Whisper it, but the Liberal Democrats might be back!
October 6th, 2023
In his closing speech to Lib Dem Conference, Leader Sir Ed Davey left no doubt that the party is confident in its ambition to chip away at the “Blue Wall” at next year’s general election. Davey’s upbeat message was reflected throughout the conference. Party members, lobbyists and journalists recognised that there is a cautious optimism, and crucially, the same, united aim of unseating Conservative MPs in seats where the Lib Dems came second the last time round.
In line with this mantra, this will be a more focused, realistic campaign than we’ve seen in recent electoral cycles. It’s a far cry from the overly ambitious language of the 2019 General Election, when Jo Swinson brazenly kicked off the campaign saying, “I can be the next PM”. This time round, Davey’s slightly more modest speech saw no mention of winning the election, or even getting into government – and only a handful of mentions of the Labour Party.
On the back of impressive by-election wins, much of the Lib Dems’ hope is pinned on candidates in key target seats to continue the momentum, especially in some of the highest profile marginals. Many of these were the stars of the show at well-attended fringe events this year in Bournemouth. To pick out a few, it’s worth keeping an eye on Josh Babarinde in Eastbourne, Danny Chambers in Winchester, Monica Harding in Esher and Walton, and Max Wilkinson in Cheltenham – who could all be prominent voices in any future Lib Dem parliamentary party.
Businesses also seemed to have got the message that the Lib Dems are back on the map. On Monday, the Lib Dems hosted a reception to conclude their full programme of Business Day events, with Deputy Leader Daisy Cooper addressing a packed room of at least 200 people. Some of the UK’s largest businesses were well represented on the exhibition floor – a marked shift from Lib Dem conferences of recent years. This felt like a clear sign that the party is being taken seriously once again, and the Lib Dem leadership is ready to engage.
The speeches in the conference hall suggest that this is a party that has already decided its policy platform for the next election. It’s all about health, the environment, and the cost of living – and we’ll hear these key themes being played out repeatedly in the coming months. The voters the Lib Dems are targeting are predominantly based across the South East and South West – and any election pledges will need to cut through with this demographic in the Blue Wall.
With the party well and truly in election preparation mode, and with realistic chances of gaining seats, it’s crucial for businesses to engage with the Lib Dems, and to align their policy proposals to the party’s own electoral priorities, to ensure that their voice is heard in the debate.
Clearly the election campaign will not be without its challenges for the party. Much like any other political party, the Lib Dems are not immune to internal wranglings on core policy issues, whether that’s housing or local environment issues, or disagreement over national infrastructure priorities. Plus, the real elephant in the room – the unresolved question of Europe, will likely be foremost in party members’ minds.
During Davey’s speech, the loudest round of applause by some margin was for his warm words on the EU – promising conference the Lib Dems would fix the UK’s “broken relationship” with Europe. Yet with no mention of re-joining, or new announcements on what this future relationship might look like, many members won’t be convinced.
On a lighter note, Lib Dem conference is renowned for its social events, and eager conference delegates were not disappointed this year. True to style, there was a huge queue of attendees eager to get into the headline karaoke night on Sunday, followed by “glee club” on Monday. Irrespective of what you might read in Politico, the media team were kept busy by a stream of journalists looking to experience a Lib Dem night out, and it’s fair to say that the party enjoyed its moment in the sun.
Discos, party policy debates and being capsized in his kayak aside (yes, that really did happen), Ed Davey can be happy with a relatively smooth conference, and with his key messages widely reported by a renewed interest from the national media. The party will now go away to hone those policy positions as the election race heats up, with its first test in the upcoming Mid Bedfordshire by-election next month.
To chat to the team about your organisation’s Lib Dem engagement programme, contact Alexis King via: email@example.com