Lib Dems predicting 'same level of success as Charles Kennedy' after 'buoyant' party conference
The Liberal Democrats are growing increasingly confident the party can reach the levels of success seen under Charles Kennedy, when they managed to win 62 seats.
Speaking to The Scotsman, numerous party figures argued the backlash over their role in the 2010 coalition, formed by David Cameron and Nick Clegg, was no longer a voting factor, and that Tory mismanagement of the economy was bringing voters back.
They appear convinced the party can not only win back old seats, but make gains in pastures new, following four stunning by-election victories in Somerton and Frome, Chesham and Amersham, North Shropshire, and Tiverton and Honiton. Winning a fifth in Mid Bedfordshire would break their own record for by-election wins in one parliament.
Pointing to recent impacts, the Scottish politician said: “If you look at the last two or three years, a lot of the policies Labour have brought forward, we were the driving force.
"The windfall tax, that was [Lib Dems leader] Ed Davey. The attention on sewage in Scotland and the UK, was an issue that we led on. So housing, I think we are leading on. Probably if you are going to compare the party now to any previous period, our attitude is very similar, our stance is very similar to what you saw under Charles, but also what you saw under Paddy Ashdown as leader.
"If you compare them to ‘92 to ‘97, we won four by-elections, which led to our most successful period in a century. We’re looking at the same level of success now, that potential resurgence in how voters are responding to a Tory government.
“A bigger voice will mean the government has to listen to what we are saying and take those policies seriously. We’ve had a big impact in this Parliament by bringing them to the forefront.”
Sir Ed this week hinted his party would be prepared to do a post-election deal with Labour to prevent the Conservatives from forming a government.
But ruling out a coalition, Ms Jardine suggested part of the Lib Dems’ recent electoral successes was down to the public understanding what they stand for, arguing this couldn’t be said for Labour.
The Edinburgh West MP said: “[The] 2015 [election] was traumatic for all of us, because we had done something in 2010 that we believed and still believe was in the best interests of the country. We paid a heavy price for that, with a very difficult few years.
“I think each general election since then we have shown that we still believe in the same things, we are still the same people. We have perhaps learned a little from the coalition years. We are beginning to rebuild that trust with the British people, which has largely come from success at council level, people see us as a party representing our communities.
“We’ve gone from 11 MPs to 15 in this Parliament so far, and those aren’t defections, they are by-elections. It’s people coming back to us”.
Discussing the biggest issues the Lib Dems hope to influence, the senior MP suggested housing and the cost of living were fundamental.
This was a view echoed by Wendy Chamberlain, the MP for North East Fife. She argued the party not only had renewed positivity, but the Westminster group also had a deep understanding of Scotland.
She said: “There are four of us Scots in a party of now 15, which is a really good thing, we have a really good voice around the table. Christine Jardine and Jamie Stone with their roles, the state of play in Scotland is something that is a live conversation, so everyone in the parliamentary party has a good understanding of the Scotland”.
Ms Chamberlain said this shared understanding helped them avoid clashes over policy with the Scottish Liberal Democrats, unlike the Westminster and Scottish versions of Labour. She said: “The reality is the Scottish Parliament is more to the left in its make-up. Some of the issues that are potentially dividing lines south of the border, there’s agreement across the groups up the road, and I count the Scottish Tories in that.
“We are pretty aligned, maybe its down to our size. But also on stuff like the two-child benefit cap, the triple lock we’ve been very clear on how we feel, whereas for the Scottish Tories and Scottish Labour there’s this idea they are a branch of the party.”
Ms Chamberlain also dismissed the idea that policies were pandering to the electorate, insisting they were set by the membership.
She said: “Our policy is determined by our members, whereas I look at at Labour, and even though the party voted for electoral reform, [Sir Keir] Starmer and the party aren’t pursuing it. As a result, maybe this is why we don’t do electorally as well, but ours are principles driven”.
Fellow Scottish MP Alistair Carmichael suggested the disastrous mini-budget had “created an environment where we are very much back in play”.
He pointed to new support in areas including Wimbledon, Esher and Walton, Chesham and Amersham, as well as a resurgence in the traditional Liberal Democrat heartlands of the south-west of England.
The Liberal Democrat home affairs spokesperson said: “It would be foolish to predict seats, but the mood on the doorstep has been better than it has been on years.
“Increasingly people vote on impression as much as heart or the detail of policy. The impression they have of the Conservatives is they have trashed the economy, they have been drunk on power and need to be out of government.
“The impression under Labour is that they are serious about being back in government, but even now they’re not entirely sure what a Starmer government looks like.
“For ourselves, we don’t have that even spread of support across the country, but those areas that we do have support people see us as a vehicle capable of bringing influence to bear. In relation to Labour, they see us as more robust on a lot of the issues that matter to them – climate change, health service, education. These are areas where the Labour party is remarkably timid at the moment.”
This view was shared by party strategists, with one senior figure explaining Labour’s hesitancy had opened the door for them.
They said: “It’s a testament to overcautiousness in the Labour party, they are desperate not to get attacked by the Tories, they are desperate not to f*** it up.
"Ed Davey is not going to be the next prime minister, so we don’t need to think about how it’s going to cost, whereas the Labour party are desperately worried.
“When they were allowed to say what they liked under Jeremy Corbyn, Keir was happy to say he was pro proportional representation, but now he’s in charge he doesn’t want to frighten the horses.”
The party figure also suggested the Lib Dems could now outflank Labour on numerous areas of policy, with Labour not interested in “nature or farming” because they “are not even trying to win those seats”.
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