What has happened at the Liberal Democrat Conference?

Jo Swinson is the Leader of the Liberal Democrats.

It is Party Conference season and the first major party to hold their conference have been the Liberal Democrats. The other main party conferences are:

Labour: 21–25 September 2019, Brighton.

Conservatives: 29 September – 2 October 2019, Manchester.

The Liberal Democrat Conference had two particularly significant moments. Firstly, Sam Gyimah MP joined the party.

Ex-Tory MP, Sam Gyimah, was given a raucous welcome at the Lib Dem Conference.

He follows Sarah Wollaston and Philip Lee joining having been former Conservatives who have moved to the Liberal Democrats.

Philip Lee ‘crossed the floor’ and joined the Liberal Democrats during one of Boris Johnson’s speech.

Gyimah was one of 21 Conservative MPs who had the whip withdrawn for voting against Boris Johnson over a No Deal Brexit. The arrival of Gyimah takes the number of Liberal Democrat MPs up to 18, up from 12 seats at the 2017 General Election.

The Lib Dem’s are on a high. They are polling at around 20% in national opinion polls and now have roughly the same number of grassroots members as the Conservative Party. There are strong rumours that more defections to the party are on the way too.

However, not all Liberal Democrat’s are happy with the influx of ex-conservatives. They point out, for example, that Sam Gyimah has some issues in his voting record that most Liberal Democrat’s would take umbrage with:

  • He voted against retaining the EU “Charter of Fundamental Rights” as part of EU Law post Brexit
  • He voted in favour of repealing the Human Rights Act (1998)
  • He voted against investigations into the Iraq War
  • He voted for keeping Britain’s Independent Nuclear Deterrent (Trident)
  • He voted against guaranteeing the rights of EU citizens and their right to legally reside in the UK after Brexit.
  • He has voted for the ‘bedroom tax’.
  • He has voted against measures to combat Climate Change.

In addition, in 2016 he filibustered the so-called Turing Bill that would retrospectively decriminalise individuals who had been found guilty of homosexual acts before they were decriminalised in UK law.

It remains to be seen what effect the influx of ex-Tory members will have on the direction of the Labour Party.

The most significant news to come from the Lib Dem Conference, however, is the change in their Brexit policy which was voted on by members. The Lib Dems are the clearest anti-Brexit party. Since the result of the referendum in 2016, they have consistently campaigned to reverse the Brexit division. They have long supported a Second Referendum (a so-called ‘peoples vote’). However, they now have confirmed at their conference that if they form a government they will support the revocation or Article 50 by Parliament as a means to stop Brexit.

The truth is that the Lib Dems, despite their current polling, are extremely unlikely to win a majority in the next election. Third parties often have the freedom of making manifesto promises that they know they will not have to implement. Making this pledge may be a smart electoral move as an attempt to win over anti-Brexit Labour and, to a less extent, Conservative voters. However, for a party which places liberal notions of democracy at its heart, many will believe it is undemocratic of the Liberal Democrat’s to not even seek to question whether the mandate given by 17.4 million leave voters should be revisited.

It will now be interesting to see how Labour react. Currently, Labour support a Second Referendum, but fall short of placing themselves as a remain party. They may be closer to doing so now that the Liberal Democrat’s have taken such an unequivocal position.

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