UK Politics

Why the Liberal Democrats remain relevant and important

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Liberal Democrats are voting in a leadership election that concludes on 26 August. The contest could have easily eluded devoted politicos. Running during the coronavirus pandemic, news unrelated to the disease’s development and decline has escaped public attention.

That being said, the leadership election may have been secondary regardless of a pandemic. With only 11 MPs, the Lib Dems seem insignificant against a Conservative majority of 80 and insurgent Labour leader Keir Starmer. As the fourth party at Westminster, the Lib Dems are no longer guaranteed two questions every week at Prime Minister’s Questions.

This demonstrates the incredible challenge facing the leadership contenders. Whoever wins, both Ed Davey, co-acting leader since former leader Jo Swinson lost her seat, and Layla Moran, education spokesperson, face huge challenges. They will tackle the survival of the Liberal Democrats as a relevant force. Since Britain decided to leave the European Union, the party has struggled to find its purpose within the political sphere.

Their leader is an important decision. The party was only in government five years ago. By the next election, the Conservatives will have governed for 14 years, and it wouldn’t be surprising if there was a hung Parliament. In such a case, smaller parties – like the Liberal Democrats – have significant power. That was evident with the DUP between 2017 and 2019.

While both contenders are neck and neck, Ed Davey, is the most experienced. The Secretary of State for Energy and Climate Change in the coalition, Davey ran for leader in 2019. Losing out to Jo Swinson, he was a conciliatory Deputy Leader.

Tackling the Liberal Democrats’ coalition legacy has been tricky for every party leader since Nick Clegg. Do they own the coalition? Celebrate their successes? Or see their five years as a failure?

Davey has decided they shouldn’t ignore it. It would be illogical if he denounced a government he served in. Far better to accept the Liberal Democrats partially fulfilled their manifesto pledges in the coalition agreement and, for their number of seats, held a huge influence.

Davey has pointed to the success of former leader Vince Cable, Business Secretary throughout the coalition. Victories in the 2019 local elections and the European elections demonstrated that the coalition wasn’t an impediment to electoral success.

However, it’s unclear whether the success was an ability to galvanise Brexit opposition. After the 2019 general election, the Liberal Democrats needed a new vision. In his campaign, Ed Davey has discussed the importance of leadership. Nobody wants a leader who didn’t act in a leader-like manner!

Alongside this has been a commitment towards social care. Davey has combined his personal experiences with individuals abandoned in care during the pandemic. Social care and the NHS have long needed to join up, so one would like to think the Liberal Democrats will become a party fully committed to social care.

Throughout his time as deputy and acting leader, Davey has focused on his green credentials, which involves referencing coalition legislation. This reinforces the view that it is better to accept the party’s successes and failures in government. If a party won’t celebrate what they did in power, why would the electorate vote to put them there again?

On the other hand, Layla Moran is experienced in different ways. Originally a teacher, she entered Parliament in 2017, so wasn’t a minister or MP during the coalition. That doesn’t mean she can escape its legacy though, with plenty of questions asked.

Instead, she has proved her ability electorally by gaining Oxford West and Abingdon from the Conservatives. It is beneficial that an MP, let alone a prospective leader, has spent time in the public sector. The question is how this translates into party policies.

Moran has stressed the necessity of radicalism. If the Lib Dems want attention, they must justify it. She has spoken about bold new policies like a Universal Basic Income, increasing the number of BAME board directors to 15% and expanding broadband availability.

The latter has been especially prescient during the pandemic, when many relied on online connectivity. However, she has also stated this radicalism is not the same as being on the left and this ambiguity, combined with cliché messages of ‘hope’, has meant new MPs like Daisy Cooper have endorsed Ed Davey.

Moran, however, has spoken about her willingness to work with Labour. Echoing her political hero, Charles Kennedy, she has stated her vision of a pact with Labour if necessary. This will challenge Davey and Moran to see who can maximise Lib Dem seats under first-past-the-post.

In former Liberal Democrat heartlands like the south west, numerous Conservative held seats would never vote Labour. However, they could vote Liberal Democrat, especially given Keir Starmer is more competent than Jeremy Corbyn.

The first rule in politics is being able to count. At the last election, the Liberal Democrats won nearly 3.7 million votes (11.6%). Their leadership election cannot be ignored. The divisions between Davey and Moran on policy appear minimal, far greater is their interpretation of the past and the future.

On the past, do they accept or reject the coalition? That invariably leads to different views. And in the future, how will they adapt under an electoral system that disadvantages them? For that, an examination of the past is essential.

In 2005, under Charles Kennedy, the Liberal Democrats were able to win over 20% of the vote, reaching over five million people and their highest number of seats (62). Arguably, their most successful election is 2010, for it fundamentally delivered the Liberal Democrats power.

While much of the discussion and debate focuses on internal party matters, the future Liberal Democrat then needs to reach the country. Their success in future elections could decide who enters government and the policies dominating the later 2020s.

In 2010, there was (briefly) Cleggmania. It may sound outlandish, but Edmania or Laylamania could soon be on the horizon.

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