Liberal Politics in Britain Ahead of the National Elections
Within fifteen months the United Kingdom must go to the polls and the chances of Sunak's Conservatives being elected for a fifth term (after general election victories in 2010, 2015, 2017 and 2019) appear slim. But will Sir Keir Starmer's Labour Party win an outright majority? Or might Labour need a coalition with the Scottish National Party (cost: another referendum on Scottish independence) or the Liberal Democrats (cost: legislation to introduce a fair voting system)?
In 2015 the LibDems went down to a crushing defeat after four years in coalition with David Cameron's Tories. They were relegated to the position of Britain's fourth party, with fewer seats than the Scottish Nationalists. No longer needing a coalition partner, Cameron called the referendum on continued membership of the EU which Nick Clegg had denied him.
A party on the rise
At their party conference 23-26 September, after a disappointing eight years, the Liberal Democrats began to look like a party back on the rise. Their 11 parliamentary seats have grown to fifteen through four spectacular by-election gains from the Tories. A fifth by-election, due next month, is in the offing. Under their leader Sir Edward Davey, Secretary of State for Energy & Climate 2011-15, there is every chance the Party might double its Westminster representation at the next general election, perhaps regaining its position as the UK's third party. The LibDems have shown an uncanny knack to defeat the Conservatives (predominantly in the south of England, in the so-called 'blue wall' constituencies) which Labour cannot win.
Voice of reason
Their 'pre-manifesto' adopted at this conference includes pledges to increase spending on health (including a social media tax to fund mental health), to meet the UK's climate commitments (recently abandoned by Sunak), to safeguard UK adhesion to the European Convention on Human Rights (under threat from the Conservatives) and to bring the UK back towards the EU, with the long-term goal of re-joining the single market. The party has dropped its pledge to increase income tax in view of the cost-of-living crisis.
So far this year the LibDems have raised £3.8 million to fund their advance, giving them a good fund for their target seats (though this compares to £12 m for Labour and the Conservatives' £22 m). As conference visitors Ulrich Lechte MdB, Sandra Weeser MdB and Thomas Hacker MdB can testify, they look like a party winning back its self-confidence.
Sir Graham Watson is a member of the Liberal Democrats and was their MEP from 1994 to 2014. He was Leader of the Liberal Group in the European Parliament from 2002 to 2009, and President of the ALDE Party from 2001 to 2015.