Ed Davey became leader of the Liberal Democrats almost five months ago. Since then, his party has achieved nothing. The Lib Dems currently poll at around five per cent, meaning that a party that only six years ago was in government now enjoys less support than the Greens. If this is embarrassing, it isn’t surprising: the Lib Dems have had little to say for a very long time and certainly not since Davey took the reins.
Davey fought hard to become Lib Dem leader. But it seems that his ambition stopped there. So why did he ever want to become leader in the first place?
Don’t get me wrong: I have something of a fondness for a party I was a member of for ten years. Yet even someone like me who follows politics closely and has a soft spot for the Lib Dems couldn’t tell you what on earth Davey stands for or what his party is currently trying to achieve in any real sense.
Davey asked Lib Dems in his leadership acceptance speech to ‘wake up and smell the coffee’. But it seems that Davey himself forgot to wake up. If Davey’s leadership rival, Layla Moran, had won the contest, would things have been better? Probably not. But at least she would have been louder and able to generate some media coverage for the lack of ideas, policy or strategy that is the current Liberal Democrats.
It’s not like there hasn’t been a space for a liberal party in British politics over the last half a year either. One area the Lib Dems could have made some ground on was lockdowns and the curbing of personal freedoms that have taken place. I don’t mean that Davey should have been in Trafalgar Square with a bullhorn, but he could have done a lot better than simply echoing everything Keir Starmer had to say on the matter. At the very least, Davey should have made a point that Covid measures represented the biggest curb on personal freedom in recent British history. He could and should have asked the government to validate the decisions that were made more effectively. That was surely the least we could have asked of Britain’s one supposedly liberal party.
Instead, the Lib Dem strategy seems to have been to fall in behind everything Labour does and basically try and be Labour’s little brother. But this begs the question: if Labour no longer have a leader who seems to be stuck in a Socialist Workers Party meeting from 1982, what reason does anyone who dislikes the Tories have for voting Lib Dem instead of Labour? This is where the myth that the Lib Dems can win in places where Labour cannot enters, one which is false on several levels.
The most obvious is that, on five per cent, the Lib Dems aren’t guaranteed of winning anywhere whatsoever. If Labour stood back and relied on them to gain seats off the Tories, or even hold on to all the seats they have at the moment in order to deny the Conservatives a majority, Starmer’s bunch would be making a big strategic error. Secondly, there aren’t many seats the Lib Dems currently hold in England – I could stop there but I’ll continue – that are totally out of Labour’s reach. In fact, I think Westmorland and Lonsdale is probably the only one. Labour held St Albans for instance, between 1997 and 2005. If Starmer is serious about winning next time round, he needs to target seats like St Albans, not pray the Lib Dems can keep hold of them somehow against the odds.
So what do the Lib Dems stand for? The only thing I can definitively pin to Davey’s party is that they seem to desperately want Labour to replace the Tories as the governing party at all costs. Fine then, they should all just join the Labour party tomorrow. Under the first past the post voting system, this would both maximise the chances of current Lib Dem MPs keeping their seats as well as a Starmer majority. If they don’t want to do that because they have something unique to offer, then they need to decide what that is – and do so quickly.
Ed Davey and his people need to move fast to avoid the Lib Dems slipping out of national consciousness altogether. The next general election is looking more and more like it will be a straight contest between the leaders of the two main parties, at least in England and Wales. If the Lib Dems don’t figure out some way to make themselves relevant soon, they risk a total wipe out at that general election.
The Lib Dems don’t want to be the re-join the EU party. They don’t want to be a centre-right liberal party. In fact, they don’t really want to be any type of liberal party these days. What is it Ed Davey thinks he’s trying to achieve? If anyone can tell me, please, I’d love to know.
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