- The Liberal Democrats have seen a surge in their support due to their staunch opposition to Brexit.
- The party’s new leader Jo Swinson has promised to take the party into government and prevent the UK’s exit from the EU.
- However, there is growing concern among members about the party’s radical new Brexit policy.
- The party has also come under attack this week after welcoming controversial figures from other parties into the fold.
- Visit Business Insider’s homepage for more stories.
BOURNEMOUTH, ENGLAND – The Liberal Democrats gathered this week for their annual conference after a year in which their support has surged due to their full-throated opposition to Brexit.
Their new leader Jo Swinson closed the party’s autumn conference with a promise to take the anti-Brexit party into government and reverse Brexit.
Whereas in previous years such a pledge would have seemed ludicrous, the party has seen it’s support surge in recent months, gaining over 700 seats in local elections and leapfrogging both the Conservatives and Labour in European elections.
Meanwhile they have attracted a series of defecting members of Parliament from the governing Conservative and opposition Labour parties.
However, success has come with new challenges, with their opponents now submitting them to enhanced scrutiny.
Here are three things we learned from their conference this week.
The new Lib Dem Brexit policy is a gamble
The headline news from this year’s Lib Dem conference was the party’s decision to make an official policy of scrapping Brexit by revoking Article 50 if it wins a majority at the next general election.
Members overwhelmingly voted for the measure on Sunday, in a hardening of the party’s pro-EU position.
The “if” at play is a pretty massive one. The party almost certainly won’t win a majority at the next election, meaning the policy will be no more than notional, unless Swinson either pulls off an unlikely victory, or successfully forms a coalition government after the election.
However, it has nonetheless triggered lively debate – both within and outside the party.
Other pro-Remain parties have accused the Lib Dems of adopting an “undemocratic” measure.
Green MP Caroline Lucas tweeted: “Brexit referendum didn’t deliver the outcome many of us hoped for But you can’t pretend the result didn’t happen. Lib Dems are doing just that You can’t turn back the clock. Nor ignore the 17m who voted Leave This doesn’t strengthen our democracy. It further imperils it.”
There is also concern among some members that by vowing to scrap Brexit without a referendum, or what campaigners call a People’s Vote, the Lib Dems could deter candidates in other parties from participating in a “Remain Alliance” at the next election.
Anti-Brexit groups are engaged in what they describe as delicate conversations with opposition candidates who they want to work together at the next election. There are fears that even the most ardent pro-EU Labour and Green MPs might feel uneasy about Lib Dems’ willingness to scrap the 2016 result without holding a new referendum, and be deterred from participating in an electoral pact.
For their part, Swinson and other Lib Dem MPs argue that winning a majority at the next election would give them the mandate to revoke Article 50.
Chuka Umunna, the party’s shadow foreign secretary, on Monday told reporters: “The way our democracy usually works is that you put your promises in a manifesto to the people, and if you get a majority, you implement them.
“The undemocratic thing would be not to implement your manifesto commitments.”
They also stress that forcing a referendum before a general election is still the party’s priority.
However, within the Lib Dem membership there is a degree of concern about the policy.
While it is confined to a minority, and most of that minority voted for the motion in spite of their hesitations, it was clear in conversations in corridors and bars around the Bournemouth International Centre, that some members are concerned about how the policy will be received by the general public.
The Lib Dems really believe they are heading for government
The Lib Dems say an early general election is not their preference, and that they’d rather have a referendum.
However, the party is bullish about a snap poll, which is widely-expected to take place before Christmas.
Umunna, who joined the party earlier this year, on Monday said that winning over 100 seats was well within the anti-Brexit party’s reach. He said that with a five per cent swing towards the party, “200 seats are in contention.”
The party currently has just 18 MPs, six of which defected from elsewhere in the House of Commons this year.
When asked about Umunna’s bold claim, Ed Davey, the party’s deputy leader, offered a tongue-in-cheek response of “he’s not very ambitious.”
But while Lib Dem officials advise journalists to not take the 200 seat claim completely seriously, the party has undoubtedly raised its ambitions in light of recent opinion polling and increased media attention.
As the New Statesman reported last week, the party has doubled its list of core target seats from 40 to 80.
Senior party figures believe that with Johnson’s Conservatives now the party of Brexit, and Corbyn’s Labour reluctant to be unambiguously pro-Remain, the Lib Dems have an opportunity to win swathes of seats nationwide.
They also believe that when the election campaign gets underway, and equal media coverage rules kick in, Swinson will outshine Johnson and Corbyn and impress voters who want an alternative to the two main party leaders.
Sarah Wollaston MP, who joined the party last month, was sincere when she told Business Insider: “You should not limit your ambitions but certainly I think we should be aiming for more than 100 seats.”
She added: “Who wants to go into an election saying we only want to win a handful of seats? We want to win them everywhere. Let’s have a party of over 100 seats and be people who can really set the agenda going forward.”
The Lib Dems are coming under real scrutiny
The party’s newfound success has come at the cost of greater scrutiny from the press and their political opponents.
This week clips of recent interviews and unearthed speeches by Swinson in which she both defended austerity and called for the original EU referendum, have gone viral online.
Meanwhile defections from other parties has given the Lib Dems a headache.
British politics has in recent months been rocked by a number of high-profile defections to the Lib Dems.
It started with Umunna, who joined the party earlier this year after leaving the Labour Party to form Change UK.
Since then, he has been joined by his former Labour colleagues Angela Smith and Luciana Berger, as well as ex-Conservative MPs Sarah Wollaston, Philip Lee, and Sam Gyimah, who was unveiled on Sunday.
The defections have undoubtedly boosted the Lib Dems. They have given the party the sort of media coverage it could only have dreamt of a year or so ago and a level of credibility it has lacked since going into Coalition in 2010.
Party members in Bournemouth are delighted to have former ministers and high-profile MPs in their ranks. More MPs are expected defect to join in the coming weeks.
However, while the new MPs have generally been welcomed Lib Dem members – Berger received a standing ovation from a packed out fringe event on Monday – the acquisitions have not been without some controversy.
The decision of the party to recruit Lee has deeply annoyed some party members.
In 2014, the former justice minister tabled an amendment which would have required all immigrants to be tested for HIV before being allowed into the UK. He also didn’t vote in favour of same-sex marriage.
Catherine Finnecy, a Lib Dem councillor in Essex, heckled Swinson during a question and answer session on Sunday, accusing her of supporting Lee’s “UKIP policy” and not being honest about his admission to the party.
“They say ‘don’t heckle the leader’ but why should I sit there silently while she gets to say all this highly offensive stuff?”Finnecy told Buzzfeed afterwards.
“I tried to raise a serious concern in writing with the leader, the deputy leader, the chief whip – no response. Then I tried to raise an official complaint – that was referred back to the chief whip. Then I tried to come here and they still haven’t organised the meeting they promised.”
She added: “They’re lying about doing due diligence, they didn’t consult properly with the LGBT+ community and they failed to address this head-on, so now they’re just trying to sideline the issue.”
Swinson and the party’s chief whip Alistair Carmichael, who is responsible for vetting new recruits, sought to reassure members that Lee had passed a vigorous test of whether had the same values as the Lib Dems.
The party has dismissed accusations that it lets anybody in as long as they’re oppose Brexit. Carmichael said he had turned down MPs who wanted to join the party.
Nevertheless, the Lee episode will prompt the party to think carefully about how it handles future defections, and whether interested MPs should be allowed to join the party at all.