Thursday 30 July 2020 5:58 pm

Liberal Democrats leadership race: The long road to relevance

For the second consecutive summer, Liberal Democrat members will be dragged to the polls to vote in a leadership election.

While last year’s contest had a palpable feeling of optimism and excitement for many members, this year’s affair will likely represent the most abject contrast.

Read more: Lib Dem candidate Siobhan Benita quits race to become London mayor

The Liberal Democrats had surged to an unlikely lead in Westminster YouGov polling when the party held its London leadership hustings last year and had picked up the second largest UK vote in EU elections just weeks earlier.

This year’s vote – which begins today – comes after a catastrophic December election plunged the party back into obscurity and returned just 11 Lib Dem MPs to parliament, with leader Jo Swinson booted out by her East Dunbartonshire constituency.

Acting leader Ed Davey returns to have another pop at the crown after his unsuccessful campaign last year and will face-off against Oxford West and Abingdon MP Layla Moran.

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Davey is the slight favourite among bookmakers and has the endorsements of the majority of Lib Dem MPs, along with a long list of party grandees.

His campaign is pitched around his government experience, policy expertise and an apparent ability to win in traditionally Tory seats.

His policy offering comes as a three-pronged attack, which the campaign says will create a “fairer, greener and kinder” Britain.

The catchcry is not only painfully Lib Dem, but is also a near carbon copy of Siobhan Benita’s slogan for her failed London mayoral campaign, which was “safer, greener and kinder”.

Davey’s pitch comes in the form of free childcare, a £150bn proposal for a green economic recovery and increased pay and conditions for social carers.

A source close to Davey’s campaign said the party needed a leader that could rebuild its image and provide a coherent policy offering.

“There are really no quick fixes – if the party wants to rebuild to pre-coalition level of seats it’s a big job, and the party has to elect someone with a future vision and someone who has experience in winning and being in government,” they said.

The corollary of this statement of course is that Davey’s team thinks Moran does not have experience in government (unarguable), cannot win and has no future vision.

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Moran’s campaign had a distinctly inauspicious start, after an article splashed across social media with the headline that she wanted to make the Lib Dems “more radical than Labour”.

The comments sparked comment pieces from former party leaders Tim Farron and Vince Cable on how it would be a catastrophic mistake to do so, and have both pledged their support for Davey.

The source close to Davey’s campaign said “a lot of people were alarmed by the comment” and that Moran had recognised it was “a strategic error and has backed away a bit from it”.

Moran has indeed had to distance herself from the comments and reassure the historically cautious Lib Dem selectorate that she does not want to turn the party into a Bolshevist workers’ sect.

However, her campaign believes this incident is now behind her and that they are running with all the momentum in the 26-day race.

A source close to Moran said that while Davey may have the establishment party vote, they believe grassroots members will flock to the former educator.

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“Ed’s pitch is around the endorsement of party figures and the establishment, while Layla’s support is not just the elite blob – it’s much more around members and campaigners,” they said.

Moran’s main attack on Davey will be that his cabinet experience in the Tory-Lib Dem coalition government will hold the party back and that it needs a fresh break from the past association.

Her campaign will also likely focus on the fact that the Liberal Democrats are polling a paltry six per cent with Davey as acting leader.

“Looking back at Jo Swinson, whenever she did interviews it didn’t matter what she said – it always came back to her voting record when she was in the coalition,” the source close to Moran said.

“People are worried it will be the same with Ed, but Layla just doesn’t have that baggage.”

Her policy push will revolve around a call for a universal basic income, for the UK to become carbon negative and education reform.

One challenge for whoever becomes the next Lib Dem leader is that they will no longer be able to frame themselves as a moderate force on the left compared to an increasingly socialist and toxic Labour party.

They will also have to find an identity now the Brexit boat has sailed.

Sir Keir Starmer has already made huge strides in turning Labour around after a disastrous four years under Jeremy Corbyn, and will doubtlessly pitch the party further to the centre at the next General Election.

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Moran will likely try to paint Davey as someone who will not be able to attract centre-left voters, and that she would provide a larger point of difference with a radical agenda.

However, after the party chose Swinson last time as an ostensible moderniser, they may elect Davey as a safe pair of hands at a time when the party is dangerously close to complete electoral collapse.