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The Lib Dems’ middle-class populist manifesto

Sir Ed Davey on the campaign trail. Credit: Gettt

June 9, 2024 - 2:00pm

For the first weeks of the election, Liberal Democrats leader Sir Ed Davey seemed to be ploughing his happy furrow. He leapt, quite literally, into a series of silly photoshoots — paddle boarding, careening down slides — as well as releasing a moving personal video about caring for his disabled son. It has perhaps not unleashed the Cleggmania of 2010, but it has reset the party’s image with a quite genuine sense of warm feelings for the leader. Now, however, they have to convert that into the hard part of the campaign.

In the last two elections, the Lib Dems had a quite clear message. They were the party of “Continuity Remain”, the only major party committed to reversing Brexit. This approach was distinctive, but it ultimately failed. They never recovered from the post-Coalition collapse, and went backwards last time, winning just 11 seats. Now, however, they sense opportunity.

The collapse of the Tories seems to bode well for the party. Opinion polls have them set to pick up dozens of seats, sweeping through traditional bastions of Conservative Party votes in the Home Counties. With a good night, and SNP losing out to Labour, the party could end up with around 50 MPs and back to third-biggest in the Commons. In the most dramatic predictions, they might even take more than the Tories.

What is less clear is what the Lib Dems might do with this increased presence. Tomorrow they will reportedly launch their manifesto, a curious document considering how unlikely it is they will ever implement any policies. The policies teased so far include signing up to and extending the EU youth mobility scheme — allowing greater freedom of movement for under-35s — and the creation of three new national parks. They’ve also promised free at-home care for the elderly and higher wages for care workers, partly funded by taxing unearned income at higher levels.

Taken together, it becomes a sort of middle-class populism: trumpeting closer relations with the EU to retain that Remainerish shine, with a focus on some of the Tories’ failings on public services, alongside a large dose of environmental niceness. There are a few other crowd-pleasing gambits too, such as forcing ten Premier League matches a year to be on free TV. All together, it amounts less to an appeal to the bloke in the pub, more the sort of policies the middle-aged man in the wine bar would heartily expound upon.

In the face of a Labour landslide, none of this will matter much. Sir Keir Starmer’s party will not need or want to cut a deal with them. It may, however, lay the groundwork for future Lib Dem progress if politics becomes more volatile. The party alienated much of its base during the Coalition and particularly upset the young with its U-turn on tuition fees. Now, however, it finds itself back in a fertile niche.

There is a bloc of better-off, pro-European voters who might once have been solid Tories yet now find the brand repugnant. Some will turn to Labour this time round but are likely to grow disaffected after a term or two of Starmer. A smart Lib Dem party could start picking these voters up, extending its grip through the suburban fringe.

Understanding what the Lib Dems stand for has been a long-running question in British politics. They’ve often thrived off meaning different things in different places, or becoming the home of opportunist NIMBYism. Picking a side, as they did in 2010, was always a threat, and it perhaps played out as expected. Now, with another Labour surge and the Tories in trouble, opportunities abound. So far, Davey’s japes have garnered them wider notice. The manifesto will show us more about what they intend to do with it, and how to capitalise on the chaos. That is what we should pay attention to.


John Oxley is a corporate strategist and political commentator. His Substack is Joxley Writes.

Mr_John_Oxley

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Lancashire Lad
Lancashire Lad
8 days ago

Seriously, has there ever been a mainstream political party exuding more vacuity than the Liberal Democrats?

Robbie K
Robbie K
8 days ago
Reply to  Lancashire Lad

It should never be forgotten that the democratic party wanted to have a second referendum because it wasn’t the correct result.

Lancashire Lad
Lancashire Lad
8 days ago
Reply to  Robbie K

That’s a good point. Democrats being ‘liberal’ with their principles.

Martin M
Martin M
8 days ago
Reply to  Robbie K

Yes! “You got the referendum wrong! Have another go!”

Peter B
Peter B
8 days ago

One of their headline policies in forcing the Premier League to show 10 matches a season live on free to air TV.
And the author thinks they’re a serious party ?
A LibDem leaflet arrived yesterday. The headline is “Want to kick the Tories out ?”.
Nothing positive at all to offer in that.
These are the same people running our local council who claim that their staff do more work each week in 4 days than 5 – and are currently spending over 3 months compiling the report which will apparently show this. Wouldn’t take 3 months if it were true.

Martin M
Martin M
8 days ago
Reply to  Peter B

Maybe it should have read “Want to kick the Tories out, and see more Premier League football on free TV?”

Last edited 8 days ago by Martin M
J Boyd
J Boyd
8 days ago

In the local elections last year I voted for the Lib Dems because they pledged to oppose over-development of our district which has brought nothing of benefit to residents and has led to horrendous waits for NHS care, traffic congestion and flooding.

They took office and promptly reneged on their promises.

I won’t vote for them again.

Julian Farrows
Julian Farrows
8 days ago
Reply to  J Boyd

They did this twenty-odd years ago too when they promised their voters they wouldn’t raise tuition fees and then promptly raised the from 3000 to 9000 GBP a year.

Martin M
Martin M
8 days ago
Reply to  J Boyd

Yes, but surely Millennial and Gen-Z voters are going to flock to vote for a bald middle-aged bloke who knows how to fall off a paddleboard?

Alexander Thirkill
Alexander Thirkill
8 days ago

The suggestion of where to position themselves makes a lot of sense.

Locally in Surrey they are the party of the guilty Tory wets, who can’t bear to vote Labour.

hercules J
hercules J
8 days ago

Don’t forget Davey thinks women can have a p***s! He doesn’t really so pure and simple he’s a liar!! Vote for them at your peril.

David L
David L
7 days ago

It’s interesting how every vote lib dem sign I see, resides in the garden of a huge detached house, with at least four expensive cars parked in the driveway.

Martin M
Martin M
8 days ago

At least they don’t seem to be pushing a “Rejoin the EU” line. Even they have realised that that boat hasn’t just sailed, it is lying at the bottom of the ocean with a big hole in its hull.

Hugh Bryant
Hugh Bryant
5 days ago
Reply to  Martin M

Don’t kid yourself. They, and I mean the establishment in general, have simply concluded that it will have to be done by stealth.

UnHerd Reader
UnHerd Reader
8 days ago

This is a joke, yes?!

UnHerd Reader
UnHerd Reader
8 days ago

10 premiership matches. Jesus crist. Is that what they are on about ?

Martin M
Martin M
8 days ago
Reply to  UnHerd Reader

Surely that is a sensible policy for the New Millennium?

Tyler Durden
Tyler Durden
7 days ago

The Lib Dems have calculated that the British will go to any length to preserve their free healthcare even if the treatment outcomes continue to be some of the worst in the world.

Hugh Bryant
Hugh Bryant
5 days ago

So, in summary: more taxation and regulation of the productive economy with the proceeds going into house prices and freebies for the freeloaders. Meh.