I got back from Lib Dem conference yesterday – it was my first Lib Dem autumn conference for three years. I enjoyed it. The party was upbeat – mind you, the Lib Dems would be upbeat if parliament could somehow find a way for a party to have negative seats in it, so when there are genuine reasons to feel positively about the future, you can only imagine.
The Liberal Democrats have become the revoke Article 50 party. In response, Corbyn has presented himself as the sole second referendum party, with a narrative of “Labour are the only grownups in the room now. Everyone else are Brexit extremists; we are the party of moderation”. Except that this sits poorly alongside disbanding your student wing because it’s too centrist and deselecting longstanding MPs on the same basis. Doesn’t scream “moderate” to me. Neither does Corbyn generally, come to think of it.
The Lib Dems should not only target Islington North, the seat Corbyn has held for 36 years, in the next general election, they should do so very publicly. Be very, very loud about it. The tactical reason for this is simple: the Liberal Democrats will be asked over and over again during any upcoming general election campaign whether a vote for the Lib Dems is really just a vote for Jeremy Corbyn to become prime minister. This is because that will be the core message the Tories will use to combat the Lib Dems in Tory-Lib marginals. Unless counteracted with something strong, this will be very powerful. You only need to look at how similar messaging around Ed Miliband and the SNP worked in the same seats in 2015.
JOURNALIST: Isn’t a vote for the Lib Dems just a vote to put Jeremy Corbyn in Number 10 at the end of the day?
LD REPRESENTATIVE: Not at all. As you well know, the Lib Dems have Jeremy Corbyn’s seat as one of their key targets in this election. While we are willing to work with people in any party who wish to stop Brexit, the Lib Dems are the only party actively trying to stop Jeremy Corbyn from becoming the prime minister by stopping him from being re-elected.
JOURNALIST: Yes, but the Lib Dems have no real prospect of winning the seat, I mean, let’s be realistic. Right?
LD REPRESETATIVE: The Lib Dems had a better vote share in Islington North at the EU elections and our own polling shows we have an excellent chance of winning. Again, Corbyn cannot be prime minister if he’s not an MP and the Lib Dems are the only party trying to make that happen.
It gives the Lib Dems a strong rebuttal to what will be the Tories’ main line of attack in target seats. I believe that in order to mitigate the effect the targeting of Corbyn’s seat might have on a lot of Remain voters, though, the Lib Dems also need to visibly stand aside in a selection of seats held by Labour Remainers. I would take Jess Phillips’ seat, Birmingham Yardley, as a seat that is a genuine sacrifice for the party – the Lib Dems held it pre-2015 – and then fill this out with visible Remain seats, like Hilary Benn’s, where the party is really just saving its deposit anyhow. Labour will give the Lib Dems nothing for doing this, obviously – which isn’t the point. The Lib Dems need a counterpoint to the “Aren’t you just helping the Tories with this targeting of Corbyn?” line of attack that makes legitimate sense.
Whether the Lib Dems do this or not, we shall wait and see. I am actually hopeful; the communications and strategy of the party seems to have gone into overdrive over the past six months, really out of nowhere. I am constantly being impressed with what the Lib Dems are saying and doing now. As I am with the way Labour have behaved recently, with Corbyn often taking the most logical position he can, given how boxed in from all sides of his party he is on Brexit – before he watches as his student wing is killed dead right before a general election and then helps to deselect most of his Remainer MPs, handing the Lib Dems a PR coup. You can take the boy out of left-wing extremism, but you can’t, you know the rest.