Mon, 22 July 2024

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By Ben Guerin
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How the Lib Dems rose from the ashes

6 min read

The Liberal Democrats have surged back after almost a decade of decline following a campaign that certainly got their leader noticed. Sophie Church on the method behind the madness and what comes next

Liberal Democrat MPs, peers and activists think the 2024 General Election campaign was one of the most optimistic and joy-filled the party has ever run. But more importantly for those in the party, it represents a recovery from the horrors of its 2019 general election result – with the Lib Dems now returning an unprecedented 72 MPs to Westminster.

Five years ago, “Stop Brexit” – the platform the Liberal Democrats ran on – did little to chime with voters more interested in getting Brexit done. When the dust settled, the party was down to 11 MPs in Parliament, and leader Jo Swinson had lost her seat.

The campaign has been in the works for three and a half, four years

However, after the brutal postmortem review that followed, Liberal Democrat strategists did some deep thinking.

“The campaign has been in the works for three and a half, four years,” one campaign insider tells The House. “The core team has been around now for a few years, so it has been an executed plan – talking about the issues that we know matter to people, which is the NHS, cost of living crisis and sewage.”

To the Tories’ Isaac Levido and Labour’s Morgan McSweeney comes the Lib Dems’ Dave McCobb. McCobb has been a Hull councillor for more than 20 years and, after working on the 2019 campaign as a department member, stepped up to lead the party’s revival in early 2020.

“He essentially has done the whole blue wall campaigning thing. He was the mastermind behind all our by-election wins,” adds the campaign insider. “‘We all follow Dave,’ is essentially how we see it. He’s a very good and very inspiring leader here at HQ.”

McCobb is normally based in Hull, where his “real door-knocking culture” has seen him help overturn the Labour-held council to the Lib Dems. But for the election, he came down to the Lib Dems’ campaigning HQ on Vincent Square in Pimlico.

The office is modern, light and open-plan, with both McCobb and the chief executive of the Lib Dems Mike Dixon sitting among the press team. Every evening, a catering service brought in dinner for the staff to eat on the office terrace.

The Liberal Democrats’ campaign staff numbers have increased sixfold since the last election – with McCobb personally responsible for marshalling the troops. The party has knocked on 14m doors since 2021, and sent 17.4m leaflets and mail to print during this campaign.

In a marked change to 2019, Brexit has hardly featured in the Liberal Democrats’ 2024 campaign. The reason for this, leader Ed Davey told PoliticsHome during the election, is a closer relationship with Europe just hasn’t come up as an issue on the doorstep.

Many of the seats targeted by the Lib Dems in the south of England voted for Brexit. The former “Stop Brexit” party claim that when they have met Brexit voters, particularly in the South West, the feeling is merely one of anger at the present government.

While voters were not interested in talking about the single market, adds one campaigner, the party dangled offers of “restoring botched trade deals” to win over farmers and fishers instead.

Looking back over the past six weeks, the Lib Dems’ biggest surprises came from the Reform UK surge – which meant that some seats in the South West were more closely contested – and the unexpectedly impactful cut-through of Ed Davey.

It was a sleep-deprived conversation in a Chesham youth club in 2021, following the Chesham and Amersham by-election, that led to the idea for Ed Davey’s media stunts. When the scheme was put to Davey, he was “well on board”, says a Lib Dem strategist, who was there at the time.

Local Lib Dem figures have since suggested stunt ideas as the campaign has moved around the country – to which Davey’s team has cheerily agreed.

“You always know when Ed is on TV doing things, because everyone starts cheering and laughing, and everyone huddles around the main TV in the middle [of the office],” says the campaign insider.

Ed can’t be in a wetsuit in the Chamber – as much as he might try to make that happen!

But for all the silliness on the campaign trail, the party says Davey has a steely edge – and will be holding Starmer to account in Westminster.

“Although Ed does all the stunts, after everything he does, he ends up doing the serious interviews about policy,” says one campaigner. “Ed can’t be in a wetsuit in the Chamber – as much as he might try to make that happen!”

The 72 Liberal Democrats now arriving in Parliament will be attempting to “hold Starmer’s feet to the fire on everything”, adds one enthusiastic re-elected MP.

“We’ve already called for an emergency health budget at the start of the Labour parliament and we’ll probably do similar when we return on Tuesday: NHS support immediately,” says a campaign insider.

But the Lib Dems’ longer-term strategy for this Parliament will be to push Starmer on reform: predominately of the electoral system. One Liberal Democrat peer explains the party will be “trying to embarrass Starmer” by asking why he disagrees with Labour’s policy on proportional representation.

On Lords reform, Labour has promised to abolish hereditary peerages and introduce a retirement age. On this, the Lib Dems will take what they can get.

“They wouldn’t be our preferred reforms, but as far as I’m concerned, we haven’t discussed it with colleagues in the Commons or here. I would expect us to support it on the basis that it has the advantage of reducing the numbers,” says a Liberal Democrat peer.

Scottish Lib Dems, who make up six of those elected to the Commons, are looking forward to there being a changed dynamic to Scottish politics.

“I have felt the past seven years that the SNP obsession with independence meant that we missed opportunities to work together as Scottish MPs, to have a better working relationship between the two parliaments,” says one Scottish Lib Dem MP. “So I think we’ll see a change after the election.”

Looking ahead, the Liberal Democrats have reversed their decision to cut their conference short – made when Rishi Sunak seemed to be aiming for a November election. 

But as the third party in Westminster, with 49 fewer seats than the much-reduced Conservatives, the Lib Dems will be taking each day as it comes, says one Lib Dem peer.

“The thing about politics is it’s a bit like football; you’ve got to win your next match, and then worry about what you do next when you’ve won that match.”

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