Who will lead the fight to save the Lib Dems from electoral oblivion?

It is fair to say that the Liberal Democrats' leadership elections have not caught the public's imagination. In truth, it left little mark on Westminster. The two candidates, Sir Ed Davey and Layla Moran, are fighting to lead a party on their knees that now has eleven MPs, down from 57 when it entered government ten years ago. The result is to be announced on August 27; The victor will have the unenviable task of preventing his party from becoming extinct in the next election.

For some Liberal Democrats, however, this leadership choice is a pivotal moment, an opportunity to finally disassociate the party's brand from the coalition years. These progressive activists and MPs tie most of the party's problems in recent years to Nick Clegg's decision to partner with David Cameron.

"We have run many big local governments across the country," said Wera Hobhouse, an early leadership candidate who stepped out to support Layla Moran. "All of this was sacrificed on the altar of the national government."

She added: “After the coalition, we have struggled to move forward. Aside from the Brexit bubble, we haven't really moved on. Jo (Swinson) could not stray from the legacy of the coalition. The fact is that she was a minister in the coalition government and part of the coalition. "

The race front runner, Ed Davey, is a continuation of that legacy as he served as Secretary of State for Energy and Climate Change in the coalition government for three years. Although Davey has distanced himself from the coalition's more conservative policies, he remains profoundly compromised in the eyes of the party's more progressive wing, including some of his fellow parliamentarians.

"I wonder if he's been leaning to the center right because he's been working with the Tories for five years. I don't want to question that, but in the public eye, the association with the Tories will always keep him centered land on the right, ”said Hobhouse.

Leena Sarah Farhat, a Lib Dem candidate for the Welsh Parliament, added: “There have been some good things that have come out of the coalition, but there have also been very bad things. That'll be in Ed's voting record. It won't be with Layla. "

Davey's front-runner status confirms the fact that there is a sizeable party contingent that broadly supports, albeit quietly, the party's role in the Cameron government

"He owns the coalition pretty well," said Christopher Oram, a writer and Lib Dem activist. “If you look at the 80 seats that make the Lib Dems second in the country, they're second in most Tory seats. Ed would be well placed to win those soft Tories back. "

A Liberal Democrat Headquarters official echoed this sentiment, adding, “Some of our members hate to hear it, but we have traditionally relied on both Conservative and Labor voters. If you completely reject conservatism as a legitimate and sometimes well-placed ideology, you will lose every seat but two or three. "

Layla Moran, the second candidate, is perhaps the least suitable Liberal Democrat MP to target these conservative voters. She has presented herself as an unorthodox, quirky progressive politician. However, at times this has resulted in a media narrative that it's just a little weird. At the 2013 Lib Dem party conference, Moran and her then partner Richard Davis were arrested by Police Scotland after they beat him.

"I was initially charged under the zero-tolerance policy, but then the charges were dropped and there was no case to respond," she said last year. Moran has since gone pansexual after recently building a relationship with a former party friend.

The contrast with Davey goes much further than personality. Moran would be the first Liberal Democratic leader since the coalition who was not a MP when the party entered government. She emphasized this fact in interviews and said to Matt Forde: “At university I chose Lib Dem because it was the cool thing. That's just not the case anymore … let's draw a line below that. Show that we learned the lessons. Talk about the future, then campaign about how we are going to change the country. "

Moran's parliamentary supporters were also interested in deliberately defining her as a candidate for change. "Last year's competition wasn't so much of a choice. This year there's a clear choice between continuation and debate," said Hobhouse.

The second point of contention in the race is what Moran generally viewed as a gaffe. He said that the Liberal Democrats must be “even more radical than Labor”. The implication was that the party should be more visible on the left – a stark contrast to Davey's centrism.

This sparked quite an avalanche of encoded criticism from high-ranking Lib Dems, which resulted in Moran quickly falling back on her comments. Former leaders Tim Farron and Vince Cable were openly contemptuous of the idea, in earlier scripture, that "a struggle to be" leftist than you "is a complacent road to being forgotten".

Most of the party activists who spoke to Reaction agreed with their former leaders. "I don't like the word radical. It's not a word people across the country are comfortable with. If you want to appeal to soft Tory voters, this is not the way to go," Oram said.

