31 May 2019

A new leader should be good news for pro-market Lib Dems

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With the media’s focus fixed firmly on the battle to replace Theresa May at the top of the Conservatives, it would be easy to miss the other leadership election that got underway this week.

Vince Cable’s resignation as leader of the Liberal Democrats has triggered a contest that will last until the end of July, but what, if any, hope is there that this election will lead to the Party embracing the opportunity to fill the genuinely liberal-shaped hole in British politics?

Unlike the aforementioned Conservative contest, the Liberal Democrat leadership election is unlikely to be blessed with many candidates. Many expect it to be a straight shootout between former Energy Secretary Sir Ed Davey (who announced his candidacy on Thursday morning), and the party’s current Deputy Leader, Jo Swinson (who said she was running on Question Time last night).

As Stephen Bush of the New Statesman has explained, at this point in the contest it’s easier to identify what unites the two candidates than what divides them; both were ministers during the Coalition, and, following recent electoral success, both are unlikely to offer anything other than a knuckling down on the Party’s campaign to stop Brexit.

While the refusal to contemplate Brexit compromise will frustrate some (in particular Liberal Democrat supporters of ‘Common Market 2.0’ such as Norman Lamb), the history of Davey and Swinson in government should at least mean that the contest will avoid turning into an argument as to whether the party should seek to exonerate itself for the crime of having to make tough decisions.

As a contributor to the ‘Orange Book’, a 2004 publication still popular with the Party’s right for its defence of free markets and individual liberty, Ed Davey will start off as favourite amongst many of the Party’s more economically liberal members, but in truth there is plenty that both candidates could point to in their pasts as Coalition ministers in order to claim to be the candidate of the ‘Orange Bookers’.

While Davey often made the case for ‘free markets and competition’ as a business minister, and continued to do so as Secretary of State for Energy and Climate Change, in particular by being highly critical of Ed Miliband’s (and latterly Theresa May’s) energy price cap, Jo Swinson could rightly point to her role in seeking to scrap bureaucratic regulations limiting small businesses’ ability to trade, as well as her firm opposition to imposing gender quotas on businesses, and supportt for zero-hours contracts.

The choice for members who advocate liberal economics may well end up being made based on other factors; while Davey is seen by many as the stronger liberal thinker, Swinson is often thought of as the more energetic and dynamic of the two (there is also a keenness across the membership to elect the Party’s first female leader).

In reality, it is unlikely that either candidate will run a fully-fledged ‘Orange Book’ campaign, as the Party’s membership still leans to the left, but market liberals can at least take comfort in the fact that, regardless of who wins, the next leader of the Liberal Democrats is likely to be an improvement on the previous two.

Tim Farron hailed from the Party’s liberal-left, while Vince Cable was a self-described social democrat who often appeared to struggle in making the case for some of the Party’s more liberal policies, such as introducing a legal cannabis market.

It would be unwise to think that a change in leadership is all that is required to see the Liberal Democrats return to being passionate campaigners for full-bodied liberalism (after all, it’s members who make party policy, not leaders), but it will at least give members who support going in that direction some hope of their voices being heard.

And, given today’s YouGov poll that puts the Lib Dems in the lead, that matters for pro-market supporters of other parties as well.

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Andy Briggs is a board member of Liberal Reform, a pressure group within the Liberal Democrats campaigning for social, personal, political and economic liberalism.