Bournemouth 2015 may have been shunned by many in the journalistic and lobbying world. But if they had bothered to turn up they would have found themselves at the best-attended Liberal Democrat conference in history courtesy of the party’s recent membership surge. The Labour party is not the only exemplar of how to launch a membership drive on the back of election defeat and a change of leadership. New leader Tim Farron may have just 8 MPs, but he has an ace up his sleeve and many in the Westminster bubble may be in for a rude awakening.
There are already 101 Lib Dem members of the House of Lords, soon to be buttressed with a further 11 appointed in the post-election honours list. Unlike the House of Commons, where the Government has a small majority, no party comes close to this in the Upper House. If Farron’s army reaches across the red benches they can unite with Labour or crossbench peers to defeat Government legislation.
It is a long established principle of the British constitution that the House of Lords does not block bills which are presented in the Government’s election manifesto. The Liberal Democrats argue that this practice, the so-called Salisbury convention, looks increasingly anachronistic when governments are elected on small shares of the vote. Just 24% of the electorate voted Conservative at the 2015 general election. Farron has used this to justify ignoring the convention to vote against Conservative proposals to allow housing association tenants the right to buy their own homes.
Housing was a major issue at the 2015 Lib Dem conference. At an LGA fringe event, audience members and party spokespeople alike were unanimous in condemning Conservative right-to-buy proposals. The party passed a strongly-worded motion committing the party to the major house building programme laid out in its 2015 manifesto. At his leader’s speech at the end of the conference, Farron made housing his number one policy priority. He is unlikely to let it lie.
The Lib Dem conference, with its elaborate constitutional debates and carefully-argued policymaking, might look like a quaint sideshow given its tiny parliamentary grouping. But if Farron sticks with it, he could cause real difficulty for the Conservatives’ flagship housing policy. It was Liberal Prime Minister Herbert Asquith who threatened to stuff the Lords with Liberal Peers ahead of the debate on the 1909 People’s Budget. Whether Cameron will do an Asquith we will have to wait and see. One thing is for certain: the Lib Dems might be out of office, but they are not out of power quite yet.