What are the Liberal Democrats for? Their leader, Sir Ed Davey, offered a clear answer to this question in yesterday’s Guardian:
“I said when I became leader that my job is to defeat as many Conservative MPs as possible. I think that remains the task.”
The Lib Dems think of themselves as an anti-Conservative party, and in four by-elections in this Parliament (Chesham & Amersham; North Shropshire; Tiverton & Honiton; Somerton & Frome) have inflicted heavy defeats on the Conservatives by uniting the anti-Conservative vote.
But as they gather in Bournemouth for their conference, a shadow hangs over their deliberations. In September 2019, when they last met in that resort, their leader since July 2019, Jo Swinson, declared:
“There is no limit to my ambition for our party. And today I am standing here as your candidate for Prime Minister. Because people across Britain deserve a better choice than an entitled Etonian or a 1970s Socialist.”
She went on to tell the Lib Dems that their “first task” was to “stop Brexit”. They loved her speech: to them it seemed perfectly conceivable that the “entitled Etonian”, Boris Johnson, and “1970s socialist”, Jeremy Corbyn, would be swept aside by them at the next general election, in which the Lib Dems would win hundreds of seats, whereupon Swinson would enter Downing Street and stop Brexit.
In December 2019 the Lib Dems won 11 seats, and Swinson herself lost East Dunbartonshire. It turned out that however gratifying it was to Lib Dem activists to be anti-Brexit, it was not a successful general election strategy.
The same problem applies to being anti-Conservative. This can work brilliantly at a by-election, when a majority of voters want to kick the Conservatives, without taking the risk of changing the Government.
All the Lib Dems need do in a by-election is to show that they have a better chance than anyone else of beating the Conservatives. They can deploy their infuriating slogan, “Liberal Democrats – winning here”, and their even more infuriating bar charts.
At a general election, this approach is less likely to succeed. There is competition for the anti-Conservative vote from, among others, Labour, the Greens, and the Scottish and Welsh Nationalists.
A general election is an altogether more serious affair. Voters must decide whether the time has come to change the Government. Turnout is higher than in by-elections, or indeed in local elections.
And there is a further difficulty, which is that although many voters are anti-Conservative, some are also, as it were, pro-conservative. They regard themselves as small-c conservatives who have been let down by the Conservative Party.
The United Kingdom is in many ways a small-c conservative country, minded to vote for small-c conservative causes such as Brexit.
This characteristic tends to be overlooked if one is an activist of proudly progressive views, cut off from the outside world with hundreds of like-minded activists in the architectural monstrosity that is the Bournemouth International Centre.
Even before they immured themselves, some Lib Dem activists outlined a “‘social liberal’ vision” which would “decisively shift the party to the Left of Labour”.
There is also a kind of pundit who likes to suggest that if only Sir Ed, or that other worthy knight, Sir Keir Starmer, were as bold, idealistic and far-sighted as the pundit, all would be well.
For the worthy knights, all this is more complicated. In drawing up their electoral pitches, they have to promise a better life, attained by reform of whatever is in need of reform, while at the same time reassuring small-c conservatives that no revolution is about to be unleashed.
Cautious reassurance becomes the order of the day. All promises must be costed: it is said that the Lib Dems’ plan for care will cost £5 billion, while saving the NHS £3 billion.
There will, of course, be no pledge to abolish tuition fees: the promise which did the Lib Dems such damage when they broke it after entering Government with the Conservatives in 2010.
And there will be no house-building on the green belt: a disastrous promise for those who cannot afford to buy or rent a house, but reassuring to small-c conservative voters in places like Amersham.
Sewage will be kept out of rivers: a proposal with which it is hard for anyone, conservative or progressive, to disagree.
This kind of thing is quite dull. Manifestos usually are, and should be, dull. The Conservative Manifesto in 2019 was deliberately unexciting. Part of Boris Johnson’s genius, both as politician and journalist, lies in making dreary messages amusing.
There is never likely to be agreement about whether Sir Ed is more boring than Sir Keir, or vice versa.
But if Sir Ed stands accused this week of failing to set the River Bourn, the modest stream which reaches the sea at Bournemouth, on fire, let it be remembered that he is both more experienced and more astute than his predecessor, Swinson, and is likely, at the next election, to be more successful too.