The Liberal Democrats’ conference is different because it matters. Unlike the Conservatives and, to a lesser extent Labour, the decisions that members take determine policy. When Ed Davey and his team tried to drop the party’s commitment to national housing targets yesterday – and replace it with a social housing target – the members, led by the Young Liberals, used an impassioned session to block the move. Davey is left fighting a general election campaigning for a policy with which he disagrees. When he voted on yesterday’s amendment he raised his voting card in the conference hall like any other member.
The Young Liberals’ well-organised campaign has undercut the leadership. But rather than indicating a fractious party, there were hugs and congratulations from both sides once the result was announced. Unlike some other party conferences, personal enmity was absent.
The big question is how the decision will impact their forthcoming campaign in the Blue Wall. Strategists here are explicit that the Tories are the target. The former leader Tim Farron – in a boisterous speech that condemned the targets as “Thatcherite” – warned the move would harm the party’s campaign in the Mid Bedfordshire by-election. The party leadership is concerned the Tories will use the housing targets to deflect the Lib Dems’ attacks them in the south. That’s the fear.
The bigger question goes to the heart of the party. Are the Lib Dems a party for young liberal metropolitans or the older, wealthier crop comfortable in the countryside? In their campaign against the Tories, is there a risk they become them? Yesterday’s vote was one reason to think not.
This piece first appeared in the Morning Call newsletter; subscribe to it on Substack here.
[See also: Lib Dems are coming for the Blue Wall]