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Reflections From Liberal Democrat Conference: Vision, Strategy, and Electoral Reform

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Arden's Tom Badham gives his reflections from Liberal Democrat conference in Bournemouth.

The Liberal Democrats have punched above their weight in the last two years. In a series of by-election wins, they have overturned huge majorities and left many Conservative MPs keeping a nervous eye on the job market.

But they have struggled to cut through on the national stage. In areas dominated by the other parties, they are often fighting against the Greens for third place, and seem stuck at 10% in the polls.

This has led them to a crossroads. Can they build on their by-election success to create a broader vision for the country?

Amid the conference buzz, Sir Ed Davey is reminding every journalist that he is focused on electing more Lib Dems in Conservative seats. Part of that mission has been to instill iron-clad message discipline on issues important to the Conservative voters he needs to back him in the Tories southern heartlands. He hopes this strategy will return somewhere between 30-40 seats at the next election.

But this focus has caused tension with a membership hungry for a more rounded political vision.

Many members were grumbling about the party’s stance on rejoining the EU, wanting to see it front and centre of their manifesto offering. And things came to a head in the debate on housing policy, where the Young Liberals overturned the leadership’s attempts to remove national housing targets from the party policy.

This showed a clear divide between where the party faithful lies politically, and where the leadership sees it’s electoral future.

Which raises another question. What happens after the general election?

Davey refuses to be drawn on this in interviews. But his speech at the close of Conference showed he has one eye on negotiations with Keir Starmer.

Saving the NHS with a focus on cancer treatments, getting sewage out Britain’s waters, and modernising the economy all featured in this pitch. These touch on voter’s top concerens and there is much common ground to work with Labour on.

But electoral reform was central to it. A renewed political system would, he argued, empower voters, restore trust in politics and bring politicians closer to the public.

This was an explicit message to Labour of the price for Liberal Democrat support. Ed Davey is gambling that around 30 to 40 MPs will be enough to make them kingmakers. If he is right, Keir Starmer will have some very big decisions to make.

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