By Oliver Toms
The election of Sir Ed Davey as leader of the Liberal Democrats by the largest margin since Paddy Ashdown in 1988 shows that the membership has rejected Layla Moran’s progressive movement in favour of the safety of continuity.
After two months of campaigning, acting leader Ed Davey comfortably defeated Layla Moran by 42,756 votes to 24,564 in the fourth Lib Dem leadership election in 5 years.
Sir Ed had been acting leader of the party since the resignation of Jo Swinson following a disappointing performance in the 2019 general election. He had previously run against Swinson in the 2019 leadership election but lost by just under 20,000 votes.
Originally due to commence in 2021, the leadership election for Swinson’s replacement was brought forward after discontent from party members. The election became surprisingly dividing after Layla Moran, who has been a Lib Dem MP since 2017, campaigned on removing the party from the pains of the 2010 coalition and moving towards a more progressive direction.
Moran’s “radical” party
Moran enjoyed support from the younger membership of the party and those keen to rebrand the party after a series of controversial decisions, including abandoning the tuition fee promise and, most recently, advocating to repeal Article 50 without a vote.
Sir Ed led a clear campaign that placed the party on the centre left of the UK’s political spectrum, with leading policies of a Universal Basic Income and greater investment into green energy. Many viewed him as the continuity candidate, albeit one for a party of only 11 MPs.
Layla Moran argued that her impressive record in Oxford, where her campaign led to a 14.8 point swing and gain from the Conservatives in 2017, and increasing her majority by 9.5% in 2019, demonstrated that she had the skills and experience to lead the party.
However, Moran’s notion of the Lib Dems becoming a “radical” party, too fluid to be placed on either left or right of Labour, may have scared those voters who are nervous of such change, following the failure in voting to revoke Article 50.
The safety of Sir Ed
While Sir Ed Davey can boast a comfortable victory margin in the leadership, his campaign was not without criticism. The new Lib Dem leader has supported fellow MP Tim Farron, who accepted a donation of £75,000 from an evangelical group who’s leader supports gay conversion therapy.
Furthermore, Sir Ed was an active member of the 2010 coalition, and voted for several policies for which the Lib Dems remain unpopular over, including the broken promise over tuition fees. Davey will have to learn to effectively navigate interviews that will inevitably bring up his voting record.
Ed Davey’s appointment as leader shows that the party membership has rejected becoming the “progressive” party that Moran argued for during her campaign, instead embracing the traditional safe image that the Lib Dems uphold.
During his acceptance speech, he stated that the party need to “wake up and smell the coffee” and that under his leadership the party will “start listening now”.
Can Davey win Lib Dem an election?
Recognising that the party has been polling poorly even after the election at around 5-10%, Davey admitted that “voters don’t believe we share their values. And voters don’t believe we are on the side of people like them.”
Within the party, some recognise that there isn’t going to be an election winning policy, and that the Lib Dems must admit that they have lost significant influence, support and most crucially trust of the electorate since their heyday in the 90s and 00s.
With a general election incredibly unlikely to happen before 2024 there is plenty of time for the Lib Dems to build on their stronger support in local elections. With the election of Sir Ed, Conservative swing seats will become key battlegrounds for a Lib Dem comeback.
Lib Dem and Labour, a new-found alliance?
Kier Starmer’s own recent election as new Labour leader will also work to the Lib Dem’s favour, as Sir Ed himself noted that there is greater chance of cooperation between them and a party led by Starmer.
Lib Dem—Labour relations reached an all-time low under former Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn, who outright rejected any form of cooperation during the 2019 general election.
The first task that awaits Sir Ed is to heal divisions within the party, as the leadership election proved to be the most hard fought in recent years with many younger members opting to support Moran. The Lib Dems must be internally united if they have any chance of regaining their former electoral support. He must also aim to heal the divisions caused by the leadership election, most notably regaining the support of younger members who feel disappointed by an ultimately very Lib Dem choice to opt for the safer candidate.