What is the point of the Lib Dems, Mr Davey?
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Party leader Ed Davey talks to MATT WITHERS about this burning issue, why social care is his top priority and the Lib Dems' controversial Brexit policy.
Here’s a pretty non-scientific experiment into the current state of what was until very recently the third force in British politics. Try typing "What is the point of the l…” into Google. The first suggestion which appears is "What is the point of the Lib Dems". (Other Ls the public are curious about the function of are lighthouses, the Lord’s Prayer and, worryingly, the liver).
It’s six years and what feels like several generations since the party was in coalition government. They’re on their fourth leader since Nick Clegg stepped down. They have 11 MPs, Brexit is, at least in the public’s eyes, done, and Labour have moved back from the hard left. So Sir Ed Davey, leader of the Lib Dems for almost six months, what is the point?
“Well, Liberal Democrats have the strongest political philosophy of any party,” he tells me via Zoom from his home in Surbiton, south London.
“Liberalism remains, I think, the zeitgeist philosophy and our values of, you know, community, of individual liberty, of human rights, of internationalism, a big emphasis on the environment and education - I think those values and those priorities remain as strong today as they’ve ever been.
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“I feel very confident about our purpose and position and I know other people want to sort of narrowly define us, but, you know, when I joined the party back in 1989, it was the liberal cause that got my pulse racing, which remains as important as it’s ever done.
“The reality is trying to know where the other parties are. I would question: where’s the Tory Party? It used to be the party of business, it’s now massively undermining the interests of business.
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“So I’m clear on what we stand for. What I think the challenge is, which I’m really up for, is getting it over to British people.”
He is, understandably, frustrated at the difficulty at getting that message across when his party has so few MPs (according to YouGov, only 43% of people know who he is).
“I think every Lib Dem leader in history’s had a bit of frustration at that,” says the 55-year-old.
“You know, having worked with Paddy [Ashdown] when he used to be quite frustrated at the BBC not reporting him… listen, of course it is, and it’s that much more difficult because of Covid. Quite rightly - people don’t want to see their politicians knocking each other out when there’s the biggest health crisis in 100 years, the biggest economic crisis in 300 years.
“People expect us to try to be constructive in that, and I try to be that. Now that may not be great party politics or copy but I’m not going to apologise for putting the national interest first.”
I wonder if a classically liberal party would have been more questioning on some of the aspects of lockdown and the subsequent curbing of personal freedoms, but Davey warns not to confuse liberalism with right-wing libertarianism.
“I think that you’re probably a libertarian if you, in a public health crisis like a pandemic, where tens of thousands of people are dying, that your interpretation of liberty is such that you can do what you like even if it hurts other people,” he says.
“Go and read John Stuart Mill On Liberty. [It] talks very clearly, very eloquently, there’s no doubt about it, you’re free until your freedom restricts someone else and hurts someone else. And you cannot define freedom in a crisis, a health crisis like we’ve got, a global pandemic, you can’t define freedom as the freedom to go spread the virus.”
He points out that the Lib Dems have been critical of some aspects of lockdown policy, such as when restrictions were lifted last year but pubs were forced to close at 10pm, turfing drinkers out on to the streets all at once.
“The liberal says: deal with the pandemic and then you can get back to more freedom. The quickest way to real liberalism, real freedom, real liberty being restored is by dealing with this hostile virus.”
What Davey has been speaking out about a lot is care. Care has defined much of his life: at 12 years old, he and his brother started to care for his mother, Nina, until she died when he was 15. He and his wife Emily’s eldest son John, 13, has an undiagnosed neurological position the symptoms of which are he can’t walk or talk and has learning difficulties, requiring 24-hour care. Care is a passion born of experience so he understandably bristles a little when I suggest all parties come into government promising to fix the system only to kick it into the long grass once the enormity of it hits.
“Can I just challenge that a little bit, Matt?,” he says. “I was sitting around the cabinet table when we came up with a Care Act, when brilliant Liberal Democrat colleagues like Paul Burstow and Norman Lamb worked incredibly hard with Nick Clegg and the rest of us to try to tackle this.
“And not only did we have the Care Act, we had a proposal from the Dilnot Commission to socialise care costs, and if that had been implemented as per the 2015 Act a million people would now be getting care who aren’t. But guess what? The Tories, left to their own devices, didn’t implement something they told parliament they would.” Andrew Dilnot, an economist, had proposed a more generous means-testing threshold, a cap on care costs and a reduction of the postcode lottery for services.
“Listen, I’m clear enough: we need a cross-party solution because the Tories... basically reneged on their promises to sort care - and Boris Johnson and Theresa May, you know, they should be accountable for that. We’re realistic enough to know we’ve got to get Conservatives, Labour and other parties for the right solutions.
“Having been a constituency MP for over 20 years it is absolutely clear to me that if you want to fix the NHS, you’ve got to fix care. And anyone who thinks they have a health policy without a social care policy, without a policy for carers, they haven’t got a health policy.”
