What is the point of the Lib Dems?

18 September 2020

In part three of our series on how the parties are set as Parliament returns, DRD analyst Ross Ewing takes a look at Sir Ed Davey’s first few weeks as leader of the Liberal Democrats and considers how he will place the party ahead of the next General Election.

If voters across the country have given any thought to the Liberal Democrats recently, it’s probably only to ponder what exactly is the point of their party. Coincidentally, that is the question Sir Ed Davey, the new leader of the Lib Dems, will be grappling with too. Davey won his party’s nomination comfortably in what was the biggest non-event of a leadership campaign imaginable. Worse still for the embattled Liberals, over 40% of their members did not bother to vote at all.

Following three disastrous General Elections in 2015, 2017 and 2019 and the failure to stop Brexit (as was their sole purpose for the last four years) they have arguably now plunged to UKIP-levels of irrelevance. Comfort can of course be found for the party at local and European elections. But protest votes mid-term will not propel them into the seats needed to become a force in British politics again.

Time in obscurity can be good for parties and politicians alike. It provides the opportunity to take a step back from the spotlight, refocus on what the party stands for, figure out what their core message is and, ultimately, who they are trying to speak to. It does look like that this process has now begun.

The first act of the Davey regime was to embark on a ‘listening tour’ of the country which kicked off in a fish and chip shop in Stockport. Gimmicky, but he rightly acknowledged that the party has been “talking to itself too much” and it shows that the new leadership is trying to broaden support and better understand the reasons why they have been rejected so firmly at the ballot box for the last ten years. One lunchtime stint serving up battered cod up North will not shift the needle much, but it is a start.

Stopping talking to themselves may be easier said than done. Their hefty membership of around 120,000 is still largely split over the new leadership, particularly amongst their ‘woke’ young members, who viewed Layla Moran, the half-Palestinian, female, pansexual with no ties to the Coalition years, as a more appropriate face of the party.

New deputy leader Daisy Cooper is certainly one to watch. She won St Albans from the Conservatives in 2019 and is a fresh face for a party that desperately needs a shakeup. She has spoken on the need for the Lib Dems to appeal to ‘soft Conservatives’ and not just going further to the left in a surely vain attempt to out-Labour the Labour party.

Choosing which direction to go, either to the right or left, will be crucial to future electoral success or failure. By 2024 it is unlikely the electorate will still view Brexit as the most important issue, so framing the party solely as a protest vote against Brexit again will be as successful in 2024 as it was in 2019.

A decision on their direction will also have an impact on campaigning in future too. Agreeing a non-aggression pact with Labour in some seats would make it very difficult to appeal to those ‘soft Conservatives’ that the Lib Dems so clearly need, but moving closer to the Tories will go down like a bucket of sick with their younger membership too.

These decisions will need to be made sooner rather than later. The Lib Dems cannot spend four years berating the Labour party in opposition and then justify a formal agreement between the two parties in an attempt to oust the Conservatives at the next General Election.

It won’t be easy for the Lib Dems, but a period of quiet reflection is needed for the party and will probably be welcomed by the voters.

Photo Credit to: PA