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Sun, 27 September 2020

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Analysis: Ed Davey may have won the Liberal Democrat leadership, but now he faces a battle to save his party from oblivion

Analysis: Ed Davey may have won the Liberal Democrat leadership, but now he faces a battle to save his party from oblivion

Ed Davey

6 min read

With an emaciated Commons presence after three disastrous general election performances, the next Liberal Democrat leader faces an uphill struggle to make the party relevant again. PoliticsHome’s John Johnston speaks to party activists and insiders about the new leader’s unenviable in-tray

After a three month long leadership campaign, the Liberal Democrat's 120,000 strong membership have chosen former coalition cabinet minister Sir Ed Davey to take the reins at a crucial crossroads in the party's history.

His decisive victory followed a campaign in which he pitched his decades of Commons experience against that of relative newcomer Layla Moran, who had instead vowed to push the party into "more radical" territory than Labour.

While their approaches may have differed, both had made it clear during the campaign that bringing the party back from the brink will require an immense undertaking.

The scale of that challenge was exemplified in a poll, conducted last week, which found just 6% of voters viewed the party as "competent and capable" while only 11% said they felt the party share their values.

In his own analysis of the JL Partners study, the party's president, Dr Mark Pack, said the next leader was inheriting a political brand which was "the psephological equivalent of meh".

According to party activists and insiders, grappling with that post-Brexit identity crisis became a prominent feature of the party's election hustings, most of which were held online and out of the usual glare of the media as a result of the pandemic.

"It has been really welcome," one party activist told PoliticsHome. "Of course, there was a lot of discussion about their policy ideas, but they also really engaged on what it means to be a Liberal Democrat in 2020.

"About how we should go forward and deliver that message about our values as a party and about reforming our internal structures to make sure that is heard on the doorstep."

'CAR CRASH'

Delivering that reform, though, will require a major overhaul of the party's inner workings, starting first with the election apparatus, described by a recent internal review as having delivered a "high speed car crash" performance in December.

For Sir Ed, that will mean tearing down the barriers between the local and national campaign efforts, which he himself has admitted will require untangling years of party processes and bureaucracy.

The rift between Lib Dem HQ and their associations on the ground have widened so far, he told activists during the campaign, that fellow Lib Dem MP Alistair Carmichael had been forced in the 2017 election to travel to Orkney post office to intercept the leaflets produced by the central party.

While Sir Ed was less vocal than his opponent on how he would deliver that informal arrangement with Labour, the party are keenly aware their biggest opportunity to return more MPs to the Commons lies in winning over floating voters

According to Sir Ed, the efforts of their professional campaign staff were so poor that Carmichael chose instead to store the leaflets in his garage until the election was over so that they could not be delivered to homes in his constituency and undermine the local message he was trying to get out.

Speaking to PoliticsHome last month, Sir Ed said part of those reforms would include working "at pace" to streamline the workings of the party's ruling Federal Board, following concerns its web of committees and subcommittees limits the ability of the leadership to set their own agenda.

Dr Pack, who was elected as party President in January, knows that trying to reform the "valued internal democracy" of the party is  a potential minefield for any leader, but one that is pivotal to their recovery.

"One of the things that the election review I think very clearly pointed towards is that the way we run the party internally has hindered our ability to do well publicly," he said.

"And so if you look at some of the mistakes that we made in the run up to the 2019 election, and if you look at the underlying causes of them were, there's definitely a degree to which we have to improve how the party operates."

'BACK TO BASICS'

With a bumper crop of local elections set to be held next May, Sir Ed must deliver those reforms quickly or face the unthinkable prospect of presiding over a near-complete electoral collapse.

Chris Maines, the party's former chair in London and an ex-council group leader, said taking that "back to basics" approach will also help shake the party from the "malaise" triggered by a three-year focus on Brexit.

"Back to basics for the Lib Dems is building campaigns locally rather than them being imposed from the top down," he told PoliticsHome. "I sense party activists are already keen to get out there and start rebuilding our electoral base following the last General Election."

"Clearly Jo Swinson was swayed off course by the brilliantly talented defectors into the party in the run up to the 2019 general election" - Lib Dem insider

"The party has lost much of its local government base over the last decade. Next May will be crucial for the new leader to demonstrate to members and the media [that the] Lib Dems can reverse this trend."

Looking beyond the immediate horizon, the party is keen to capitalise on the election of the more moderate Sir Keir Starmer as Labour leader.

As one former party candidate witnessed in December, the polarising choice between Boris Johnson and Jeremy Corbyn demolished support among voters who often chose the Lib Dems as the 'none of the above' option.

"Ed Davey [knows the] problem we faced in those seats we narrowly lost in 2019, where we rely on soft Tories lending us their support, is that those people feared Corbyn as PM more than Brexit," they said.

"People in places like Cheltenham and Winchester won't fear Starmer in the same way, just as Tony Blair wasn't feared in 1997 and the Lib Dems (with an informal arrangement with Labour) then won in massive numbers."

While Sir Ed was less vocal than his opponent during the campaign on how he would deliver that informal arrangement with Labour, the party are keenly aware their biggest opportunity to return more MPs to the Commons lies in winning over floating voters in the dozens of seats where they sit in a close second behind the Conservatives.

And that approach is borne out by recent analysis by think-tank The UK in a Changing Europe which found there are 91 of those seats, up from just 31 in 2017.

But capitalising on those gains will also require a major change in strategy from the disastrous Presidential style adopted by Jo Swinson in December.

"Clearly Jo Swinson was swayed off course by the brilliantly talented defectors into the party in the run up to the 2019 general election," one party activist said.

"But as our wins in St Albans, Richmond Park and North East Fife showed against the results for [Labour and Conservative defectors] Chuka Umunna, Sam Gyimah and Luciana Berger is that we really only win where we have a credible local government base and have worked hard over many years."

And despite what internal changes Sir Ed can achieve, he still faces an unprecedented political reality and a looming recession generated by the coronavirus crisis.

Trying to cut through that with just 11 MPs and scant media interest is an unenviable task, but as Layla Moran concluded earlier this month, it really is "sink or swim time" for the future of the party.

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