As it has been for most of its history since the rise of the first Labour government in 1923, the Liberal Democrats are in turmoil with the direction and future of their party. It has been a rollercoaster of a decade, from the giddy heights of briefly leading polling during the 2010 election to the near annihilation of the 2015 election and the treading water ever since, disposing of four leaders in the process. There have been brief glimpses of hope, such as the extraordinary surge in 2019; the party battered their opposition, mostly the Tories, in the local and then European elections while fending off their ‘BTEC’ centrist counterparts Change UK in a battle to contest the pro-European centre of British politics.
However, it always felt to myself that during that period we were just a protest vote, and therefore the lucky beneficiaries of an intense, temporary distrust in the major two parties, shown by the rise of the Brexit party alongside the Lib Dems. Boris Johnson has since bundled in the Brexit vote from the left and right and led his party to a remarkable comeback in the December general election. Keir Starmer has correspondently wooed back Labour moderates as he hopes to rid the party of the toxic traits many associated it with under Corbyn’s leadership. The Lib Dems therefore once again find themselves as the outcasts of British politics and a firmly minor party. This latest leadership election I fear will do little to help us in this situation, as it goes deeper than just the leader to reveal a lack of identity and distinct voter base that would be core to any major revival. It is depressing yet important none-other-the-less to choose a candidate who can at least not lead the party into further oblivion. Therefore, we have two candidates to analyse; Ed Davey and Layla Moran.
Ed Davey is a veteran of the party and a popular choice amongst the centre-right in the party, especially those who were involved in the coalition years. An MP for Kingston and Surbiton for 21 years with only a two-year break, as he was caught up in the onslaught of 2015 but managed to regain his seat in 2017, he is undoubtedly experienced in politics and knows the corridors of power well. Davey has been a shadow minister of nearly every department you can think of and was Secretary of State for Energy and Climate Change at the height of his power in Westminster in the coalition years. Before he entered politics as an MP, he was an economics major at Oxford and then an economic consultant for the party, as well as being a consultant briefly for an energy company. During his two-year stint out of Westminster, he was employed by a management consultancy firm. It, therefore, could be said that this vast experience will be useful for making deals and ensuring relevancy for the Lib Dem as it tries to scrutinise the government meticulously on Brexit, the environment and the economy. His focus on a ‘caring agenda’ comes from his personal experience as a carer to his mum before she passed away, as well as towards his son, who has speech difficulties. His support comes from several high-ranking officials who like himself have plenty of experience in Westminster and therefore know what it takes traditionally to gain power there. Amongst his supporters are former leaders Ming Campbell and Tim Farron, veteran Scottish MP Christine Jardine, the widow of former leader Paddy Ashdown Jane Ashdown and popular new MP Daisy Cooper. However, Davey’s vast experience may also contain some hard-to-swallow facts that leave many newer members with a sour taste. Most pressing for his critics is his heavy and lengthy involvement in the Conservation coalition from 2010-2015 and the many votes he participated in that contradict his current stances and threaten to undermine him in a similar way to Jo Swinson. Votes to increase university fees, creating the bedroom tax, reducing welfare spending, reducing corporation tax and votes against a banker’s bonus and increasing the top tax bracket have all meant he is seen as part of the Conservative government which initiated austerity, which has since become deeply unpopular and toxic to associate with. Davey cannot merely disregard criticism by framing himself as a helpless victim of the coalition, nor can he say he was there to moderate Conservative policies. Davey identifies himself as a classical Liberal and was a co-author of the ‘Orange book’, an influential book written by many of the Lib dem MPs that would form the coalition government. Inside, it emphasises free-market solutions and smaller government and many of its solutions can be found in part or in whole in many of the policies of the coalition. Even before the orange book was written, Davey consistently voted against measures that would perpetuate a ‘nanny state’ (his favourite phrase, alongside ‘Decarbonise capitalism’) or subsidise certain sectors too much, even for industries in which it would seem he would have a vested interest in helping. This was seen in 2014 when as Secretary of State for Energy and Climate Change he attempted to cut subsidies for green energy, wanting to rely on free-market solutions instead. It is therefore hard to see Davey as a great opponent of Conservative policy and a legitimate critic when he was complicit in the making of much of the modern Conservative policy, regardless of whether he did so as part of the realpolitik nature of government or as a genuine supporter. It feels as if Davey is merely a male version of Jo Swinson, prone to the same issues that made her look hypocritical. His current leadership of the party as acting leader also shows an alarming trend, with the party having slipped from 11.6% of the vote to an estimated 6% in July 2020. Davey is an experienced candidate and certainly an asset to the party for policy formation, but not necessarily someone who has the untarnished record and charisma capable of dragging the Liberal Democrats up from the current lull.
