Liberal Democrat Conference: A missed opportunity

At Liberal Democrat Party Conference, Vince Cable argued that the Liberal Democrats could be the party of Government and that it was his job, as Liberal Democrat leader, to be a ‘credible potential Prime Minister’.

Set against the backdrop of a Parliamentary party that is 314 seats shy of a majority and with a voting system stacked against outsiders, it is fair to say that most Liberal Democrats won’t consider this a realistic short-term goal. However, Party members will be encouraged to see their party leader aiming high, and growth in terms of party membership, Parliamentary seats, and local council membership must be the party’s main priority for the next five years.

But, Cable’s optimism aside, will Liberal Democrat members be as encouraged by the actual content of the Liberal Democrat Party Conference?

By most analyses, the Liberal Democrats performed poorly at the last election. After losing 49 seats in the 2015 election, the only way was up. A modest increase of 4 seats, from 8 to 12, in the 2017 General Election can hardly be described as a ‘Liberal Democrat resurgence’. This must have been particularly disappointing given the shortcomings of the opposition; the Liberal Democrats faced a Conservative Party whose once unstoppable campaign machine seemed to be unravelling by the day and a Labour Party with no definitive policy on Brexit in a Brexit election, headed by a lifelong opponent of the EU, and with a voter base that was diametrically split on the issue.

The Liberal Democrat conference provided an opportunity to reflect on where the Liberal Democrats went wrong and to assess why their policies failed to resonate in particular with young remain voters, who flocked instead to Labour. But the conference did not deliver this; senior Liberal Democrats seem to be largely unwilling to admit that the party should have done better in this year’s election. If the Liberal Democrats do not treat the election result as a disappointment, they will fail to identify the causes and will be doomed to repeat themselves.

There are two main reasons for the Liberal Democrat’s lacklustre election performance. The first is their focus on Brexit and the second is a lack of radical and exciting ideas.

On Brexit, the Liberal Democrat’s hard-line ‘party of remain’ stance limits their appeal to an increasingly dwindling portion of the population. While many people oppose Brexit, or even the Government’s approach to Brexit, how many seriously want a second referendum in 2020 (or as Vince Cable rebranded it in his speech – a ‘first referendum on the facts’)? Further to this, the Liberal Democrats are rarely making a positive case for cancelling Brexit, but are instead largely re-running the economic self-harm narrative of the referendum – a campaign which they lost. Too often the Liberal Democrats seem to treat leave voters as narrow-minded, parochial, or just plain wrong. This is no way to win converts.

More importantly however, their fixation on Brexit has led to other policy areas being neglected. While Labour’s general election manifesto was a treasure trove of popular, populist polices (if backed by dubious financing), the Liberal Democrats have no memorable policies beyond their opposition to Brexit and vague desire to do something about tuition fees to atone for increasing them. In fairness to the Liberal Democrats, both Vince Cable and deputy leader Jo Swinson advocated for the party to avoid becoming a ‘single issue’, anti-Brexit Party and both espoused the need for new ideas and a radicalism to back it up. But both speeches were light on any real detail.

If the Liberal Democrats are to move on from their 2017 general election performance and genuinely deliver the resurgence they promised, it will be by designing and committing to the new big ideas that the conference promised, but did not deliver.

You can also read Ranelagh’s snapshot summary of the Liberal Democrat Party Conference here.