One senior party official was less diplomatic: “That was a big boo-boo. It was so idiotic and it proved everyone's worst fears for her. Layla doesn't understand how politics work. For them, it's almost like it's still about getting new social media followers and being friends with journalists. It's about being a popular school girl in Westminster. "

The aim was to emphasize the fact that she was a candidate for change, but Moran clearly misjudged her party's sentiment on this case. Sources close to Davey have stated that challenging the Labor Party from the left would reduce the likelihood of an informal pact in the next election. “Even a small increase in labor activism in the eight constituencies we left could result in complete wiping out. The end of the party, ”said a former Davey aide.

Despite their marked differences in character, the two candidates were in lock step with arguably the most important decision the party has made since leaving government in 2015: the promise to repeal Article 50 in the last parliamentary elections. The Lib Dem 2019 Election Review said this was a moment when the party "seemed to contradict what many knew was a core liberal democratic principle of fairness".

Davey was partially responsible for the decision, as party vice chairman at the time and a major proponent of a hardcore remain position. Moran, on the other hand, was only a spokeswoman, but her enthusiastic support for the move included her in the decision.

"You see, there is no room to attack Davey," said an advisor to Moran's campaign, "because Layla was all over TV supporting this." That hampered the campaign a little and certainly disarmed us with a very impressive weapon. "

Due to the uncompromising result of the election review, both candidates agree that the cancellation policy was a mistake. "When we introduced the withdrawal, I defended it because it is logically pure … but it made people feel anti-democratic," Moran told Iain Dale last week.

Indeed, there is great agreement among the candidates on the party's broad approach. There has long been debate among Liberal Democrats as to whether or not to adopt a "core vote" strategy that requires building a strong tribal base of support long enjoyed by both Labor and Conservatives A bottom-up approach where individual MPs prove their worth to constituents by working hard on local issues.

Both Moran and Davey agree that the latter of these two terms, a more traditionalist liberal-democratic approach to political organization based on community organization and constituency politics, should be adopted. Again, lessons seem to have been drawn from the election review, which concluded that Jo Swinson's efforts to build a core vote in 2019 resulted in "our broad range of social and economic values ​​being at one point or another just a" lingering ". ”

This strategic consensus has led some activists to hope for a return to a pre-Clegg party. the good old days. "You will see a return to traditional liberal values, a type of party that looks back on Charles Kennedy and Paddy," said Leena Sara Farhat, a Lib Dem candidate for the Welsh Parliament. "We haven't had that since the coalition and we haven't seen it with Jo because she was so focused on one topic."

There is also a large consensus on political priorities. Both candidates have called for radical environmental policies; both have proposed a universal basic income, although there are differences in the way they choose to pay it; both want to focus on improving the caregiver benefit system.

The reality behind this political consensus is that Liberal Democratic leaders do not have the power over politics that we traditionally expect from a party leader. Rather, the party members decide on the political platform at the conference.

“In any case, we have eight MPs. Nobody will care about our guidelines. It will be the big image, ”said a party helper. “Who is this person? Do they look reasonable?” Our relevance has always been linked to the leader's ability to reach the national agenda. "

Indeed, Charles Kennedy's popularity rose in 2003 when he was the only one of the top three party leaders to oppose the Iraq war. Paddy Ashdown gave brilliant interviews and had an extraordinary personal story to tell, and so he received disproportionate attention from journalists who frankly enjoyed his company. Nick Clegg was young and lively and excelled in the 2010 election debates.

If either of the current two candidates is to change the fate of the party, they must first learn to refine the news agenda – something that both have struggled with so far.

"None of them are good with the media," said an advisor to Moran's campaign. “Ed has been deputy director for months. I can't remember the last interview he gave. He does a lot, but they are inconspicuous. He comes on the screen and people turn off completely. Layla also had a difficult time. The pansexual problem dating a former employee and the domestic abuse allegations have led many journalists to mistake her for a pie. She is treated like a person whom she should only report about sarcastically. "

As the leader of a downsized party with only eleven MPs, it is difficult to see how the winner of this competition can change the party's current trajectory. Sources from both camps agreed in their pessimism about the long-term prospects for their party.

"Sometimes we underestimate how bad it has become," said a party assistant. “We have eleven MPs. We might not have one by 2024. So what? "


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