The Liberal Democrats kick off the party conference season this weekend in Bournemouth, with a new leader at the top of the party. Sir Vince Cable, returned to Parliament in the 2017 General Election, succeeded Tim Farron’s short tenure. On his agenda will be two major items: Brexit, and injecting a new lease of life into a party hoping to find its identity in a new parliament so dominated by a political process they virulently oppose.
The Liberal Democrats head into conference having had a mixed performance at the General Election, picking up 4 seats despite losing 0.5% of their share of the national vote. While former Energy and Climate Change Secretary Ed Davey took back his Kingston and Surbiton seat from the Conservatives and Jo Swinson made her return north of the border, Lib Dem big beast and former Deputy Prime Minister Nick Clegg was deposed. In Parliament, the party’s influence remains limited during Prime Minister’s Questions, where their focus is expected to be mainly on the impact of Brexit. However, the party does now hold the chair of one Select Committee, and has seats on several others. Norman Lamb’s chairmanship of the Science and Technology Committee will be an important forum for the party to make its mark on this Parliament, as will Wera Hobhouse’s membership of the Exiting the EU Committee and Christine Jardine’s efforts on the Scottish Affairs Committee.
Leading into the conference, party heavyweights have offered their thoughts on the future direction under the new leader. Former Lib Dem leader Paddy Ashdown said his party is fighting for its existence because it has not managed to convince people it can be the home of liberal centrists. The challenge he laid down for the party was to broaden its scope and dare to be bold, accusing the party of failing to have “one big, dangerous idea” since the coalition with the Conservative party ended in 2015. This echoes one of the key challenges the Liberal Democrats faced with their election manifesto: with so much focus on their anti-Brexit strategy, they risked alienating voters in the former southwest stronghold whilst also failing to convince the 48% that voted Remain that they were aiming for.
Occupying the centre ground has always proven electorally difficult for the Liberal Democrats, but in the current political climate it is a growing challenge. With the polarisation of British politics growing between left and right, Remain and Leave, Socialist and Capitalist, the need for a centrist party is coming under question.
A successful conference for the party will one that sees policy statements new enough and bold enough to achieve widespread recognition. With the Lib Dems known for their unapologetically pro-EU and pro-immigration stance, the challenge is to produce convincing domestic policy announcements and to re-own the centre ground.