With the election of Ed Davey as party leader for the Liberal Democrats, the floundering party is taking a gamble by playing it rather safe.
Last year’s general election was catastrophic for the LibDems, an election which saw not only single-digit percentiles of votes, but their own party leader being unseated. All of which was especially embarrassing considering the claims of anti-Semitism made against Corbyn and Labour’s shaky stance on Brexit, both of which would have seemingly made for a strong LibDem turnout. Instead they lost by incredible margins and have since been looking for a remedy. While he certainly has some merits, I have my doubts that Ed Davey will be that remedy.
Ed Davey is a longtime Liberal Democrat MP, known mostly for his role as Secretary of State for Energy and Climate Change during the Clegg-Cameron coalition government of the first half of the decade. He represents the classic ideologies of the party, subscribing to the belief of aiming for a centre ground between Labour and the Conservatives by advocating for broader social freedoms and green technology, without intruding too greatly on the interests of the wealthy and upholding a capitalist system with limited socialist policies.
One of Davey’s biggest strengths as a leader is likely his endorsement of a universal basic income, aka UBI, (albeit his suggestion of £40-£60 per week is significantly lower than opponent Layla Moran’s proposal of £80). Promoting UBI seems to be a smart way to win over voters outside of the typical LibDem base, considering it is a largely popular policy approved by a large portion of the populous and economists alike. It is imperfect, containing many flaws that ignore the larger roots of where income inequality stems from, as it still allows neoliberal policies to go largely unchecked, but is certainly a step in the right direction. However, this is more of a testament to the party platform than Davey himself, given Moran’s larger belief in it.
What Davey himself brings to the table over Moran is 20 years more experience as an MP and having served a far larger role in parliament as Secretary of State for Energy and Climate Change. Davey’s policies during that time are somewhat murky, having supported fracking, curbing certain EU regulations, and some at the time accusing him of promoting a nuclear agenda for financial reasons rather than practical ones. Davey has apologised for some of his record during the time and nevertheless has committed to pushing the LibDems towards a green agenda that promotes increasing renewable energy sources and the green jobs that come with them. However, as a leader who has promised to put the economy front and centre in his platform, it seems doubtful that green issues with less economic incentive, like banning the aforementioned fracking, would be pushed as priority in Davey’s LibDems.
It seems that the election of Davey represents the LibDems trying to push a federal leader for the moderates of Britain, rather than one who represents their more typical stance of devolution. While the Liberal Democrats may not guide the UK towards particularly exciting or progressive UK leadership, pushing a longstanding MP with ambitions to make more of a national splash may actually have some success considering the last decade of extreme polarisation. An older, more distinguished member like Davey, as opposed to the young Swinson or Moran, could show a proven leader more people can trust to lead their government. Political turmoil will likely eventually leave people weary and while it may not be quite yet, there is certainly a chance that Britain could gravitate back towards centre rather than polarising on the left and right as it is now. This is especially possible as Labour seems to be losing more and more of its identity as it too eases towards the centre following its own great disappointment in the last election.
While I am of the opinion that Liberal Democrat policies are not the solution towards building a better world, the liberal ideas that the party embraces, such as transnationalism and an emphasis on liberty, can be successful on a national level. They are much harder to campaign on locally, yet this is where the LibDems have concentrated their efforts over the past decade. Ed Davey seems to agree, while not saying whether he would aim to form a coalition of common identity with Starmer’s Labour or leaning in on his economic policies and coalescing with the Conservatives, he at least opened his acceptance speech noting that it was time for the LibDems to accept that their efforts over the last decade have failed and they need to start listening to people at a national level. With their low support and current image as a centre party with little identity, it may be too little too late.
However, if they play their cards right looking to Scotland might provide some much-needed support.
If they are to be adjusting to the times and are aiming to win over conservative areas of Scotland, they certainly need to change their tune approach to Scotland and specifically Scottish independence. The LibDems have held a notable presence in Scotland over the past few decades, but their presence in the country recently has catapulted them into obscurity. Nevertheless in a time when every party seems to be making poor judgement calls in Scotland, if the LibDems play their cards right all hope is not lost. Especially in conservative areas of the nation, the LibDems could certainly win seats if they showed were committed to fighting for Scotland’s voice in parliament and embraced stronger stances, whilst still pushing their principles of incremental change.
And of course, if the party was truly committed to listening to the Scottish people, they could always reevaluate their hardline “no” stance on a second independence referendum. The fact that some LibDems are still pushing for a second Brexit referendum, while almost none have supported IndyRef2 shows how out of touch the party largely is. In a piece for LibDemVoice this past June, Will McLean makes a strong case that if the party is to win over Scotland they should at least listen to them and support having a vote, even if they don’t support the outcome of that vote being independence. This raises the question that if the LibDems are the party of liberty and true democracy, how can they be opposed to holding votes on matters such as independence?
Should the LibDems follow through on their promise to listen they might find that the answers people are looking for aren’t ones that lie particularly close to their party platform. Holding IndyRef2, however, is not far from the party’s principles, for as much as it values a united Great Britain, they should value a democratic process above all else. And while the LibDems While it’s doubtful Davey will embrace this, it would certainly continue to distinguish the LibDems from the Conservatives and Labour and show Davey as a leader willing to embrace new ideas. Should he not and simply talk of federal change while refusing to stand for anything bold in parliament, they’ll swiftly become a relic of the past, existing solely for readers of The Economist to condescendingly bemoan their fellow countrymen over for not being wise enough to see their merit.
Cover image: via WikiCommons