In February 2019 pro-European MPs leaving the Conservative Party and Labour Party felt that setting up a new party was the most effective way of promoting moderate, pro-European politics in the UK. Talk in the media was of how they would swallow up the Liberal Democrats who were seen as being on their political deathbed. How quickly things can change.
Whatever way you look at it, the party’s fortunes have changed dramatically in the last six months: outperforming expectations in the European and local elections, winning by-elections, and a stream of defections. There is little doubt that the upcoming General Election – expected in late November or early December – will be good for the party. The question is just how good. While activists on the ground are positive, the party faces a potentially pivotal moment: will it improve incrementally and win around thirty seats, or will we see a radical realignment in electoral support along the leave/remain axis, with the Lib Dems reaping the rewards and winning over a hundred seats after being seen as the natural home for Remain voters.
The party’s clear ‘Revoke’ policy has come under some criticism over the last week for being undemocratic. Swinson’s gamble is that by adopting a clear unashamedly anti-Brexit, pro-EU position she can solidify the support of around 20 – 30 per cent of the electorate. If she can achieve this – and build up these votes in the right areas – she’ll be on course to achieve a breakthrough and it’s largely irrelevant that the remaining 70 per cent of the electorate strongly oppose this position and Brexiteers are crying foul.
Swinson’s conference speech on Tuesday afternoon was designed to clearly set out this message, but to go further and show that she is the natural, or indeed the only choice, for those who are relatively moderate in their politics and hold liberal, open and international values.
It’s not just the party’s messaging, but also their target seat strategy which reflects this approach. The party has conducted one of the most extensive polling and modelling exercises it has ever done in preparation for the expected snap election. It’s been reported that the party’s list of target seats has jumped from 40 to 80 off the back of this.
By going for broke with the new revoke message, the party looks sets to change the type of seats it targets to win. Where once the party might focus on West Country heartlands, its new targets appear largely in London and the South East, with a higher proportions of voters who supported Remain, are university educated, have higher than average incomes, and have an ‘open’ and ‘liberal’ mindset.
As was seen when Chuka Umunna recently announced that he would be standing in Cities of London and Westminster – a seat in which the Liberal Democrats do not have a track record of success – there will be plenty of surprise and scepticism in the media that the party thinks it can win these seats. Other constituencies like Wimbledon, Kensington and Putney are Labour and Conservative marginals, not typical Liberal Democrat target seats. Swinson’s speech was preceded by an appearance on the Conference stage by the candidate for Esher and Walton, the seat of Foreign Secretary and high profile Brexit supporter Dominic Raab. Being typical commuter-belt territory and voting 60 per cent Remain it fits this model perfectly, and with a majority of over 23,000 it shows the scale of the party’s ambition.
This strategy is ambitious. It might not pay off. And it is certainly a gamble. But the Liberal Democrat bet is that this election will be transformational and will see a major realignment with the electorate voting in ways they haven’t before. Arguably, with their new policy platform and the resources they are looking to invest, they are going for broke to achieve this. If it works the Liberal Democrats will be unrecognisable from their current form and will be a major force in the next parliament. If it doesn’t it will have been a missed opportunity.