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By Ben Guerin
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Election Battle Lines Drawn Firmly Between Generations At Lib Dem Conference

Senior Liberal Democrats at their party conference in Bournemouth. (Alamy)

8 min read

Tensions over housing policy at the Liberal Democrats conference have highlighted intergenerational fairness as a key theme leading up to the next general election, as young Liberals claim they have been "let down by those at the top of our party".

The theme looks likely to run into Conservative and Labour conferences, also set to take place in the coming weeks, with themes such as housing, tax and pensions already at the top of the political agenda. 

The mood at the Liberal Democrat party conference, hosted this week on the sunny seafront of Bournemouth in Dorset, has been largely cheerful, with parliamentary candidates and members heartened by a series of recent by-election wins. 

However, the debate over a housing motion introduced by the party brought tensions to the surface; controversy that was largely expected by the leadership, with deputy leader Daisy Cooper telling PoliticsHome ahead of the conference that housing was likely to provoke a "difference of opinion" among attendants. One Liberal Democrat MP told PoliticsHome last week that "younger Liberals" in particular would be the ones to watch. 

A motion put forward by the Lib Dem leadership advocated for introducing a new approach to housing targets with "independently-assessed local housing targets that are appropriate for the specific areas' needs", while setting "binding targets" for affordable and social housing set by the local authority.

The Young Liberals group however, led a successful amendment that removed the proposal of scrapping national targets. The amendment was voted through in the auditorium on Monday with a loud cheer and applause – and sighs of exasperation from those who opposed it.

Chair of the Young Liberals, Janey Little, spoke in favour of the amendment, viewing a commitment to national housing targets as representative of the party’s commitment to its youth members and voters.

“Supporting a national target is a clear signal to young people that we as Liberal Democrats are listening and that we are not going to leave young people behind,” she said.

“By abolishing national housing targets or our commitment to such we're leaving young people unclear on our commitment to building more homes. We cannot afford to lose young people, dates and voices again. 

“We as young people feel ignored and let down by those at the top of our party. This is not the first time we've had to plead our case.”

Little described how “young person after young person” had previously made speeches on the issue, and were “fearful” about their futures as the cost of living crisis continues to bite. 

“For many of us, this is not just a debate on policy, but a debate on whether we as young people will ever have a realistic prospect of owning our own home,” she continued. 

“The Liberal Democrats should be a natural home for young people. We have long advocated for more action in response to climate change. We have a strong record on education. And we are unequivocal in our support for human rights and equal opportunities.”

Former leader Tim Farron, however, contributed to the debate by describing the Young Liberals’ amendment as “pure Thatcherism”.

“This is the most right-wing thing that I’ve seen at a party conference since we sent Liz Truss off to go and work undercover,” he joked, much to the outrage of some younger members of the party. 

The Lib Dems have also committed to keeping the triple lock on state pensions, which Cooper denied furthers “intergenerational injustice”, arguing that protecting the triple lock now will benefit young people in the future. 

The intergenerational tension seen at Liberal Democrat conference could prove to be a cross-party issue as the Tories and Labour head to Manchester and Liverpool for their own conferences.

The Conservative Party is dogged by a similar 'NIMBY' versus pro-development debate, as well as a divide over whether to scrap the triple lock on state pensions. After Prime Minister Rishi Sunak watered down a number of Conservative net zero pledges last week, another potential battle line has been drawn between the party and young activist groups.

Labour has pledged a "new deal" on housing, but will still face pressure from young activists at conference over their commitment to these promises, as well as their environmental pledges. 

23-year-old Freddie Poser, the co-director of Lib Dems for Housing, told PoliticsHome he thought intergenerational issues would be one of the “key battle lines” at the next general election.

“I think that housing is the root cause of the intergenerational wealth gap, especially in the southeast,” he said.

“The party is all about opportunity. So I think it's brilliant that we've recommitted here to our target alongside other really positive things such as building more housing and social homes and making sure these homes are affordable.

“But the root of the issue is gonna be building more homes and I think the next election is going to find that those are the key battle lines: Labour have already staked out their claim to say they are going to be able to try and build more homes, so the Lib Dems are a real risk of being completely left behind here.”

Asked whether he felt his party was serving his interests as a young person, he said it can “stray into nimbyism” as it tends to fight “localised” election campaigns. 

“But I don't think that they're uniquely bad for young people,” he said. 

“I think every party needs to be actively working to support young people, and young people need to be actively pushing their parties to support more voting and to support things that boost their interests.”

Chair of the Cambridge University Liberal Association, 20-year-old Emma Munday, said that young people across different parties need to continue to fight their corner ahead of the next general election.

“It’s so great that young people are so engaged. Everyone in parties, young people, this is our fight together to hold them accountable,” she said. 

Munday said “more and more pressure” would be put on younger people unless the government achieves economic growth.

“We need young people working and one of those is unlocking economic growth, and a core part of that has to be housing, as the housing crisis locks young people out. They can't get the jobs they want to, they can't go to the universities they want to, because they're locked out by this housing crisis," she continued.

“So I think that's a really important part of this intergenerational struggle.”

But many felt that the debate is at risk of being over-simplified as a fight between the old and the young. 

Gareth Roberts, the Liberal Democrat Leader of Richmond Council, told PoliticsHome that he was “disappointed” by the nature of the debate.

“In terms of the debate we’ve just had, I’m slightly disappointed that it has been framed as a generational issue,” he said after leaving the debate in which multiple young people had spoken in favour of keeping the national targets. 

“There are lots of families in temporary accommodations and a lot of older people who are still in desperate need, so it really should not be about the age of the person who's waiting,” he said. 

“It's always quite tempting to try to set out protecting pensions, protecting housing, as an intergenerational battle when really it’s about the utter shambles the Conservative government has created.”

Lib Dem member Callum Robertson said he thought the Tories would “try to play off the young against the old", but insisted that as Lib Dems, "we’re not interested in that”.

Pippa Heylings, 58, the Liberal Democrat MP candidate for South Cambridgeshire, told PoliticsHome that while she would absolutely be targeting ‘blue wall’ voters, the seat she is fighting for has changing demographics with lots of young graduates moving there for the first time, so she would have to "balance" her approach to appeal to this group too.

“We now have an overall housing target which gives aspiration and hope to young people,” she said.

She described Conservative housing policy as a “conservative landing page for the developers” and said she hoped the motion passed on Monday would provide more housing for young people “if it's done in the Lib Dem way" – aka "community-led" rather than "developer-led".

The Young Liberals are claiming victory at this conference, having won three policy and amendment votes on housing, period poverty, and securing Young Liberal seats on the party's Federal Policy Committee.

However, with a general election looming and pressure mounting on each party to appeal to a broad electorate encompassing much of the traditional 'blue wall', the generational battle is far from won.

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