Davey realises, he says, how fortunate he personally is.
“I’ve got money in the bank. I’ve got a relatively secure job as a politician, I’ve got a lovely house, I’ve got an amazing wife, I’ve got a supportive family. I think about those people who are caring who don’t have financial support. The act of caring means they are extremely poor, they’ve got no income. This is the reality of millions - millions - of our fellow citizens.
“And the stories are not told. It has to be told. It’s about social justice. It’s about gender equality - because it’s women who do most of the caring, let’s face it. And guess what? Because it’s women, because it’s low-valued, people don’t focus on it. Well, no more. I'm going to champion it, and I think that’s what a liberal does.”
We turn, inevitably, to Europe. Readers of The New European’s letters page will know many people who had either clung or turned to the Lib Dems over Brexit and their firm opposition to it were, shall we say, disappointed, when Davey said the party would not be adopting an immediate policy of rejoining the EU. Why did he do so?
“Well, listen, let me be crystal clear: we are the pro-European party in British politics. We’ll always believe that EU membership is overwhelmingly in the interests of the British people,” he says.
“The judgement you have to make, though, is: what’s the key thing for the country now? And what I’m saying to people, and I think the party’s policy, passed in September, is really clear, the priority is the pandemic. The priority is putting recovery first.
“Johnson’s trade deal… is the worst trade deal in history. It’s the first trade deal to make trade more difficult. We’re seeing the damage it’s doing to people’s jobs, how it’s hitting our economy, the red tape is the biggest increase in red tape in Britain’s history… it’s just shocking, and we’re clear - Britain would be better now if we could get back into the single market and back into the customs union. That’s what should happen now.”
Does that mean backing the UK joining the European Economic Area?
“Well… I’m clear the key thing we need is to be back in the single market, back in the customs union. Because our economy is seriously hit. We’ve got the deepest recession in 300 years and the Conservatives’ solution to this is to introduce the worst trade deal ever.”
He is, he says, “very strongly committed to” to freedom of movement. “These are the sorts of things that would really fire up our economy.”
We talk about what conversations might have to take place to remove the Tories from office although he rejects my suggestion Scotland is now lost to the SNP (“We’re going to fight the nationalists and we’re going to take it to them.")
But it is a fact that, of the 91 seats where the Lib Dems are now in second place, 80 have a Conservative MP. So removing the Conservatives looks like it will require tactical voting in England by Labour and Lib Dem supporters. Have any early conversations, no matter how informal, taken place with Keir Starmer?
“Listen, I want this Conservative government out. I’ve fought the Conservatives all my life and I’m determined to do our very best to replace lots of Conservative MPs with Liberal Democrat MPs,” says Davey.
“So we will be training our guns on the Conservative Party. I just don’t think it’s the right time now to talk about, you know, the relationship with the Labour Party, I just think it’s a psephological fact that almost all our battlegrounds, if not 99% of them, are against the Tories, and people can draw their own conclusions. I think it’s fair to say I have far more in common with Keir Starmer than I did with Jeremy Corbyn.”
In terms of this year’s elections, presuming they go ahead, he seems at first a little downbeat at their “inability to campaign”. (“You’re allowed to deliver pizza leaflets, but you aren’t allowed to deliver political leaflets”, he complains.) He wants, obviously, to gain seats in Holyrood, “hold our own” in the Senedd - where they are at real risk of losing their one remaining seat - and get more assembly seats in London. But he perks up when he talks about local councils.
“We currently have 2,500 councillors, we control 36 councils in charge of £6bn of public money. We are a force. And people forget that - we are a force across our country running really important parts of government. And I want us to build on that. And we will. And one of the key ways back for the party is articulating not just our internationalist vision but our community vision. But, do you know what? I am buzzing with enthusiasm about the future of the party.”
Does he have a point after all?
What do you think? Have your say on this and more by emailing firstname.lastname@example.org
LOWDOWN ON DAVEY
Born on Christmas Day, in Mansfield. His father dies when Davey was four and his mother 11 years later
Graduates from Oxford with a first class degree in Philosophy, Politics and Economics
Becomes an economics researcher for the Lib Dems and is closely involved in developing policies for the 1992 election
Elected to parliament at his first attempt, as MP for Surbiton
Davey is one of eight Lib Dem MPs to oppose the smoking ban, calling it "a bit too nanny state"
He is suspended from parliament for a day after protesting the speaker's decision not to allow a Commons vote on a referendum on EU membership, which the Lib Dems were calling for
Becomes energy and climate change secretary in the coalition government
Loses his seat
Davey is knighted in the New Year Honours
Returns to parliament at the general election and rules himself out of standing as Tim Farron's successor
Loses to Jo Swinson in the contest to succeed Vince Cable as leader; when Swinson steps down after the December election, Davey becomes interim leader, alongside the party president
Defeats Layla Moran in party leadership contest
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