What’s next for the Liberal Democrats? It’s a matter that isn’t on too many people’s minds whilst coronavirus continues to dominate the agenda. But one day soon some sort of political equilibrium will settle. The Lib Dems will have to determine in the next few months how to find their place in it, as the decision has been taken by the Federal Board, the Lib Dems’ chief executive authority, to advance the search for a new leader to this summer. In a digital election not too dissimilar to the closing weeks of Labour’s election, a new leader will be in place in August.
Whoever the new leader might be, they will already have a compelling mandate to make serious changes to the structures and direction of the Lib Dems as a result of the General Election review published in May. The situation for the party is serious. The review exposed how an opaque decision making process, overreliance on quantitative polling data over qualitative research to dictate strategy, and an overreach of limited campaigning resources and manpower, amongst other factors, brought about a “high speed car crash” last December.
There is another problem to consider. Keir Starmer, an increasingly popular figure of the centre-left, is now in charge of Labour, and the Lib Dems cannot afford to remain in introspection whilst the main opposition formulates a new platform. Starmer has already put a green industrial revolution, progressive taxation and increased public service investment at his platform’s core. It is notable how many of these policies will appeal the remaining Lib Dem voters, and those whom the party needs to win over, and a discussion on universal basic income wouldn’t harm Labour’s chances with this part of the electorate either.
Whilst not the most charismatic of leaders, Starmer has been able to demonstrate a stately and professional approach, which serves him well in during a national crisis contrasting strongly with Boris Johnson’s finely honed improvisational style. The polling gap is shrinking, in part due to Lib Dem voters taking a shine to Starmer, and it remains to be seen how a much smaller centre-left party can compete with someone it doesn’t even significantly disagree with. That unenviable task is down to one of three possible contenders.
Currently acting Lib Dem Leader and one of the party’s most centrist MPs, Davey hasn’t yet officially entered the race, but he is expected to make his leadership bid official soon. He is the only contender with ministerial experience, and as Energy Secretary in the Coalition Government he set the roadmap for the decarbonisation and diversification of energy sources.
However, he will likely face the same problems as former leader Jo Swinson, who in virtually every appearance during the election was forced to defend her record during the much maligned Coalition and associations with the fracking and tuition fees controversies. In a post-coronavirus world however, it does beg the question how heavily this would feature in discourse.
Having formally launched her bid to run in March, Layla Moran is the current frontrunner. The party’s current Education Spokesperson has made significant headway building her profile since her election in 2017 calling for the Government to make national health – especially mental health – a priority for economic recovery, as well as backing universal basic income, overhauling fire and safety regulations and pursuing negative carbon emissions.
Also formally in the race, Hobhouse, the final contender and the party’s Environment Spokesperson, has pledged to “abandon equidistance” between the Conservatives and Labour and position the Lib Dems more firmly to liberal left. In an attempt to finally cast off the baggage of the Coalition Government, this would further put the Party on strong anti-Conservative footing, and her German origins fit soundly with the Party’s innate Europeanism.
Whoever is elected leader, the party will have a mountain to climb to break back into the political and public discourse. With Brexit now a reality, we should expect to see a significant recalibration of the party’s platform more strongly to the left of the political spectrum.