As Davey’s opponent, Layla Moran has positioned herself as a partial opposite with a modern agenda free from the constraints of the coalition and a background not mired in the mud from years of cosying up to the political establishment. Moran is a political newcomer, having been an MP for Oxford West and Abingdon for three years and before that being involved in academia, teaching Maths and Physics. Like Davey, she was privately educated, although this was mainly due to her father’s work making her travel across several countries during her childhood, whereas Davey’s education was at the elite Nottingham high school. She has also had her fair share of personal turmoil, talking openly about her sexuality and body image issues, including her decision to come out as Parliament’s first Pansexual MP and her prior experience of stomach staple surgery to help with her obesity. Her political experience is comparatively minor, only being the party’s current spokesperson for education, science and young people; however, she has also sat in Parliament as a member of the Public Accounts Committee. As a self-proclaimed radical liberal, her leadership bid has focused on being able to ‘Move Forwards Together’, a nudge against Davey and the criticism that his leadership would bring many of the same issues that Swinson brought in relation to the coalition. Moran explained in a New European interview that ‘there’s a feeling in the electorate… that the Lib Dems, first of all, at various points have said that they were going to do something and then did something else. And that confuses people; it makes people feel like they cannot trust us’. She certainly makes a valid point, considering the hammering Swinson took from the left and Labour activists on her coalition record. Moran also has somewhat of a better public persona than Davey, with Davey’s personality running closer to the standard, run-of-the-mill politician, while Moran has opened herself to the public through shows such as ‘Have I got news for you’. She has also worked with organisations not traditionally suited to the Lib dem thinking, such as working with the Daily Mail. However, Moran’s critics are right to point out that although she is open to cooperation and wants the Lib Dems to have a modern, socially liberal image, some of her campaigns have come with backlash and risk the party looking like they are pandering to relatively small and niche groups, such as their focus on transgender rights. Although the rights of transgender people in the UK are important and their right to protection from discrimination is as valid as anyone else’s, the topic is still relatively new and therefore can be seen by some older voters, especially potential conservative ones, as irrelevant to the everyday workings of tens of millions of people. Moran focused on this issue herself, explaining that she did not want to concede the ground and progress made by the party, however ‘there has been a perception that that is all the party talks about… I think we should be leading with things that are a bit more bread-and-butter’. Moran, although progressive and positive on the surface, does have the hints of the traditional ‘say one thing, do another’ politician. This is seen in her stance on the EU, where she has campaigned during the contest that we should ‘move on’ for the moment from re-joining and attempting to revoke A50. However, Moran supported the motion in the September conference that made revoking A50 in the event of a majority Lib em government a party policy. Such a quick U-turn, which was being seen even before the election as the Lib Dems lost polling momentum, is indicative of the same usual tricks we are used to in Westminster and not great looking for a candidate who says herself the Lib Dems are known for changing course on policies. Moran certainly has the hallmarks of a great MP and one who could go on to lead a great career in politics, considering her likeable persona and honesty regarding the public’s perception of the party. However, it is difficult to say whether someone just three years into her Westminster career can lead a party through what will be an undoubtedly a tumultuous time in politics and one where a strong leader is crucial for the Lib Dems to fully expose the Conservative government for their flaws while working with Labour to ensure strategic gains can be made.
Well then, the candidates have been explained and picked apart (to the best of my ability and attention span) so who do we choose? Old or New? Centre-left or centre-right? It is really difficult as, to be quite honest, neither do the job properly. Davey is experienced by tainted but the coalition and still thinks it was a good government; he confirmed this view in 2017. He could help us inside of Westminster, but during a time where Labour will be looking to regain former heartlands and the Tories will be looking to hold their majority, I doubt neither will want to team up with a party who they will see as taking potential voters from them. Davey’s views also clash with the growing view of the party, which has been changed by the influx of new members since the Brexit referendum. Moran is a newcomer and therefore not tainted with the same brush as Davey; she has a better charisma and is better on camera, which is critical nowadays in an increasingly presidential-style race between leaders instead of parties. However, as a newcomer some the usual crowd will accuse her of naivety and inexperience. At the same time, many of the ‘anti-PC’ brigade only will latch onto and delegitimatise her opinions through her identity, an unfortunate yet inevitable consequence of modern online culture. Both will be mocked in general for being unknowns, for being weak and for leading an ‘irrelevant’ party and neither have the same strength as former leaders like Ashdown or Kennedy to gain the public’s attention. However, in what seems to be an impossible job where once again the Lib Dems will tread water until a true identity or leader can be found for the party, it seems as if Layla Moran is the best bet. A fresh start will at least detach the Lib Dems from the stigma of the coalition government that so many Labour supporters hound the party for and Moran’s charisma will likely fare her better in interviews than Davey and Swinson did. It is not an ideal scenario (when are the Lib Dems ever in that position anyway?), but it is our best shot at redemption.
By B Palmer