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25 September 2023

Lib Dems are coming for the Blue Wall

The party is putting southern, affluent, Tory seats at the heart of its election strategy.

By Freddie Hayward

Conference season has begun. On the blustery south coast in Bournemouth, the Liberal Democrats are finally fleshing out their policies for the next election. Their top priority is simple: the NHS.

The Lib Dems cannot escape their rivals’ shadows. Once it was the curse of the coalition. Smeared by their Tory partners, they got eight MPs in the 2015 general election after losing 49. Now, the question posed to Lib Dem politicians is whether they would consider a coalition with Labour in the event of a hung parliament.

Don’t expect them to engage. The focus is on gaining seats, not hypothesising about future deals. The idealism that dominated the party in 2019 – when visions of Jo Swinson in No 10 and stopping Brexit reigned – has been diluted. Party activists have ambitions for the number of Lib Dem MPs to exceed the low teens. The 57 seats the party won in 2010 is remembered fondly. Their campaign team – which has expanded and professionalised since Ed Davey became leader in 2020 – points to how they are second to the Conservatives in 80 seats. Electorally, the strategy is to use recent by-election victories as a blueprint for the general election.

[See also: Ed Davey: “Voters are not blaming Brexit”]

The focus on the NHS – at a time when many people in the country prioritise the cost of living – is symptomatic of this pragmatism. The Lib Dems aren’t concerned about voters en masse. Instead, party strategists are looking at key target seats, where slightly wealthier voters – well-off but unable to buy private healthcare, in the words of one senior source – are more concerned about the NHS than the cost-of-living crisis. I hear it’s a fair bet that Davey’s speech tomorrow will focus on healthcare.

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That strategy is designed to beat the Tories; they are the target here in Bournemouth. During Davey’s Q&A session yesterday (24 September) – tieless, he roamed the stage like Steve Jobs – the leader went so far as to describe the Conservatives’ time in office as a “betrayal of our country”. He said they had “deliberately” caused the backlog in asylum cases. The language was strong and points to the tone of the campaign to come.

As for Labour, Davey reminded the room that it voted for “Johnson’s dreadful [Brexit] deal”. The only heckle Davey received was over rejoining the EU. Nonetheless, despite the wishes of their EU-loving membership, the party’s leaders don’t want the next election to become about Brexit because, they say, it’s not what voters want to talk about – even Remainers.

The last time the Lib Dems held a conference in person was 2019, three months before the party’s promise to overturn Brexit saw them sink to 11 MPs. Today, the desire to rejoin the EU remains strong. But there’s a concern that now is not the time. The Lib Dems will instead focus on local issues. They will play the field in front of them. The atmosphere in Bournemouth is confident and composed. In a little under four years, the Liberal Democrats have transitioned from a humiliated party whose leader aspired to become prime minister only to lose her seat, to a plausible electoral force that is talked up as being a kingmaker. Many in Bournemouth don’t want to put that at risk.

This piece first appeared in the Morning Call newsletter; subscribe to it on Substack here.

[See also: The maternity unit is no place for a culture war]

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