What can we expect at Lib Dem Conference?

Jo Swinson heads to Bournemouth for her first Party Conference as Leader of the Liberal Democrats, fully aware of the pressure on the Party to build on the electoral progress they have made this year. There has been talk of a “Lib Dem fightback” for some time, but the 2019 Local and European Parliament elections represent the first time this has translated into significant electoral gains. The Party won 20 per cent of the vote share in the European Elections and the latest Westminster voting intention polling puts them on around 20 per cent. In addition, the defections of senior MPs such as Chuka Umunna and Sarah Wollaston, is evidence of their ability to appeal to disillusioned voters across the party divide. Victory at the Brecon and Radnorshire by-election has seen their numbers in Parliament grow even further, beginning 2019 with 11 MPs and heading to Autumn Conference with 17 (and the number could yet still rise).

With this success comes pressure and expectation to make further electoral progress. The appointment of Jo Swinson as Leader – a more dynamic and youthful leader than her predecessor – presents an opportunity for the Lib Dems to maintain the momentum they have gained over the course of the year. Additionally, there is a strong possibility a General Election could deliver another hung parliament, meaning the Party’s strategic importance cannot be ignored. The Lib Dems may emerge as the ‘kingmakers’ and questions will be raised at Conference over what approach the Party should take in this scenario. The Lib Dems claim to have learnt lessons from the Conservative-Lib Dem Coalition Government and will not form a coalition with the two main Parties “as they currently exist”. However, Swinson has not ruled out a possible partnership if the leadership of Labour and the Conservatives change in future, stressing the Lib Dems are a ‘pluralist’ Party. Furthermore, if either Party was to agree to a second referendum on Brexit – the likely price of any partnership in Government – then could the Lib Dems resist the return to power? These are just some of the questions members and activists will be addressing in Bournemouth.

This year’s Autumn Conference will therefore seek to motivate Lib Dem activists for a grueling General Election campaign expected to take place before the end of the year. While both Labour and the Conservatives face huge divisions on their positioning on Europe, the Lib Dems will take comfort that Brexit has provided them with a united cause and an unprecedented opportunity to recover the ground the Party lost in 2015. They have successfully positioned themselves as the Remain Party with an unwavering anti-Brexit and pro-second referendum message and will seek to reclaim disenchanted Conservative and Labour ‘Remain’ voters in areas such as south west England.

Nevertheless, Lib Dem Autumn Conference will not solely focus on Brexit. Although it has proved their defining issue, July’s leadership contest provided an opportunity for the Party to be increasingly vocal on other policy priorities such as the environment, the role of technology and a fundamental rethinking of the economy, with a focus on wellbeing over growth. The desire to tackle these issues is clearly reflected in the Conference agenda. Swinson has sought to put the environment at the top of her priorities in addition to the ‘tech revolution’ and work-life balance. The Party recognises that to appeal to voters post-Brexit, the Lib Dems need to present clear domestic policy priorities. Whether the Party can achieve this amongst the noise of Brexit will arguably be their biggest long-term challenge.

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Chris Hughes

Senior Account Executive

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