The Liberal Democrats leadership race is well and truly underway, and we are down to the last two candidates.
It’s a big fight with the very heart and soul of the party at stake. The members are being asked to choose whether they define themselves largely against the Conservatives or against Keir Starmer’s Labour (editor’s note – it feels a bit like the choice that Charlie Sheen had to make between Sgt Barnes and Sgt Elias in Platoon).
Layla Moran is the more naturally left-leaning of the pair and has set out an agenda which is designed to outflank Labour on the Left, perhaps trying to replicate the success Charles Kennedy had in pursuing this strategy two decades ago. Her natural supporters within the party are the younger more radical members, students, and others with a strong environmental agenda. She also has the support of several high-profile Lib Dem Council leaders, including Emily Smith in Vale of White Horse and Keith House in Eastleigh.
Born in 1982, she is seen as part of the new generation of Lib Dem politicians and a break with the stigma of the leadership over the last two elections – and with the Coalition with the Conservatives. As such, she joined Parliament in 2017 when she defeated Conservative Minister Nicola Blackwood (now Baroness Blackwood) in Oxford West & Abingdon at the second attempt by 816 votes. Since then she has secured the seat with a more comfortable majority.
As a former teacher, education is high on her agenda, as is economic reform. Her big idea (some would say which has been recycled from Labour’s ill-fated 2019 manifesto) is the introduction of a Universal Basic Income, with further investment in public services to attempt to close the growing gap between the rich and the poor also featuring prominently in her policy platform. Her third pillar is on the environment, with a goal of making the UK carbon negative.
In contrast, Ed Davey is the grizzled campaigner, a veteran Parliamentarian who was first elected to represent Kingston & Surbiton in 1997, serving in Westminster ever since apart from a brief interlude between 2015 and 2017. He was also a prominent member of the Coalition Government (rising to become Secretary of State for Energy & Climate Change) with the Conservatives – an alliance which continues to divide the party. He has already suggested that he would be willing to do a deal with Keir Starmer in the future, if the political arithmetic allows, but has ruled out working with the Conservatives and describes himself as anti-Tory.
Davey has positioned himself as a radical centrist with progressive tendencies, alongside a firm belief in the free market. Like Moran he is a strong opponent of Brexit and carries a lot of support, but unlike Moran he gets a lot of support from jaded former Conservatives who believe in Europe.
So what are their policies?
It is safe to say that their policies are not yet well established. Moran has edited the wide-ranging document Building Back Better. The delivery of homes is tackled by Cllr Emily Smith, Leader of Vale of White Horse, who suggests that the way to deliver developments which tackle local needs is to devolve power to local levels allowing them to define, for example, what affordable means in their own areas. She also recognizes the need for communities to see new homes as an opportunity, identifying that concerns about infrastructure are very high on communities agendas and suggesting that while developers are going to remain the key to delivery, there is a role for municipal funding to ease the boom-and-bust cycle.
Davey’s campaign is just getting going and runs to two main campaign themes, Caring Society and the Green Revolution, with just 10 bullets. The Green Revolution includes commitment to Green Energy, home insulation, and air quality improvements.
Does any of it matter?
The national influence of, what has traditionally been, the UK’s third party waxes and wanes and is currently at a low point. But keen-eyed election observers will note that in 2019 the Liberal Democrats quietly took second place in a significant number of constituencies, in the South East in particular, and their vote share increased.
These results followed a really strong local election cycle for the party in May 2019 when they achieved marquee victories in Chelmsford, St Albans, and Vale of White Horse and confirmed their strength in established locations. In many other councils such as Guildford, South Oxfordshire, and Waverley they have taken a prominent role in coalitions with Greens and independent groups.
Ed Davey has already indicated he would go into a coalition with Labour, and Layla Moran has indicated an appetite to harken back to the Ashdown-Blair “project” which was utilised to great effect in the 1997 General Election. And with Labour currently re-establishing themselves and unlikely to take outright victory next time around, there is potentially a more realistic prospect of a Labour + coalition (including the Lib Dems) than a standalone Labour government at the next general election.
For developers, the rise of the Liberal Democrats at a local level has a far more immediate effect and those with really strong environmental credentials will be best placed to take advantage.
Whoever the winner of the leadership contest, their focus on the environment will ensure that they are part of the conversation around sustainability. Sadly though, the timing of the contest means the candidates may not get the platform and scrutiny they, and we, deserve.
Key election dates