Lib Dem conference – roundup special

By Vivienne Shirley, Senior Consultant

The Lib Dem conference this autumn may have garnered more media attention for ‘exotic spresm’ than any policies, but this does it a disservice. While the party was still (a whopping eight years later) having to spend time defending tuition fees, there was a cautious optimism in the air – and a sense that, in the turmoil that UK politics has become, opportunities might loom for the centre ground.

There was also a confidence that, though embattled, they are once again on the right side of history – this time on Brexit. For unlike the confused division of the two main parties, this was a group almost unanimously united for Remain and doggedly pushing for a People’s Vote – if there was a lone Brexiteer amidst the gaggle of starred berets, they were certainly laying low. Often painted by the left wing as ‘enablers’ of the Tories, Nick Clegg drew loud applause when he called out Jeremy Corbyn’s disingenuous, limp-wristed approach to Brexit – who’s the enabler of the Tories now?  

But this was a conference also determined to show that the party is not a ‘one policy’ brigade, with no shortage of sensible policies on show. Regarding planning, the party reaffirmed its commitment to build 300,00 homes a year over the next decade and pledged it would create a British Housing Company – a dedicated, not-for-profit body that would acquire land for housebuilding through compulsory acquisition. Though the importance of green spaces was stressed, poor quality or disused green belt land would be considered fair game.

Social housing was also high on the agenda, with a promise that councils would have the power to decide on the availability of Right-to-Buy locally and Right-to-Buy receipts would be reinvested in social housing. The party further pledged the construction of 50,000 social homes for rent per year, rising to 100,000 a year as soon as feasible. The Housing Spokesperson Wera Hobhouse told conference: “If we are to truly tackle the housing crisis, we must embark on a large programme to rebuild our social housing stock.”

In addition, the Lib Dems would see a big expansion in ‘Rent to Own’, with Vince Cable noting: “We desperately need a programme of low cost homes for rent leading to purchase for first time buyers and key workers.” At the same time, the party would seek to deter investors who leave properties lying empty with a 500% increase in council tax. They also called for a stamp duty surcharge on overseas residents purchasing such properties, a policy shortly afterwards announced by Theresa May.   

However, the talk on most attendees’ lips in the bustling bars and hallways was Vince Cable’s radical proposals to turn the party into a ‘mass movement’ and open the leadership up to non-MPs. While most agreed that a lower-tier supporters’ network could be useful, many expressed alarm at the thought of non-members getting a vote on the leadership *cough* Corbyn *cough*. Meanwhile, Gina Miller firmly ruled herself out as a future leader in a polished speech to a packed hall. However, there was a sense that something radical might be worth a try if the Lib Dems are ever to emulate the success of Macron and Trudeau.

Vince Cable may need to hurry to get his reforms through and secure his legacy, as the topic of which MP would be the best next leader was a sure-fire conversation starter at every drinks event.  Though Liberals may look back wistfully on the days of Charles Kennedy, Paddy Ashdown or even Jeremy Thorpe (pre-canine murder), the options today are undeniably more limited for a party which needs charisma in a leader more than the two main ones do – as they are currently proving. Jo Swinson was widely viewed as the best bet and ambitious enough, though her speech on ‘owning the failures’ of coalition garnered a mixed response from other senior Lib Dems.   

In a world in which a traditionally sensible country cheerfully catapults itself economic turmoil and the most powerful man in the world spends his days tweeting gems such as ‘covfefe’, the party might just be getting starting for these centre-ground underdogs. The mood at conference was hopeful, though even the most optimistic conference-goer agreed they need a more inspiring leader to head the charge.

You can read our Tory conference special here and Labour analysis here.