New Leader: New Challenges

James Gurling

With the election of a new Liberal Democrat leader, MHP’s Joint Head of Public Affairs James Gurling explores what is next for the party

Pledging himself to a National Listening Program, by a substantial margin of 63.5% to 36.5% Sir Edward Davey now formally becomes the fourth permanent Liberal Democrat Leader in just over three years. In so doing he has already served longer as acting Leader than his predecessor did as actual Leader.

He takes over a Party that has suffered three desultory election results within five years. But those five years have also seen the Party experience its best ever set of local and European election results (2019) and an almost tripling of its membership base, from around 40,000 in 2015 to over 100,000 now.

The top line 2019 result also masks some encouraging results which Ed Davey can take heart in. Notably the Party’s renewal as the main opposition to the Conservatives across much of Southern and South West England, where some Tory majorities were decimated (Guildford, Esher & Walton, Wimbledon and Winchester, to name but a few). The Party has also been demonstrating a strong recovery in local elections – historically the bedrock of the Party’s ability to campaign locally in target seats – and their success in other areas, such as St Albans or North East Fife, demonstrates the Party is still a force to be reckoned with. It’s worth noting that North East Fife is the only loss which the SNP suffered, despite major gains across the rest of Scotland, last December. The Party’s ability to buck the trend should not be underestimated.

Nonetheless, it’s clear the Lib Dems have failed to recover properly from their time in coalition. Many Liberal Democrat supporters and members have been particularly slow to forgive the Party for its time in coalition with the Conservatives – a factor not lost on Moran’s campaign. The size of Davey’s majority therefore perhaps indicates that the process of ‘forgiveness’ is more established than the 2019 result might have indicated, and offers Davey the prospect of finally being able to move the Party on from its hard-won position as the party of Remain.

In his admirably brief acceptance speech Davey recognised that far too many voters don’t share the Party’s values or think that the Lib Dems are on their side. Taking the best of two of the Party’s most popular leaders, Davey pledged to engage in a National Listening Program – in much the same way as Paddy Ashdown did before him, and to reconnect with the voters – as Charles Kennedy had prioritised. In so doing he expects to be able to help the Party move forward from its current position without risky excursions into edgy (but seemingly popular) policies that prompted the appearance of the much maligned Revoke position prior to 2019. Notwithstanding the outcome of the Listening Program, we should expect Ed to champion two causes closest to his heart: tackling the climate emergency and campaigning for greater support for carers.

With a huge round of elections next year, Davey’s task is not an easy one, and he will be judged quickly. But not as quickly, he will hope, as his predecessor.

James Gurling is Joint Head of MHP’s Public Affairs team. He was Chair of the Liberal Democrats’ general election campaigns in 2017 and 2019.