27 August 2020

Whoever wins, the new Lib Dem leader faces the same fundamental problem

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Somewhat unbelievably, after eight long months, today we will finally discover the identity of the next leader of the Liberal Democrats. Hold the front page.

Barely a year and a half go the party were riding high off the back of their incredible success in the European Parliament elections, sweeping the board in London and sending 16 MEPs back to Brussels. Flash forward to December 2019 and they were suffering a crushing defeat.

They went into the 2019 election with very high hopes indeed – remember Chuka Umunna saying they could win up to 200 seats? In the end, neither Umunna nor any of the other former Conservative or Labour MPs who defected were returned as Liberal Democrats, leader Jo Swinson lost her seat to the SNP and the party finished on not 200 MPs, but 11 – one down from its 2017 total.

Cue what certainly feels like the longest leadership campaign in history. Triggered in January, with nominations opening an inexplicable five months later but eventually, inevitably, the finish line approaches. Two weary contestants – Sir Ed Davey and Layla Moran – look up optimistically, only to realise this is base camp. The mountain still lies ahead.

Davey is comfortably the more experienced candidate. His spell in Parliament began in 1997 and he served as Energy Secretary for three years of the Coalition. Like many colleagues, he lost his seat in 2015 but bounced back in 2017. A safe pair of hands, some might argue – or is he the old guard that the party need to move away from?

That’s certainly what supporters of Layla Moran think. Elected in 2017 for Oxford West and Abingdon, Moran is a former teacher, 15 years younger than her opponent. Unlike Davey, she is untainted by the Coalition years and leans heavily on her status as a newbie, in touch with those outside the Westminster bubble.

Moran is seen as being on the left of the party and Davey on the right, but ultimately it matters very little which route members opt for – both candidates will face the same fundamental problems: the party has no media cut-through, the country isn’t with them on Brexit and , crucially, they seem to have very little to offer other than opposing Brexit.

I’m not going to lecture the Liberal Democrats on how to get media coverage, they can work that out on their own, but the lack of seemingly any policy platform is a concern as a liberal, a free marketeer, and someone who is politically homeless.

For free marketeers and liberals, the party should be a natural home. Perhaps not always a comfortable one, given the party’s complex history and failure – even 30 years on – to fully integrate the Social Democrats and the Liberals, but a home none the less. Someone with a commitment to personal and economic freedom should find fellow believers in such a place.

Unfortunately, the majority of the voting membership were never there and the so-called Orange Book liberals are very much in the minority. Leading voices within the party – David Laws, Jeremy Browne, Nick Clegg – have drifted away into the private sector, and who can blame them? Outsiders often find it difficult to comprehend how much of the party’s internal machine is dominated by those of a social democrat background and in recent years the party’s conference – which proposes, debates, amends, and votes on the party’s platform – has passed a raft of nanny state interventions and Labour-lite policies, none of which the country at large even hears about because of one issue: Brexit.

Even at the last physical autumn conference back in 2019, when the party should have turned its attention to creating a vibrant, attractive, and unique policy platform for an upcoming election the conference hall was dotted with EU berets and “Bollocks to Brexit” t-shirts – both on sale at the party shop.

Whether you backed Leave or Remain, few could argue that the Lib Dem’s ‘revoke’ policy captured the imagination of the voting public – one look at December’s results attests to that. Even within the party, many expressed dismay at the policy, not because it didn’t have majority support in the country at large – God knows Liberal Democrats are used to that – but because it flew in the face of basic reality.

On the biggest domestic issues of the day, Lib Dem policy is increasingly erratic – and neither liberal nor democratic. Take the housing crisis. Far from offering radical solutions, Moran actively opposes the building of new homes in her own constituency – rather than more housing in Oxford, she thinks the answer is to “put the jobs in places that can take the housing”, such as nearby Bicester.

Party policy is for mandatory licencing of landlords and government-backed tenancy deposit loans for all first-time renters under 30, more taxpayer subsidies and red tape to put a sticking plastic over the gaping cracks in the market instead of aiming for radical reform of the planning system.

Ahead of the last leadership contest, Andy Briggs wrote for CapX that “A new leader should be good news for pro-market Lib Dems”, if nothing else because the two preceding leaders – Tim Farron and Vince Cable – were not exactly red-blooded liberals. But we all know how the Swinson era turned out. And the sad fact for those pro-market Lib Dems is that, as long as the membership remains cut from a decidedly left-of-centre cloth, the party will not be much of a home for old-fashioned liberals.

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Emma Revell is a political commentator.

Columns are the author's own opinion and do not necessarily reflect the views of CapX.