In nearly fifteen years of Liberal Democrat conferences, the strange thing about coming to Bournemouth is that the weather seems to always reflect the fortunes of the Party.
Recent visits (2015, 2017) have been gloomy and grey, and the politics felt correspondingly flat and irrelevant. But this week the sun was shining, delivering a feeling of optimism and energy to all gathered on the seafront – with, it seems, good reason.
The Liberal Democrats came to this conference with a renewed sense of purpose.
Brexit, or rather stopping it, has given the party what it so lacked in the years after 2015 – a mission with voter appeal.
Over the last three years and three leaders (Farron, Cable and Swinson) the party has boldly stuck to its guns on a political strategy that has put a “Stop Brexit” mission above all else. It was a risk, which has not always looked like it would pay off. But as the imperfections of a deal, and dangers of no deal have become clearer, it seems the public mood is changing.
Polling now consistently puts the party on between 16 and 22% (it achieved 7.4% at the 2017 General Election). In May, the Lib Dems secured the party’s best ever European Parliament election result (with 19.6%) and made 700 gains at the local elections.
This week, the party took its strategy to new levels, adopting a policy of revoking Article 50 without a second referendum (should it win a majority government). The result, it hopes for, is simple: voters will know what the Lib Dems stand for and those who want to stop Brexit will vote for it.
The new policy is of course a gamble: it goes too far for some, even within the party, who fear the dangers of acting against the 2016 referendum without a fresh vote. But it will maintain the Lib Dems’ status as the most obvious Remain choice and insure them against any softening of Labour’s position toward a second referendum at their conference next week. It is the right thing to do for a party in the Lib Dems’ position.
What is increasingly clear, however, is that Brexit has challenged the stranglehold of traditional British political alignments more than ever before. Both Conservative and Labour Remainers are willing to do more than simply look elsewhere. As their own parties move to the extremes, moderates are moving.
In May both Michael Heseltine and Alastair Campbell revealed that they had voted for the Lib Dems. Recent defections provide further evidence of a realignment of support in the centre ground. The Lib Dem conference began with the defection of former Conservative Minister and leadership contender, Sam Gyimah. This follows five other defections, from both the Labour Party (Umunna, Berger, Smith) and Conservative (Wollaston, Lee).
The Lib Dems have therefore restored a new sense of ambition. Under the fresh leadership of Jo Swinson, who had a brilliant and self-assured first Conference as leader, the Party is once again lifting its eyes to a more significant realignment of British politics. There was frequent talk at this conference of both more defections and of the potential for electoral gains of 100+, something necessary if the defectors are to maintain political careers.
It is of course far too soon to talk of a Lib Dem majority Government. The party still has just 18 MPs, of which only 12 were elected as Lib Dems. The first past the post system will work against a third party and the Lib Dems need to be cautious about over-ambition. Last time the party eyed up more than 80 seats (in 2010,the height of “Cleggmania”), it actually fell backwards.
The 2015 election also powerfully demonstrated the dangers of a Conservative squeeze. Boris Johnson will do everything possible at the next Election to persuade the electorate that a vote for Swinson is a vote for Corbyn. It is also likely that on domestic policy he will tack to the centre, something even more dangerous for the Lib Dems if Brexit is achieved before a vote.
But at this conference, even the most sceptical of media commentators have had to concede that the Lib Dems are back, making political waves, and at least worthy of a moment’s attention.
A General Election on current polling would deliver significant gains, restoring Lib Dem numbers to 30-40 MPs, and all the parliamentary influence that brings.
But a small further swing towards the party, could very easily leave the Lib Dems depriving either of the main parties of a majority and holding the balance of power with 70-100 MPs.
Electoral pacts with Plaid Cymru and the Greens are still on the table. If secured, these would be enough to pull a small number of seats over the line, but the big prize remains the traditional moderate remain vote of both the Conservatives and Labour.
What became clear this week is that Jo Swinson is the right leader to seize this task. While still unknown outside the Party, which remains a potential challenge, like Jacinda Aderne in New Zealand, Swinson is of a new generation. She is a young mum. She is Scottish. She does not subscribe to old fashioned party tribalism. She is open, liberal and progressive by instinct. She has a modern, ambitious vision for her country.
More than any of her predecessors, Jo genuinely embodies the values of the centre ground voters the Lib Dems must now reach. This has already been recognised by the MPs who have chosen to join her. It was apparent in Bournemouth that she will certainly be the Party’s secret weapon in a General Election.
Tim Snowball, Head of Public Affairs (from Bournemouth)