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22 June 2024

The joy of the Liberal Democrats

Is it time to start taking Ed Davey’s campaign seriously?

By Jonn Elledge

The tensest, most uncertain, most goddamn exciting political debate I have witnessed in the whole of last year concerned – you may want to sit down for this – the Liberal Democrats’ housing policies. At last year’s party conference, at which the manifesto was written, one faction backed the leadership’s plan to scrap its annual target of 380,000 new homes for England, on the grounds it was an undeliverable bit of symbolism which might get a bit embarrassing when its candidates inevitably started pumping out nimby leaflets. Another, younger faction said that, yes, this was all true – but building some houses would be quite good, actually, and the under-40s had quite enough of being told that they don’t matter.    

For a while it looked like the leadership might have it. Then it made the mistake of rolling out Tim Farron – who is, his uninspiring stint as leader notwithstanding, the party’s most charismatic speaker – to accuse anyone who wanted more homes of “pure Thatcherism”. He lost the room in an instant. The leadership got whopped. 

None of this matters in any sense visible to the human eye, of course. The party may make policy democratically, but even if anyone cared what Lib Dem policy was, which they don’t, history suggests the leadership won’t feel bound by its manifesto anyway. But in a Sealed Knot reenactment society kind of way, the Liberal Democrats provide all the excitement of politics – the policies, the factions, the tension, the fights – without the danger of ever actually having to do anything. More than one other journalist has said to me that the Lib Dem effort is by far the most fun of the annual party conferences. They’re right.  

The last few years have not been kind to what we can no longer reliably describe as “Britain’s third party”. Coalition with the Tories from 2010 to 2015 predictably alienated a chunk of its voters while undermining its value as a protest vote, too. (Any theoretical coalition with Labour would have no doubt done the same, just with different voters.)  

Since 2015, it’s not actually been the third party in parliament: that’s meant less Commons airtime, less representation on key committees and its leaders sometimes going weeks without a question at PMQs. (The SNP gets two a week, guaranteed.) Worse, with the British media obsessed with power, drama and the populist right – three things the Lib Dems can’t offer – they’ve struggled to get attention outside Parliament either. 

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In the absence of attention for proper politics, though, the party has got increasingly good at what, if they were a child, would be called “acting up”. There’s the long-standing tradition of misleading bar charts on the party’s campaign leaflets, where the length of the bar bears no relation to the numbers on the page, the numbers may bear no relation to current polls, and the chart comes accompanied by an arrow pointing to a rival party and the inevitable phrase, “Can’t win here”. Then there are the stupid stunts – demolishing a literal blue wall; moving the hands on a massive clock to show the Tories’ time is up, and so on. These are, of course, ridiculous; but ridiculous gets airtime. It’s not like anyone cares about those conference policy debates. 

This strategy has, in the last month, gone into overdrive. While Keir Starmer and Rishi Sunak have tried to look dignified and prime ministerial, and those of other, smaller parties have tried to look like they have solutions, Lib Dem leader Ed Davey, has: 

  • gone down a waterslide on live television 
  • been on a rollercoaster at Thorpe Park 
  • tackled an army obstacle course, in Tunbridge Wells 
  • built “affordable sandcastles” on a Devon beach 
  • baked biscuits with schoolchildren in Hertfordshire 
  • been paddle boarding on Lake Windermere, and fallen in. Multiple times. On purpose.  

Each of these stunts has ostensibly been to promote a policy; “When I was coming down that slide, we were talking about mental health,” he claimed, to a visibly baffled Laura Kuenssberg (“While you were on the slide?”). But I’m not buying it. The only Lib Dem policy I’ve heard anyone talk about is the one concerning social care, and that was promoted through the more traditional route of a personal interview about Davey’s responsibilities as a carer.  

More likely, the Lib Dem campaign is meant to work like TV advertising, getting a forgotten brand name back into the nation’s consciousness so that, when election day arrives and they finally come to purchase, the associations they have with the Lib Dem leader are “fun, self-deprecating, none of the above” – rather than, say, “the Post Office minister in the Tory-led coalition government”.  

It might just work. Lib Dem vote share tends to surge when a government is on the way out, and there are those who wish to vote against the Conservatives without endorsing the other lot. In 1997 this, plus tactical voting from Labour supporters in Tory seats, led to a whole load of new Lib Dem MPs. There are signs in the polling that this might just be happening again.  

On some of the more extreme projections of Tory collapse, indeed, the Lib Dems could even leapfrog the third-party status they’re trying to win back and become the official opposition. Most hilariously of all, because such a result would require a split in the right-wing vote, the guy who fell off of that paddleboard (multiple times) could find himself with the starring role at PMQs every week, even though his party won only the fourth largest share of the vote. Then, suddenly, what happens at this year’s Lib Dem conference might genuinely start to matter. And like it or not, the whole country would then know the joy of the Liberal Democrats. 

[See also: In the Lib Dem manifesto, Ed Davey has revealed a party remade]

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