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The Lib Dem leadership race on which so much could hang

Layla Moran, MP for Oxford West and Abingdon, hosts the inaugural meeting of an All-Party Parliamentary Group on Coronavirus after being elected chair, in Portcullis House on July 08, 2020 in London, England. Picture: GettyImages - Credit: Getty Images

Far from being a political sideshow, the Lib Dem leadership election could have major implications. Constance Kampfner reports on a strangely muted race.

A closely-fought election that could have momentous consequences is in full swing. But, amid a busy summer of significant events, even many liberally-minded New European readers may feel that it is passing them by. The Liberal Democrats are in the process of selecting a new leader, their fourth permanent head in five years. Surely this one will be the one?

After catastrophic results in the last three general elections, if the party hope to have any impact they’ll have to strip back and start again. Long gone are the days of Paddy Ashdown, Charles Kennedy and Nick Clegg in which the Lib Dems could expect to sweep up anywhere between 40 and 60 seats at a general election.

Since 2015, they have wavered between 8 and 12 MPs as they have slid from the country’s third party into solid fourth place in the House of Commons.

The Lib Dems have managed to extricate themselves from similar positions before. On the plus side, with next to no chance of an election before 2024 and little attention being paid to them in the media, they have plenty of time and space to pick up the pieces and plan a fresh start.

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But they’ve got a long way to go. As a recent report by UK in a Changing Europe put it, while the party ‘may escape extinction, long-term paralysis looks like a distinct possibility’.

This election matters more than it seems to at first glance. Labour voters – whether for Keir Starmer or mourning the departure of Jeremy Corbyn – if pushed, would grudgingly admit this. The reality is that despite copious amounts of bad blood between the two parties in the last few years, the scale of Johnson’s majority means that Starmer will almost certainly need the Liberal Democrats to get Labour into power in 2024.

There are 29 seats which the Liberals could aim to win, and in 23 of these they are the second place challenger to the Tories.

In 11 of these seats, the Labour party averaged around 8% of the vote in 2019. As for the Conservatives, though they scoff at the idea of paying this leadership contest any attention, even triumphalist Johnson and his strategists will be casting an eye on it.

Given the choice between a coalition, be it formal or informal, with the SNP or the Lib Dems, Starmer would certainly favour the latter.

A deal with Sturgeon would most likely mean agreeing to a referendum on Scottish independence. As has already been seen, the Tories won’t hesitate to portray Labour as the party that will destroy the future of the Union.

All this is a long way off though and of course a lot could change between now and then. Coronavirus has humbled even the most confident of forecasters. Right now, the Lib Dems’ priority is to haul themselves back onto the map.

Our first-past-the-post political system means that the smaller a party, the harder it is for it to get noticed. For the Lib Dems this is a perennial problem, not helped by the global pandemic. One senior party official told me that I was first person from the media to get in touch about the leadership contest.

Clegg’s former chief of staff Jonny Oates believes that having placed too many of their chips on Brexit at the last election, what the party needs is ‘a new leader who can establish an identity beyond Brexit, particularly around the new green economy we will have to build’.

The question is: do either of the contenders have what it takes to break through?

In one corner is Sir Ed Davey, someone with huge amounts of experience, and also baggage from the coalition years. Then there’s the opposite.

Layla Moran, MP for Oxford West and Abingdon since only 2017, is the newcomer on the scene and has so far been better at catching the media’s eye. She has been on several front pages and has – like a certain other politician before he became his party’s leader – appeared on Have I Got News For You.

One of the problems for Moran is that her messaging sometimes appears confused. She alienated some party members in June when she declared she would be more radical than Labour. This was interpreted as promising to take the Lib Dems to the left of Labour, something she later denied and sought to clarify in a New European interview.

Her big talking points are a universal basic income, education and the environment. She is seeking to re-cast the Lib Dems firmly back into the place where many of their activists believe the party should belong – the centre-left.

Others see downsides to this tactic. One party official backing her opponent argues that Moran appeals mainly to ‘Labour voters and Twitter, which is of zero use to us if we’re to win seats from the Tories next time’.

Davey, on the other hand, the continuity candidate and former member of the coalition cabinet, is firmly entrenched within the liberal tradition. Alongside figures like David Laws and Clegg, he is known as an ‘orange booker’, espousing economic and personal freedoms.

The current debate on the future of the party reflects the enduring battle for the soul of the Lib Dems. Are they a centre-left party, somewhere between the Greens and Starmer, but with slightly different priorities? Or are they genuinely ambidextrous and unaligned?

For this campaign at least, Davey is making it clear that he too is running on a centre-left ticket. Is this the result of bigger political forces, in which many policies that had previously been seen as the preserve of the left have become mainstream, or is it, as his detractors suggest, a bid to distance himself from the coalition years and increase his electability?

In the eight months since becoming interim leader, following the downfall of Jo Swinson, Davey has outlined a vision for a ‘fairer, greener and more caring country’. This would come also in the form of UBI, investing £150 billion into green jobs and a new deal for carers.

Davey’s messaging may be clearer than Moran’s, but his swing to the left has triggered questions from among his colleagues. As Wera Hobhouse, Lib Dem MP for Bath, who initially put her name down on the leadership ballot said last week, ‘If anyone who served in the coalition government wants to present themselves as centre-left, they have to repudiate their involvement in the coalition with convincing reasons and explain why they have come on a political journey since then’.

Davey’s support for fracking when secretary of state for energy and climate change is something, for example, that may come back to haunt him. Liberals haven’t forgotten their frustration at how often Swinson’s voting record in the coalition government was used as a means of undermining her general election campaign in December 2019.

Ahead of the announcement of the result on August 27, Davey is the bookies’ firm favourite and has the most support from the party establishment. But Moran is doing well among the grassroots membership.

Whoever wins, the new leader will be embarking on a long and arduous road just to get the party noticed again. Alongside that will be some important policy positioning.

First stop: Europe. Starmer, who at one point was shadow Brexit secretary and a big player on the issue, appears to have concluded that there are no longer any votes to be gained in talking much about the issue. Will the Lib Dems follow that route?

Cautioned by the failure of their ‘revoke’ campaign, ‘rejoining’ will likely be off the Lib Dem agenda for 2024. But how far are they willing to go in embracing the cause of getting Britain more aligned to the EU?

And if the party jettisons that cause, what campaigns could they lead that could really get them noticed? This will be one of many difficult questions in the new leader’s in-tray.

One thing seems sure; the party will struggle to recover if it ends up sounding like a pale imitation of others. If the politics of the last five years show anything, it is that distinctiveness wins out.

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