The Labour party’s humiliating defeat in the 2019 general election has been well documented. The party experienced its worst election result since 1935, lost strongholds across England and Wales and resulted in Jeremy Corbyn reluctantly stepping down as party leader. It’s early days but Keir Starmer’s appointment as party leader, and his success thus far, seems to prove that even during turbulent times such as these, political parties can rebrand themselves. But will the same be said for the Liberal Democrats?
Many people may not be aware that the Lib Dems are currently in the process of choosing their next leader, and many others might not care. This is because the Lib Dems have in recent years been side-lined as the irrelevant third party in a two-party system.
The party experienced a similarly humiliating defeat to Labour during the 2019 general election. Despite increasing their vote share, party leader Jo Swinson lost her seat to the SNP, and high-profile ex-Labour, pro-remain MPs such as Chuka Umunna and Luciana Berger failed to secure their constituencies. Just as the Lib Dems thought they had found their calling as the “unapologetic voice of Remain”, the election results brought the party’s dreams of Number 10 crashing down. With Starmer’s Labour polling strongly and Brexit no longer the hot topic it once was, keeping the Lib Dems relevant will be a considerable challenge for the next leader.
Two candidates will feature on ballot papers dispatched today with each disagreeing on how the party should move forward and navigate this very different political landscape. Current acting co-leader, Ed Davey, has said that shifting to the left of Labour will not help the party win back seats. On the other hand, his competitor Layla Moran has suggested the Lib Dems should be “more radical than Labour”.
Although cautious that the Lib Dems tread carefully around the newly revamped centre-Left Labour party, Davey, an ex-coalition Cabinet Minister, has made it very clear that he would never work with Boris Johnson’s Government, labelling them “far too right-wing.” Davey has also maintained that the Lib Dems should refrain from once again becoming a single-issue party (as was the case with their last campaign), arguing that people must understand who the party is all year round, rather than simply during an election. The Kingston and Surbiton MP has the support of former leaders Tim Farron and Vince Cable who echo his suggestion that that the Lib Dems should not lean too far to the left. And while Davey’s supporters admit that Moran has a “cooler” image and may succeed in having a closer relationship with Labour, they argue that her leadership would fail to attract moderate Conservative voters who are integral to the Lib Dems winning marginal seats.
Moran is keen to lead what she has called a “comeback”, claiming her victory would prove the Lib Dems have learned from their mistakes and are ready to move forward. She is also eager for the Lib Dems to confront what she sees as the crucial errors of their past, chiefly that coalition Government. Moving forward, Moran aims to make the party relevant through a focus on ‘bread and butter issues’ namely education, the environment and the economy. And though her opponents argue she may alienate particular demographics, many of the Oxford West and Abingdon MP’s supporters believe her fresh perspective will resonate with younger people (particularly disillusioned Corbynistas). Moran clearly agrees, suggesting the Lib Dems should focus on the voters that Labour is currently “taking for granted”, that is young people and anyone on the quest for substantial social change.
Yet although Davey and Moran are seeking to appeal to very different demographics, when it comes to their views on the Conservative party, both find common ground. This is largely because the Lib Dems remain rooted in the need to constantly reassure supporters, prospective voters and political rivals that, unlike their leader ten years ago, they will never again do business with the Conservatives. Davey and Moran have said that taking down the Conservatives is the party’s greatest priority with each agreeing that if elected, they would work with Labour to chip away at the Conservative majority.
The Lib Dems remain haunted by their role in the 2010 coalition Government and knocked by their optimistic expectations for last year’s election. Yet although Moran or Davey will have the difficult task of rebranding the party and harnessing their relevance in a new political landscape, it would be wrong to underestimate the Lib Dems.
Opponents eager to dismiss the party are quick to point out their recent poor general election results yet fail to recognise that with 80 seats in England, the Lib Dems came second to the Conservatives. It should also be noted that the Lib Dems were the biggest winners during the 2019 local elections, gaining some 704 seats. The Government’s questionable handling of Covid-19 teamed with a strong Lib Dem leader committed to working with Labour to erode Conservative power could potentially pose a real threat to the Conservatives holding onto many of those seats.
But Starmer should also not get too complacent. After all, Labour have the difficult task of regaining the 60 seats lost in 2019 and if Moran is appointed leader and her supporters are right, she may attract young voters away from Labour. And, although it is at times hard to remember life before Covid-19, once Brexit (and its aftermath) settle back in at the top of the political and media agenda, a strong Lib Dem leader could entice Remain-voting Tories away from the party, especially if the prospect of leaving the EU without a trade deal becomes a reality in December.
The Lib Dems are no strangers to reinventing themselves (albeit not always successfully) and the leadership election is a pitstop before the long road ahead. Yet choosing which way to turn will ultimately seal the fate of a party which is desperate to win back trust and close the chapter on what, since 2015, has been a bumpy ride.