Mon, 20 May 2024

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By Lord Watson of Wyre Forest
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'We need people to know what the Liberal Democrats stand for' — inside the battle to lead the Lib Dems as Ed Davey and Layla Moran square off

Voting has begun to select the next Lib Dem leader

9 min read

Languishing in the polls after their third disastrous general election defeat in a row, the Liberal Democrats are once again looking for a new leader. John Johnston speaks to hopefuls Sir Ed Davey and Layla Moran, plus a host of party insiders, about plans to revive Lib Dem fortunes.

When ballots drop this week, the Liberal Democrats' 120,000-strong membership will be asked to elect their fifth leader in as many years, a turnover eclipsed only by Ukip.

It is a stark illustration of where the party has landed after five turbulent years, with their failure-to-launch general election campaign wiping out hopes of a Lib Dem revival borne from their triumphant EU election result just seven months earlier.

Stagnating at 6% in the opinion polls, losing the battle over Brexit and attempting to overhaul a wounded party in the age of social distancing and Zoom hustings, it is hard to imagine a tougher starting point for a new leader.

It is that grim reality which has prompted an exercise in soul searching among the two rivals, with visions for how to deliver a revival of liberalism in the UK given the same attention as the bread-and-butter leadership issues of how to improve the economy and fund the NHS.

For relative newcomer Layla Moran that means attempting to carve out what she describes as a "distinct space" for her party outside of the traditional left-right political spectrum.

She tells The House Live: “One of the things that I found most interesting in this election is people trying to place everybody on the left/right axis; asking are you more left or are you more right? But actually what I'm proposing is that we are liberal.

“I’ve noticed that even in parts of our membership, particularly our new membership, we haven't had that conversation for a very long time. You know, what does British liberalism in its proper sense look like?  

“And that's what I'm trying to do.  To carve a distinct brand from Boris Johnson and Keir Starmer we're going to have to do two things. 

“One is to get people to notice us again, and second, we need to be very clear with ourselves about who we are and what we want to achieve for Britain.”

'Coalition baggage'

A former teacher, Moran has only been an MP since 2017 when she won her marginal Oxford West and Abingdon seat from the Conservatives.

In the few short years since she entered the Commons, she has developed an impressive media profile, something she is keen to point out to members who dread the dismal slog through non-election years where the party faces an uphill battle to secure column inches.

“You cannot rewrite the past and I wouldn't want to" - Layla Moran

But that relative inexperience as an MP also gives her a potential advantage over her opponent, chiefly that she comes without the baggage of having served hard time during the coalition era.

While she is quick to drum out the usual checklist of achievements secured by the Lib Dems during their time acting as a counterweight to Tories, she is clear that rival Ed Davey's ministerial CV is going to leave the party open to the same attacks faced by their predecessors.

“You cannot rewrite the past and I wouldn't want to," Moran says.

"In fact, to learn from those mistakes you have to examine them. There were some good things that we did [in the coalition].

"But the problem we have, and it is not really very fair to be perfectly honest, but if you've got someone standing up and saying we will not go back to austerity, we aren't going to balance the books off the backs of the poor and making the case for a more equal, fairer, greener Britain, then it's just too easy for an interviewer or Question Time audience member to point at them and go: ‘Well, why did you vote for something different a few years ago’, and that just ends up going into a black hole of explaining.”

Despite unveiling some fleshed-out policy plans, chiefly around overhauling education, the overriding message of Moran's campaign is her belief she can “unshackle” the party from its legacy over the past decade.

'I fought the Tories and I won'

For Sir Ed - a 20-year Commons veteran and former energy minister - the perceived stigma of the coalition is overblown.

As proof, he points to the local and European election successes achieved by Vince Cable, one of the most high-profile coalition figures, and contrasts it with the disappointing 2017 general election result delivered by coalition outsider Tim Farron.

“I understand if you want to win something how you go about winning it, and the party needs to show it has got credibility and it can win" - Ed Davey

“The facts are that the coalition hasn’t been the millstone that people like to make out,” he says.

“Moreover, whoever wins this, any interviewer...could say: ‘What do you think of the Liberal Democrats' record in coalition?’ 

“Now Layla might say that she would have voted against this or that, but as the leader of the Liberal Democrats she’d still have to answer the question about what she’d think about it.

