The Liberal Democrats are now Britain’s progressive opposition

Seventy-two seats! Seventy-two! I doubt even in Ed Davey’s wildest dreams, he envisioned us winning so many seats. The “Blue Wall” lies in rubble. The Liberal Democrats now have more seats than at any time in over a century. Not since 1923, when Herbert Asquith was the party leader, have Liberals held so many seats in the House of Commons. We now represent dozens of seats across the South of England. But that’s not all, we also made gains in the North of England, the Midlands, Scotland and Wales. There is something poetic about our 72nd seat (and the final seat to be declared in this election) being that of our late great former leader Charles Kennedy.

Yes, we Liberal Democrats are not the Official Opposition, but be in no doubt we are an opposition force to be reckoned with in this Parliament. The Tories are likely to spend the next few months fighting a civil war as Tory leadership hopefuls fight for the soul of their party. There is a legitimate question to ask as to how effectively the Conservatives can deliver the functions of the Opposition, given how close the second and third largest parties are. For starters, if I was Ed Davey, I would be asking the Speaker for at least three questions at Prime Minister’s Question Time (as opposed to the usual two for the third largest party). This is especially the case given that less than fifty seats separate the Liberal Democrats from the Official Opposition.

There are now essentially two opposition forces in Parliament, the Conservatives and the Liberal Democrats. The Tories will naturally criticise Labour for daring to increase public spending and for not being tough enough on immigration and certain culture war issues. It therefore falls to us to ensure that Labour delivers the progressive future Britain so desperately needs. Ed Davey is right therefore to call for Labour to “steal our policies” and adopt the progressive policies we have been campaigning for.

We fought the general election on a truly progressive centre-left manifesto. A manifesto that emphasised the need to increase public spending on the National Health Service and social care. It is essential that Labour now delivers. The NHS needs thousands more GPs, an end to “dental deserts” and to treat mental health on a par with physical health. We need to achieve a new political consensus on social care and introduce free personal care for the elderly and adults with disabilities. All of which was at the heart of our election manifesto.

Ed Davey and Daisy Cooper have already begun to pressure Labour on this issue. Davey is calling for the new government to hold an emergency health budget. While the party is calling for cross-party talks to build a consensus on tackling the issue of social care. Our 72 MPs now have a clear mandate to advance the NHS and social care. Davey and Cooper deserve immense praise for how they have placed health and social care at the heart of our general election campaign. An issue that is of huge importance to the lives of tens of millions of people across our country. I defy anyone not to have been moved by our party political broadcast where Ed Davey spoke so emotionally about his family and his caring responsibilities.

It is not just on health and social care that Keir Starmer’s new government will need to be held to account. We also need to pressure Labour to clean up the sewage in our rivers, to tackle climate change, to ensure a fairer welfare system, to build stronger relations with Europe and to reform our politics. While the party must implacably oppose attempts by Labour to erode civil liberties or to undermine the rights of immigrants, refugees or trans people. It would be far too easy for Labour to kick resolving social care into the long grass or to fall into knee-jerk reactionary tendencies in order to appease the populist right.

The Liberal Democrats now have more power from opposition than we have had for 100 years. What do I mean by this? I mean the power to influence and shape the political narrative in this country. The power to shape debates, fashion the political discourse and to set the political agenda. To demonstrate the impact of shaping political narratives and discourses, bear in mind that Nigel Farage and UKIP were able to spearhead the move towards Brexit, despite at most only having a couple of MPs. If UKIP and the Brexit Party could achieve that with only a couple of MPs, imagine what the Liberal Democrats could achieve with 72 MPs. Yes, Reform UK now have five MPs (Farage amongst them). But I will be damned if five hard right nationalist MPs can have a bigger impact on British politics than 72 progressive liberal MPs.

At long last, there is a major political force in this country with significant representation in Parliament that can campaign to save our NHS, to champion social care, to clean up our rivers and to tackle poverty. A force that rejects pernicious anti-immigrant and anti-refugee rhetoric. A force that recognises the urgent need to empower our local communities, to defend vital international institutions and to address the looming climate emergency.

The Liberal Democrats are the party of hope. We are the party to save our NHS. We are the party of social care and care workers. We are the party to protect our environment, to reform our politics and to ensure a fairer redistribution of wealth. Where Labour lacks progressive resolve, we must pressure them to do the right thing. When the Tories fail to offer fair, progressive and compassionate opposition, we must provide it. From our new opposition power base, may we fight to build a more liberal and progressive country. One where all our citizens, regardless of wealth, social background or protected characteristics, can have a Fair Deal to make the most of their lives.

* Paul Hindley is a PhD politics student at Lancaster University and a member of the Liberal Democrats in Blackpool.

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  • Great article Paul, to which I would add two thoughts. We are the Party with the strongest commitment to international humanitarian law. This is an area where the Conservative government behaved appallingly – notably, but not only, with respect to Palestine. Labour responded weakly to the Gaza conflict and the appalling and continuing loss of life. Historically the Blair and Brown governments had a bad record in this area and we need to hold the feet of the new Foreign Secretary firmly to the fire. Not only is it the right thing to do but it could help us to recruit new activists who will be looking for principled and not just pragmatic politics.

  • Great article Paul and the only point I would add is that Reform had and still has the backing of the right wing press. No names needed. One drawback I think that we have is that we don’t get a fair hearing from even the Liberal press. I don’t know how we can tackle this problem or even am I imagining this to be a problem?

  • Paul is right to say this is a great opportunity to build support for Lib Dem values, after years of government by a Conservative Party operating in a moral vacuum. Nothing demonstrated that more clearly than its failure to hold Israel’s leadership to account over what is clearly genocide in Gaza, and its refusal to ban arms sales to Israel. We must now hold the new government equally liable if it doesn’t urgently reverse UK support for Netanyahu’s murderous regime, and help steer the Israeli people towards peace with the Palestinians.

  • Nigel Jones 9th Jul '24 - 1:01pm

    I agree about Gaza. Can’t everyone see that Israel’s aim to kill off Hamas means killing huge numbers of Palestinians ? One poll about a month ago showed a rise in support for Hamas among Palestinians, so for every Hamas activist killed one or more will take their place. As Layla said at Spring conference leaders on both sides should be taken to the ICC and punished, meaning in our politics we should not take sides but work hard to get that 2-state solution starting with recognition of Palestine and calling for Israel not only to stop its further plans to occupy the West Bank, but to return to pre 1967 boundaries.
    The connection between Middle East and some people in the UK is a reminder that the international dimension affects us all and therefore the narrowminded nationalism of some people here is self-defeating.

  • I like the phrase progressive opposition but at this stage you haven’t given Labour a chance to deliver and are assuming they will repeat their past mistakes. If anything the main differences between the parties are LD opposition to VAT on private school fees, rail nationalisation and ending non dom status, so we aren’t to the left of them.

  • Let the Tories be the official opposition. We can be the effective opposition.

  • David Garlick 10th Jul '24 - 10:47am

    Great opportunity and I agree with Joe.
    Also a very big challenge to defend and build on 72. Who knows.

  • The attack by Hamas has used as an excuse for Israel to steal more Palestine land. They are already planning settlements in Gaza and have divided Gaza in two with a road between Israel and the coast.

  • I should have also said that Lib Dem fiscal plans were more redistributive than Labour’s and there is the policy of free social care so we’re more progressive in those regards.

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