Lib Dem conference: Worthy is the Lamb

A defeated leadership candidate seeks to revive his flagging party

It’s been hard for the Lib Dems to gain much press since their near-wipeout at the election. And on the surface at least, this week has been no different. Salacious allegations about the Prime Minister and the shockwaves triggered by Jeremy Corbyn’s victory continue to distract attention from the party as it meets for its conference in Bournemouth.

But this lunchtime, one of the few remaining Lib Dem big beasts got a chance to shine. On the day when one of the biggest NHS trusts was placed in special measures for management failures, Health Spokesman and defeated Lib Dem leadership contender Norman Lamb came before his delegates with a plan.

The centrepiece of Lamb’s speech was a proposal for a dedicated tax to deal with looming funding shortfalls in the health and social care systems. But the ex-care minister also floated other ideas, including the devolution of NHS funding to local government, the potential for greater mutualisation in the service and a non-partisan commission to deal with long-term health and social care challenges.

Lamb has been banging several of these policy drums for many years now, but his decision to raise them again today had a strategic purpose. Senior Lib Dems have spied an opening on the right of the Labour Party, where support for greater devolution, hard choices on public finances and working across party lines all find greater favour than with Labour’s new leadership. A few well-judged references to the liberal founder of the welfare state, William Beveridge, also underscored the ties that bind the Labour right and the Lib Dems.

In gentling nodding to areas of common ground with the Labour right, Lamb showed more subtlety than his leadership rival Tim Farron did when he recently claimed to be an “agony aunt” for disaffected Labour MPs. The number of them likely to have tuned in for this speech was probably not that great, but some of those modernising former frontbenchers interested in health might be up for pooling intellectual resources going forward.  

As well as a carefully calculated pitch to Labour, Lamb also sought to find a single cause that could define his party in the minds of the voting public. Here again long-term passions and political expediency coincided, as he made a fresh call to arms for action on mental health. The Norfolk North MP has first-hand personal experience of the issue, but also knows it was one of the few his party succeeded in cutting through to voters on ahead of the last election. Expect the Lib Dems to continue claiming this cause as their own as the Parliament wears on.

On Wednesday Lib Dem delegates gather for the main event of their conference, as Farron himself takes to the stage for his first major test as party leader. Both his predecessor and his vanquished challenger have raised the bar high. Will he be able to clear it? Tune in tomorrow to find out. 

 

Photograph: Hina Malik

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