Liberal Democrats' stance on Brexit, people smugglers and sewage may throw up some more electoral surprises
As the travelling Ross County fans tuck into a pie and bovril at Aberdeen this Sunday, few will be pining for the political conference staple of white wine and stale sandwiches. And whilst I would happily give up my pass for the guarantee of three points, this year’s conference season is an important one.
Kicked off by the Liberal Democrats this weekend, battle lines will be drawn ahead of an expected election next year. And for the Liberal Democrats, who are consistently stacking up electoral gains, their results could have a big say in who enters Downing Street.
Conferences are not without challenges. As a former press aide for the Liberal Democrats, I remember all too well the birth of the unfortunate phrase “exotic spresm”. Sir Vince Cable, having awkwardly reassured the media that he would ridicule the Tories’ obsession with Brexit with the phrase “erotic spasm”, fluffed the line.
It was one of the few occasions I didn't volunteer to provide clarification to the queuing journalists. It was also a lesson of how one small mishap at a conference can steal the headlines and shift momentum, a lesson I am sure Theresa May, after her infamous cough, reflected on too.
The odd bump in the road aside, the Liberal Democrats will be determined to make this weekend count. With the party fighting an uphill battle to secure media attention, this conference provides a rare window to deliver a message to the country.
The party faithful will be in good spirits having spectacularly defeated the Conservatives in four by-elections. Many will be heading to the conference fresh from the campaign trail in Mid-Bedfordshire where they will be hoping to reward Ed Davey with another, now famous, election victory photo-op. These victories, particularly in the south-west of England, prove the party can win back rural heartlands. Councillor Angus Macdonald, who is seeking to win back Charles Kennedy’s old seat in the Highlands, will be quick to remind us of that.
There is more to it. The last time the Liberal Democrats won a record four by-elections over the course of a parliament, the party returned 46 MPs at the subsequent election as the Conservatives were booted from government. Alex Cole-Hamitlon MSP, leader of the Scottish Liberal Democrats, will be thinking just that as he knocks on doors to eagerly tell voters his party is “part of what's next”.
But while winning by-elections brings credibility, what does being “part of what’s next” mean? A coalition, perhaps, or a confidence-and-supply deal? If so, with who? The party has recent experience here and, whilst political memories are short, it must prove it has learnt from it without falling into the trap of spending more time talking about political machinations than what really matters.
To achieve anything in politics, you must first win the right to be heard. With governing parties both north and south of the Border plummeting in the polls, the Liberal Democrats can seize this conference season to show they are more than just the ‘other team’. They can win the right to be heard by demonstrating they care about tackling the issues people are facing today and have a vision to do it. Indeed, if the reception I received this week in the Tain and Easter Ross by-election is anything to go by, even traditional SNP voters would be willing to hear it.
There is some big political space for the Liberal Democrats to fight for too. On the climate emergency, even the former Scottish Greens leader Robin Harper believes the Greens have "lost the plot”. On education, the yawning educational attainment gap between the richest and poorest children is sadly evidence that the SNP has failed Sturgeon's “defining mission”. And where our agricultural and fishing communities are concerned, the Tories' broken promises on Brexit make a mockery of the suggestion they were ever the voice for rural Scotland.
The party’s UK leader, Ed Davey, has started to build his offer. He was first out of the gate in tackling the country’s sewage crisis by calling for a tax on the £2.2 billion annual profits made by water companies. On support for carers, an issue close to his heart, he has proposed raising the Carer's Allowance by £1,000 a year. He has also set a course for how he would repair the UK’s standing in the world, namely committing to restore the aid budget in line with international commitments.
Enough yet? Well, if you can expect anything from a Liberal Democrat conference, expect more policy. With the parties wrestling with the small boats issue, Orkney and Shetland MP Alistair Carmichael has his turn this weekend. He has submitted plans to take power out of the hands of smugglers through scrapping the Illegal Migration Act and creating safe and legal routes to sanctuary in the UK. That's how you treat people in need with dignity.
Ed Davey has also been willing to go where other party leaders in Westminster will not, namely championing the need to repair our broken relationship with Europe. Has he gone far enough? For me, no, but he will have calculated that it is not my vote he needs to win to beat the Conservatives. Be careful, though, as for a smaller party to be recognised – and to differentiate itself from bigger parties – they must be willing to upset some voters too.
All that said, would I still rather be in Aberdeen to watch Ross County continue a strong start to the season? No comment. But as Charles Kennedy said: “The one thing we can all be sure about in politics is you are as well to expect the unexpected.” Watch this space then.
David Green, from Ross-shire, was formerly an aide to Charles Kennedy and head of media for the Liberal Democrats
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