The party's conference is full of nostalgia for the pre-2016 world
What’s the best way to do well at the next election? With Labour ahead in the polls and the Lib Dems achieving highs not seen since Cleggmania, perhaps the most simple strategy might be to shut up and say nothing.
This is most definitely the best advice for the Lib Dems. Success in by-elections and council elections rests largely on being the protest vote of the sensible middle class. But as this week’s conference in Bournemouth shows, the party has been struggling to reconcile its Nimbyist campaigning at a local level with a national message. The conference has already been divided by Ed Davey’s suggestion that they roll back on housing targets to favour a “community-led approach” instead. Such was the level of animosity caused by this debate that ex-leader Tim Farron described the youth wing of the party’s commitment to a 380,000 housing target as “pure Thatcherism”.
Moreover, with a party led by a man the British public associate with the phrase “don’t know”, the Lib Dem conference this week has found itself on the south coast experimenting with the cheap thrills of a British seaside getaway. So far policy speeches have included mentions of the Barbie movie, Carol Vorderman parachuting in via video link to call for electoral reform, fringe meetings led by Layla Moran plotting to rejoin the EU, and novelty hammers smashing down blue walls — an allusion to the “wave of optimism” that has come with its four successful by-election wins.
Last night brought a chance to get off this strange funfair. Cramming into a sweaty karaoke hall, the party’s motley crew of pro-housing millennials, Nimby councillors, net-zero pensioners and Tory turncoats were scheduled to perform “Gold Stars”, a rewriting of David Baddiel’s 1996 World Cup anthem. This is the party’s take on the “referendum of hate”, replacing the popular refrain of “it’s coming home,” with “we’ll go back in”.
Gold stars on the flag
Four freedoms still gleaming
Glory years of peace
Keep us all campaigning
I know that was then, but we’ll be there again
With costumed dances bringing similar scenes of Rejoiners’ Brussels fetishisation in London this weekend, it’s clear that this nostalgia for pre-2016 has become something of a scene. Throw in podcast-driven reappraisals of Britain’s failed politicians alongside a burgeoning apocalypse at the hands of Tory mismanagement, and there is something of a fervent cult emerging.
The Lib Dem conference shows all the signs of succumbing to this carnivalesque surge of fanatical cringe. The idea of dislodging the Conservatives and rejoining the EU may provide a collective hearth for its hodge-podge of members, but the party still has little to show for how they might solve some of the country’s deep-seated problems.
The conference has so far revealed an underwhelming array of policies, with its flagship announcement of social care reform alongside more NHS targets, and an “ultra-local” election strategy built on its by-election success. Its pledge for proportional representation may seem radical to a public fed up of Westminster, but being most known for sewage and looking after your granny, as one party insider has confessed, may prove tricky at the ballot box.
And so, with their centrist seaside sojourn over, it’s hard to see the joy of last night’s karaoke infecting the wider British electorate.