Lib Dems Are Pitching Themselves To "Anyone But The Tories" Voters
The Liberal Democrats used conference to try to demonstrate how they would "turn the tide" against the Conservatives (Alamy)
It's no secret that the Liberal Democrats are intent on smashing down the ‘blue wall’ at the next election, but after defining themselves as the anti-Brexit party last time voters across the country went to the polls, it’s been unclear what their USP will be now the UK has left the EU.
At their conference in Bournemouth this week the reality seems increasingly to be that they're running a series of localised campaigns with an overarching message that they are the party for voters who want anyone but the Tories.
When asked who the Lib Dems’ target voter was, Wendy Chamberlain, Deputy Leader of the Scottish Liberal Democrats put it simply: “Anyone”.
“I firmly believe that getting as many people as possible represented by a Liberal Democrat is a good thing,” she told reporters on Monday.
Lib Dem leader Ed Davey used his closing speech to appeal to what he perceived as voters’ fatigue with the governing party, highlighting pressurised public services and the NHS.
“While Rishi Sunak clings on, out of touch and out of ideas, our job – our responsibility – is to show the British people that positive change is possible,” Davey said.
While Davey accused Labour of crafting a message that amounted to “nothing more than ‘Not as bad as the Tories’,” he was als adamant that the Conservatives alone were the reason “Britain isn’t working”.
Earlier in the week deputy leader Daisy Cooper took a similar tack. “People are furious with the Conservatives,” she said in her speech on Sunday.
“They’re angry that nothing works – everything’s broken and all the things we cherish – our NHS, our precious environment, our standing in the world – have been trashed.
“The most unforgivable thing about this Conservative Government is that they’ve broken people’s hope… Between now and the next general election it’s up to us to show them a brighter future is possible.”
Rather than focusing on a specific national policy agenda, President of the Liberal Democrats Mark Pack told a fringe event hosted by the Institute for Public Policy Research (IPPR) that the party would be targeting those who feel morally let down by the Conservative government, after a series of sleaze and lobbying scandals and ailing public services.
“The reality is that people don’t pay that attention to politics,” he argued, citing statistics that show the majority of people do not know each party’s political slogans. “What matters for votes is competence and empathy.”
Referring to Ed Davey, he added: “There is really a sense that this is a decent person.”
The Lib Dems’ prime target is ‘soft Tories’ in affluent and rural former Conservative strongholds across the south known as the ‘blue wall’, having recently ousted a number of Tory MPs in by-elections. Conference attendees in Bournemouth were welcomed with a goody bag that included blue Lego bricks that they were encouraged to smash down with a tiny hammer.
A Lib Dem source told PoliticsHome that they see blue wall voters as grouped into two strands: ‘Surrey shufflers’ and ‘National Trusters’.
‘Surrey shufflers’ are young professionals who started out in London and then moved further out of the capital in the quest for more affordable living space. One Lib Dem MP told PoliticsHome that the rising popularity of remote working has caused a notable increase in young families moving to their constituency in the south west, bringing the ‘shufflers’ into areas that traditionally had an older demographic.
‘National Trusters’ are typically considered to be middle-aged women who care deeply about the environment and protecting green spaces, and have an inherent respect and trust in national institutions such as the NHS and the monarchy.
Lib Dem parliamentary candidate for South Cambridgeshire Pippa Heylings, 58, is already campaigning in a seat widely considered to be part of the ‘blue wall’.
“We're targeting a lot of people who are living in rural areas and want to know that area will be protected, and we’re also catering to a lot of young professionals and graduates,” she told PoliticsHome.
Heylings suggested that she intends to scoop up votes from those who previously voted Labour in more urban areas but would vote for the Lib Dems having moved to the countryside where there is not so much of a Labour presence.
“We've got lots of new jobs in our area, and a lot of those are coming from areas that are Labour, they've never lived in a place that actually could be where the Lib Dems come in.
“We're also looking at the lifelong Conservatives – most of the Conservatives who I've talked to on the doorstep in September said they're looking for decency, integrity, competence, and they just don't recognise this in the Conservatives anymore.”
But while the Lib Dems are widely expected to pick up more seats at the next general election, which is due to be called before the end of 2024, there remains concern in the party that too much focus on the so-called blue wall could create blindspots elsewhere.
One Lib Dem MP told PoliticsHome the party needed to gain public trust not by just “not being the Tories”, but by proving it has its own plan.
“People know that we’re against sewage and in favour of social care,” one senior party member told the Guardian. “But that’s about it. You’ve got to wonder if it’s enough.”
Miranda Green, a Financial Times journalist and social commentator who used to be press secretary for former Liberal Democrat leader Paddy Ashdown, told the IPPR event that the party needed to recognise the importance of “values” and that they still had some work to do before voters head to the national polls.
She described the party’s current approach as having “40 or so by-election-style campaigns in the general election” and warned that this could prove problematic.
“The problem slightly with the attitude the party’s taking… is whether you find some unifying national messages around policy that take it that bit further, and actually make people think that is a country I want to live in and these people have some great ideas,” she said.
The next test for the Lib Dems will be the Mid Bedfordshire by-election, scheduled for 19 October, which is being contested after former Conservative MP Nadine Dorries recently resigned. While the seat is traditionally Tory, the Lib Dems hope to capitalise on local backlash to Dorries’ staunch support for disgraced former prime minister Boris Johnson.
So far, the party seems buoyant. In Tuesday’s speech, Davey described the Lib Dems as the “strongest campaigning force in British politics”. There question in 2024 will be whether they can turn that into sweeping electoral success.
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