Ed Davey may want Lib Dems to "Wake up and smell the coffee" but he's tainted goods on infertile ground.
The Liberal Democrats have elected the more moderate of the two candidates for leader. As Jennie Rigg said this morning, there was a choice between radical liberalism and pragmatic centralism. By a margin of nearly two to one, they opted for the latter.
Since taking part in the coalition government, the Lib Dems have struggled to be seen as a radical party. There has always been a tension within the party between their radical and more ‘small c’ conservative wings. This is usually resolved by their hyper-localism, which has long allowed them to be the party of both Moran and Davey.
So while Moran had an appeal to the party’s more radical side, the vast majority of Party members feel closer to the centre-ground of British politics.
Davey has said the party needs to “Wake up and smell the coffee” after only polling 12% at the last election. But what does that mean in practice?
The Lib Dems have been harshly punished for the sins of the coalition government. The Tories – their partners in that government – less so. If what you want is Tory policies you vote for Tories. If you don’t want them, you probably don’t vote for a party you fear will enable them anyway.
Now they have elected someone who served in that coalition. A very visible reminder of what happened the last time they got near power and adopted a centrist position.
With this move towards centrism on their part, it opens up a space among progressives that Keir Starmer is well placed to take advantage of. While he served in the Corbyn Shadow Cabinet he does not seem to be tainted with much of its baggage. His personal ratings are higher than Boris Johnson’s and the government’s popularity has taken a number of hits this year on everything from Cummingsgate to the Exam fiasco.
Starmer’s pitch is to offer managerial competence with left wing values. This is largely a response to his predecessor. Ed Davey will also be looking to promote himself as competent and experienced. But if the Labour leader can continue to own that territory, I’m not sure who Davey is pitching to.
Labour shouldn’t spend too much time on kicking the Lib Dems. There are very few seats where the two parties threaten each other electorally. While Labour activists might enjoy the sport of annoying Lib Dem members and activist, their focus should instead be on the Tories.
Ed Davey is clearly more representative of the membership of the Lib Dems than is Moran. But whether that will be enough for them to attract the kind of soft right and centrist voters that can’t bear Johnson remains to be seen. But with a government hell-bent on Brexit and failing at everything else, that’s a possibility.
But I remain unconvinced that the Lib Dems have changed anything like enough to be lent the votes of progressives. Until they are able to show that, their pitch seems a little shallow. We’re just nicer Tories is a difficult sell and I don’t know who it is pitched at.
Until the Lib Dems know who they’re for, they will continue to struggle. After this decision, they have parked themselves clearly on the soft right. Are there enough votes for them there to change their fortunes? It seems unlikely.
Emma Burnell is a freelance journalist and consultant.
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