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Mon, 27 May 2024

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By Lord Watson of Wyre Forest
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Lib Dems Hope To Be The Least "Bonkers" Opposition To A Labour Government

Leader Ed Davey delivered his speech to conference on Sunday (John Russell)

7 min read

Liberal Democrat MPs are considering how they can provide "credible opposition" to a potential future Labour government, by increasing their presence in the House of Commons and encouraging "bolder" legislative changes.

While the Lib Dems are not expected to win enough seats to form a government at the next general election, which must be called before the end of this year, it is widely expected that they will see a healthy boost to the number of seats they hold in the House of Commons. How they could use their role as a more significant opposition party to shape legislation is therefore increasingly in the spotlight. 

To achieve that though, the party machine must remain focused on its mission to ensure Lib Dem can win as many seats as possible, particularly in the hope of overtaking the SNP to become the third largest party. One Lib Dem MP told PoliticsHome this would be crucial to their ability to make legislative changes and hold the government to account, particularly through having more members and chairs of influential select committees. The MP said they themselves would hope to run for election as a committee chair if the opportunity arose.  

Members, campaigners, candidates and parliamentarians gathered in York for what could be the final conference before the next general election, expected by the end of this year. And "get the Tories out" was the resounding message – as it has been for some time. 

MP and former party leader Tim Farron gave a rousing speech at the rally on Friday evening, in which he described the election as being about "removing the worst government in our lifetimes". But he also felt that the Liberals would be "needed" to push a Labour government into bold action on climate, health and social care, and foreign policy.

He told the conference that he thought Labour would be “so terrified of its own shadow it could do nothing radical" and "inherit such an economic bin fire it will have no money to make anyone’s life noticeably any better".

"And then what?," he asked.

"An unambitious Labour government with no spare money to spend is the perfect and horrifying recipe for extremists of left and right to emerge with simplistic solutions to Britain’s deep and complex problems.”

His criticisms of Labour went down well in the room, and one party member told PoliticsHome the next day that they were glad to hear Farron turn his attentions to Keir Starmer's party. 

Speaking to PoliticsHome on Sunday, Farron said he believed Labour would be "scared of the Red Wall" when it came to implementing radical policies on climate, asylum, or moving back toward any kind of reintegration with Europe.

"There is also a good chance that the Tory party could go into complete crackers tailspin after an election and go off to the right, in which case, also having a decent number of MPs to be a credible alternative opposition is really important," he said.

"Because you'll need somebody on the other side of the House that asks sensible questions rather than bonkers ones."

Farron added that on issues such as social care, having a larger number of Lib Dem MPs could provide “cover” in Parliament for Labour to be more radical.

“Could we help to give Labour permission to do something radical and dangerous? We would need to draw in some Tories as well," he said.

"I want us to be a constructive opposition that didn't just throw bricks at the government, but criticised them when they were wrong, tried to move into a more radical space, but also gave them cover for big things like that that could actually be transformational. The thing that probably bugs me the most about UK politics at the moment is how there's a total absence of any long term thinking.”

Ed Davey at speech
The Lib Dems are hoping to significantly improve their performance compared to the 2019 election (John Russell)

Lib Dems, still bearing scars from the 2010-2015 years, refuse to use the word "coalition" – but some MPs suggested that areas currently prioritised by the party, such as improving health and social care provisions, might make them better bedfellows for a Labour government compared to the Tories.

One MP, who considers themselves "close" with multiple Labour MPs, said they saw themselves as somewhat of a “conduit” between the Lib Dems and Labour, and that the leadership was keen to hear their thoughts on what Labour were working on. Expressing an interest in working more with Labour, they and a number of other MPs told PoliticsHome they would be happy to “help” Labour by putting forward policy proposals that Labour would take on as their own. 

However, while individual MPs are clearly considering how the purpose of the party would be shaped by a change in government, PoliticsHome understands there are no formal plans yet behind how to put this into practice. A number of senior figures in the party are wary of looking beyond the general election, citing the 2019 election as an example of where they had failed to focus resources solely on winnable seats.

“Smash the Blue Wall. Kick out the Conservatives. And transform our country for good!,” Lib Dem leader Ed Davey urged members in the concluding lines of his speech to the party's conference. 

Lib Dem CEO Mike Dixon told PoliticsHome that 2019 had been an “existential moment” for the party, as they suffered the second-worst performance in their 31-year modern history. Having started as CEO shortly before that election, he has since made it his mission to turn the party's fortunes around. The strategy this time rests on winning marginal seats in the short term so they can make more long-term gains: gain more influence in parliament and across local councils, gain more media coverage, and gain public support in stronghold regions around the country, building up to the next general election after that.

"We definitely think about what the target seats we will need at each election cycle and how do we make sure that we don't if Labour do get a majority that we don't end up as just only having second places in Conservative facing seats," Dixon said.

“But in the broader sense it's so easy to overthink, and it's so easy to get caught up in hypotheticals about post-election scenarios, and honestly, it's just not very helpful or useful to do so.

"I genuinely try to discourage our staff, volunteers, and anyone from doing it because if you're having that conversation, you are not knocking on doors. And if you're knocking on doors, you can have the luxury of that conversation at some point in the future."

Deputy leader Daisy Cooper agreed. She told PoliticsHome that the Lib Dems had "never defined ourselves in relation to another party”. 

“We have a certain core set of values, we have an internationalist spirit, we're environmentalists, we're pro-business, we're pro-public sector, we're pro-diversity, we're pro-community, we believe in the devolution of powers, we believe that you have to have strong public services if you want a strong economy," she said.

"Those are values that we've always held and will continue to hold them irrespective of who's in power, whether it's the Conservatives, Labour or anybody else. And so that kind of focus in terms of our values and our priorities will not change depending on who's in power.”

Following Davey's speech on Sunday, a group of party members said they had felt the messaging had been "clear and simple" throughout, and the mood was generally optimistic about the party's prospects come polling day.

In addition to their mission of tearing down the Blue Wall, the Lib Dem leadership hope to specifically win back voters who have become fed up with the political establishment altogether –including those who previously abandoned the Lib Dems and the Tories for UKIP and the Brexit Party, a somewhat unlikely demographic for the pro-EU Lib Dems to win back.

But Dixon said he was hopeful the Lib Dems could win back a swathe of “anti-establishment” voters, particularly in the West Country, where many former Lib Dem voters left the party from around 2016 over its support for the EU. 

"We don't feel to them like the establishment anymore,” he said.

“Post-coalition, they were quite hard to get for us, but now that's just kind of dissipated. And if you knock on their doors, and you say ‘has anyone bothered to talk to you and asked you about what is important to you?’, a load of them are like ‘no’. And you say 'we really want to change the political system'. People have to have a voice."

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