The Lib Dem Conference: Brexit Talk Dominates Conference of a Party in Transition

By Senior Campaign Agent Sam Jacobsen

The Liberal Democrats have always managed to find flagship policies to distinguish themselves from their two bigger rivals. In the old days it was their opposition to the Iraq War, and tuition fees. These days the Lib Dems are the biggest party in Parliament that flat-out opposes Britain’s imminent exit from the European Union. This weekend’s conference in Brighton sent a clear message that their strategy for revitalising their party is based on a commitment to remain within the EU. 

Leader Vince Cable spent practically half his speech talking about Brexit, which he insisted ‘can and must be stopped’. Attempting to appeal to Leavers, as well as Remainers, Cable stressed that people should not be labelled racist just for expressing concerns about immigration.  This conciliatory tone was not extended to the Conservative politicians negotiating with Brussels, who Cable characterised as a mix of crazed fundamentalists and weak-minded pushovers. Jeremy Corbyn was accused of ‘dodging’ the issue of Brexit, with Cable even calling upon Labour members to depose their leader if he did not back the Lib Dems’ policy of a “people’s vote” on the final deal.

Another strong theme to come out of this conference was an attempt to paint the Lib Dems as the centrist voice of reason in an increasingly extremist and divided political landscape. VInce Cable went as far as to say that Labour and the Conservatives had become ‘intolerant cults’, in which differing opinions were ruthlessly stamped out. Gina Miller - the entrepreneur who made headlines last year for successfully suing the Government  for trying to trigger Article 50 without a parliamentary vote - gave a speech warning that the ‘fascism of the left’ was equally dangerous to right-wing bigotry. In recent months, there has been much talk of a new party emerging to occupy the centre of British politics. The Lib Dems are arguing that that space is already taken.

Policy-wise, Cable heralded the Liberal Democrats as a pro-business party that believed in competition, but supported government intervention when it was necessary.  He promised to revive Britain’s economy by investing in infrastructure (with a seemingly obligatory mention of the term ‘Northern Powerhouse’), reforming a ‘broken’ system of taxing businesses that is destroying British high streets, and building lots of new houses. Digs were made at the Tories for allowing the UK to be a haven for tax-dodgers, and Labour for their belief in a ‘magic money tree’. 

There seemed a lack of consensus within the party over the best way to look back at their time in coalition government. MP for East Dunbartonshire, Jo Swinson, made headlines for saying that some of the concessions made to their pro-austerity Tory bedfellows ‘sucked’, and had to be ‘owned’. Party grandees Ed Davey and Nick Clegg quickly made TV appearances claiming that their time in government  had led to many positive changes, which should be recognised. Rank-and-file Lib Dems will no doubt want to look forward instead of continually justifying their past. Whether they get to is another story. 

Finally, the issue of leadership. Who will be the enigmatic future leader to steer the Lib Dems out of obscurity? Vince Cable has announced he will step down as soon as Brexit is ‘resolved or stopped’. Gina Miller is not a member of any political party, but considers herself a ‘friend’ of the Lib Dems. Some had touted her as a future leader, but she used her conference speech to pour cold water on these rumours. Jo Swinson, on the other hand, has not ruled out a future leadership bid, but only once Cable steps down of his own accord. Whoever takes over will probably, despite Cable’s best efforts, still be dealing with a party in transition. With only twelve MPs, the Liberal Democrats have a long way to go before they can become the force they were a decade ago. 

Sources and Further Reading

Image: Liberal Democrats @flickr

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