“I don’t think the word coalition is going to pass anybody’s lips”: talking strategy with the Lib Dems
Illustration: Tracy Worrall
The Liberal Democrats have been steadily rebuilding since the disappointment of the 2019 general election. With recent local council and by-election successes, Sophie Church explores how their strategy may yield national results, and what kind of government could soon be in power. Illustrations by Tracy Worrall
“Let me be clear, there is no limit to my ambition for our party and our country, and today I am standing here as your candidate for prime minister.”
In Autumn 2019, then-leader of the Liberal Democrats Jo Swinson stood on the stage of the Bournemouth International Centre. Arms spread wide, she called out her opponents by name; the former prime minister Boris Johnson was the “entitled Etonian” and the former Labour Party leader Jeremy Corbyn, the “1970s socialist”. People deserved a better choice, she said, and she was offering it.
After her speech, she was joined by fellow Liberal Democrat MPs for a stroll along Bournemouth beach. With jackets slung over shoulders, shoes in hands and grins set, the group appeared united.
However, a few months later, the mood had shifted. When the results of the general election were announced, Swinson had lost her seat by 149 votes to the Scottish National Party, and stepped down as leader. After all seats had been declared, the Liberal Democrats had just 11 left in Parliament, one fewer than in 2017.
I don’t think the word coalition is going to pass anybody’s lips
The coming general election will be different, says Christine Jardine, Liberal Democrat MP for Edinburgh West.
“I think [the 2019 general election] was more a knee-jerk reaction, it was more a result of everything that had happened for two years, it was an inevitability,” she says. “It wasn’t something where the parties had come to the end of an electoral cycle, and now will be judged. It was much more chaotic than that. And I think this time round will be completely different.”
Since the shock of 2019, the Liberal Democrats say they have been trying to rebuild their credibility. This has meant employing a heavily targeted, localised strategy, where Conservative-held seats with a strong local government base are identified, and candidates campaign on issues that affect voters viscerally: cleaning waterways, reducing waiting times to see a GP, and increasing support for mortgage holders for example.
Selecting the right candidates, to challenge the right seats, has been a data-driven process, says Liberal Democrat peer Lord Storey. “We set individual targets for [candidates],” he says. “They have to raise X amount of money, they have to make so many contacts a month, they have to deliver so many leaflets a year, they have to even identify…poster sites. And if they do that, then our resources as a party will go into those seats.”
The Liberal Democrats seem proud to be running a staunch anti-Conservative campaign – and have attracted Tory voters, and even Tory donors, to their cause. However, they also see opportunities to capitalise on dithering Labour allegiance, says Sarah Olney, Liberal Democrat MP for Richmond Park: “There’s not yet a big pro-Labour vote, and I think that will help us make the case in the places where we want to make the case.”
Adopting a more progressive stance on policies such as immigration and the two-child benefit cap paints the Liberal Democrats as distinct from Labour, who have come under fire on these issues, says Wendy Chamberlain, chief whip of the Liberal Democrats. “There…always has been that sort of more centralised approach to Labour that we just simply don’t have.” And in certain local councils with Labour minority administrations, she says, Liberal Democrat MPs will be supporting their opposing party, yet also holding it to account.
There are signs this strategy is working. Since 2019, the Liberal Democrats have secured four more parliamentary seats in by-elections, displacing Conservative candidates each time. In May, the Liberal Democrats gained more than 400 local council seats, and took control of 12 councils including Windsor and Maidenhead, and Stratford-on-Avon.
Lord Storey is confident this approach will also yield results come the general election. “I think we’re looking at between 25 to 30 seats,” he says, “and let’s say if it’s 25, 30 and we win 20, that’s a good result, because you’ve then got your existing 15 MPs, so you’re suddenly back up to 35, 40. So it’s that sort of steady growth that we’re looking at.”
The notion of going into coalition would be a very brave move, because look at what happened last time – we were nearly annihilated
MPs repeat that their priority is simply to increase their number of seats in Parliament. However, with a Labour majority in question, they must surely have considered what would happen if a coalition were on offer?
Liberal Democrat peer Lord Newby says the last thing the party is worrying about is what happens after the election, but that the party’s mood towards coalition has changed since it was last in government.
“There’s going to be much more skepticism in the Lib Dems about joining a coalition at all, under any circumstance,” he explains. “I have people regularly say to me: ‘whatever we do Dick, we must never go into a coalition again’. So this is obviously a different situation to the mood in the party before 2010.”
Lord Storey is also wary of a potential partnership with Labour. “Talking to fellow peers and MPs and members and councillors,” he says, “the notion of going into coalition would be a very brave move, because look at what happened last time – we were nearly annihilated. Would you wish for that a second time? I do not think so.”
However, Liberal Democrat peer Lord Clement-Jones says that the more Liberal Democrats can be involved with government policy decisions, the better. “I don’t think the word coalition is going to pass anybody’s lips,” he explains. “It’s all a question of co-operation through confidence and supply or some other arrangement…Inevitably if our votes are going to be relied on, there’s going to be a fair bit of horse trading going on. And that’s why the manifestos at the next election are going to be so important.”
While the Liberal Democrat manifesto is bound to firm up its policy commitments, some say the party still lacks a unifying motif. “We just haven’t got that melody that binds all our ideas together and says what we’re about,” says Caron Lindsay, co-editor of the website Liberal Democrat Voice. “I think we need to have something really powerful behind what we’re saying. We might have to say, ‘we can’t do everything all at once, but these are our values’.”
But will promising to solve issues on which previous governments have failed whilst constantly communicating liberal values be enough to convince voters that the Liberal Democrats are credible?
Well, take their offer on GPs, requiring the recruitment of 8,000 extra professionals, says Baroness Grender, the party’s former head of communications. “Have we done the sums on that? Have we done all the policy on that?” she asks. “You bet we have.” Or the Liberal Democrats’ strategy to investigate supermarket pricing. “Do we have retail policies?” she asks. “Do we have policies that are explicable on the doorstep? We absolutely do.”
Going into the next election, the Liberal Democrats appear confident. Where things could go wrong, Baroness Grender says, is if politicians don’t stick to the plan. However, she says she can’t see this happening.
“I’m really encouraged that there is…a discipline in the party...[and] a clear understanding of what the strategy is. There’s a really clear understanding that there’s a number of seats that we want to get over the line, and that that is the priority.”
Could the party ever be overconfident?
“No, I don’t think so,” laughs Lord Newby. “I think that’s the last thing that’s going to happen with us!”
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