Lib Dems mean business – if they can persuade voters
The Liberal Democrats’ conference in Bournemouth was their biggest ever. The party has a record membership, but with just twelve MPs and 7% in the polls, the future is unclear. Enter Vince Cable, attending his first conference as Lib Dem leader. Predictor of the 2008 crash, Secretary of State for BIS in the Coalition government, creator of the UK’s first Industrial Strategy for decades.
In an era where mainstream politics has largely vacated the centre ground, Cable’s challenge is to persuade the voting public that the Lib Dems are still relevant and have answers to the issues people care about.
Brexit is top of the list. The Lib Dems are not calling for a re-run of the last referendum. Instead, Cable wants a “first referendum on the facts”. When the terms of the deal are known, he says, there should be a referendum on whether we accept the deal or call the whole thing off. Remainers believe that, as the realities of Brexit become clear, public opinion will swing against it. But it’s a gamble. At the General Election the voters showed little appetite for another referendum.
Cable champions business
Investment was a theme running through the conference. The Lib Dems want to invest more in health and social care. They are looking at some form of wealth tax to fund it. They want to allow local councils to borrow to build homes. Cable calls for more public investment to improve infrastructure. “Never in British economic history has it been cheaper for a bold, active government to borrow for productive investment, alongside the private sector,” he says.
Making the Northern Powerhouse a reality is a key part of the mix. Supportive in Government, the party now sees tackling skills shortages and infrastructure as key to transforming the northern economy.
For those familiar with the party’s recent history, an unequivocal pro-business positioning is highly significant. It may not have grabbed the headlines, but they clearly see a gap in the political market. With the Conservatives following a Hard Brexit agenda and Labour moving to the left, Cable’s statement that “British business is in desperate need of a champion and we will be that champion,” plants a flag as a statement of intent.
That’s important because the party has long been stronger on social issues, paying less attention to the hard economic ones. Their experience of government may have helped to change that. As Cable points out, the Lib Dem Shadow Cabinet includes ten former ministers, compared to just two in Jeremy Corbyn’s top team.
Cable isn’t one for bombastic, tub-thumping speeches. His style is low-key. But his ambition for the Lib Dems is high and he’s not afraid to push the party faithful out of their comfort zone.
Whether the Lib Dems can turn their fortunes around remains to be seen. The odds may seem against it, but politics in 2017 is far from stable. If the party can rise to the challenge, “Strong and Cable” might yet be the slogan of the day.
Remarkable Group are at all the main party conferences this Autumn. We’ll be getting under the skin of the parties and reporting back on what it all really means.
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