“When I’m asked that question, I have an answer. And that is that I fought the Tories and I won.”

But when it comes to the prospect of future coalitions, there is clear consensus between the pair. 

Neither could countenance tying up with the Tories, who Sir Ed describes as having gone “very far” to the right under Boris Johnson. 

And while both admit they could be open to developing closer links with Keir Starmer’s Labour, they acknowledge they need first to rebuild their own party’s strength.

To do that, Sir Ed argues the party has to elect someone who has already experienced the ebb and flow of support for liberalism that he has witnessed during his decades of membership.

“My experience is significantly larger,” he says. “I've been a member of the party for 30 years, I’ve been a member of Parliament for 20 years, I was in the Government for five. 

“I’ve negotiated in the Cabinet, I’ve negotiated in Whitehall, I’ve negotiated with the EU, I’ve negotiated in the UN and I’ve negotiated in business.

“I understand if you want to win something how you go about winning it, and the party needs to show it has got credibility and it can win.”

Unlike during his previous unsuccessful run against Jo Swinson just over a year ago, the 54-year-old MP has also chosen to open up more about his personal life during this campaign. 

Setting out his experience of caring for his mother who died when he was a teenager and his on-going caring responsibilities for his son, who is disabled, Sir Ed has repeatedly stated his hopes to deliver a new deal for carers if elected leader.

But despite some minor divergence over their priorities, there is significant crossover when it comes to their policy plans.

“We have to do better than 6% in the polls" - Layla Moran

Both are in favour of introducing some form of universal basic income, while popular party policies on electoral reform and the green economy make an appearance among their pledges.

And when asked about their ambitions for the party's future, both give answers about educating voters on what their party stands for rather than having achieved some legislative change.

It's a clear sign of the existential struggle the party is facing to reinvent itself having spent two years focussed almost soley on Brexit.

"If you in ten years' time knock on a door and ask people the question about we stand for, and they can say back that we stand for freedom and really understand what that means, then that would be absolutely brilliant," Moran says. "We have to define who we are."

'Long-term paralysis'

But to achieve that, the next leader will have to move quickly to overhaul a party machine, which according to a recent internal post-mortem, was responsible for a "high-speed car crash" performance at the last election.

For Sir Ed, who co-commissioned the review, it means scaling back on some of the infamous Liberal Democrat bureaucracy and sub-committees which help draw up the party’s policy agenda but have faced criticism for hamstringing the leader’s ability to chart their own course.

“One of the things the report brings out is this bureaucracy point, and the size of the Federal Board in particular,” he said. 

“I think we can get that sorted. In an internal Liberal Democrat way, what is quite exciting is the review is a mandate for reform. It has been widely accepted.

“That will give whoever is elected the chance to do what we want to do, but at pace.

“I am quite optimistic we can turn this around, because there are a number of different things...which we can sort out in the background. 

“They are things people never really see but actually they are quite important for getting the machine right.”

It is a vision partially shared by newly-elected party president Mark Pack, an author and prolific blogger on election strategy, who beat out Scottish MP Christine Jardine earlier this year to take over the senior party role.

“In the Lib Dems we very much value our internal democracy, and I think there is a really key role for the party leader in many aspects of what we do,” he tells The House Live.

“But one of the things we need to get right to be more successful in the future is having that balance between what is the leader’s responsibility and what is the responsibility of other people in the party.

“It has to be much better that it has been in recent times.”

One of those key roles for the next leader, Dr Pack says, is to rebuild the campaigning machine at the grassroots level. 

“We’ve very much lost that edge in two respects,” he added.

“One, with the huge damage done to the party’s grassroots during the coalition years, and the other is the extent to which if you do something really well then the other parties copy you, so you need to keep innovating and we haven’t done enough of that.”

That view is backed up by new analysis from think-tank the UK in a Changing Europe, which has found the party is within touching distance of around 50 Westminster seats but could be left facing “long-term paralysis” without a radical shake-up of its messaging.

It is a warning which has been received loud and clear by both candidates. 

“We have to show we are now a party that's really serious about redefining and reviving liberalism, at a time when it's coming under enormous threat from nationalism and authoritarianism both home and abroad,” Moran says.

“We have to do better than 6% in the polls. And if we aren't going to change now and if we aren't going to seize the moment to change then when are we going to do it?”

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