hammer the point home, Lib Dem leader Ed Davey’s big speech to conference on Tuesday afternoon will largely focus on health care.
According to pre-released extracts, Davey will argue that “voting Conservative is bad for your health,” as the party tries to tap into anxiety about the state of the National Health Service.
In an interview before conference, Davey told the BBC that re-joining the EU is currently “off the table.”
“We want Britain to be back at the heart of Europe, but we’re also realistic that’s going to take some time,” he said.
MPs and party officials instead reel off three issues that have been drilled into them by Lib Dem strategists: health care, the cost of living, and sewage. That last one comes amid anger from voters — particularly in the leafy, coastal seats of southern England that the Lib Dems covet — about water companies pumping pollution into the sea.
“We’ve been listening to people’s concerns over these last few years and Europe isn’t really one of them,” another party official said.
“We’d love to talk about that, and other things like civil liberties and PR [proportional representation] we care about, but it isn’t where people are at the minute,” they added.
Toppling the blue wall
Instead, the Lib Dems plan to run a targeted campaign aimed at a few dozen seats held by the Tories in the governing party’s traditional heartlands — dubbed the “blue wall” strategy.
These “blue wall” seats are southern, affluent and not necessarily pro-Remain when it comes to the Brexit question. The Lib Dems have snatched a number of these seats off the Conservatives in by-elections since 2019, and over-performed in these target areas in 2023’s local elections — suggesting they may just be on to something.
Lib Dem strategists plan to concentrate almost all of their resources and messaging on winning as many of these seats as possible, at the expense of a stronger national message. That means talking about Europe is way down the list.
“We all want that closer relationship with the EU and to hopefully get back in at some point. But we’ve recognized that it isn’t a priority for people right now,” a Lib Dem MP said.
The plans may not be quite so popular, however, with the Liberal Democrat grassroots, who led the anti-Brexit charge in 2019.
At the party’s raucous annual karaoke sing-along on Monday night — known as Glee Club — Lib Dem activists rewrote the football tune “Three Lions” — turning it into a pro-Europe and pro-Rejoin anthem.
“Gold stars on the flag / four freedoms still gleaming / glory years of peace / keep us all campaigning,” the modified song goes.
And it continues: “We’ll go back in / we’ll go back in / we’ll go back / we will go back in.”
Don’t expect that one on a campaign leaflet any time soon.
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