The forgotten leadership election
While all eyes are on the Conservative leadership race another political contest has gone almost unnoticed. Following Vince Cable’s spring announcement that he will step down as Leader of the Liberal Democrats this summer, Jo Swinson and Ed Davey have campaigned to take the helm.
The Lib Dem poll closes on 22nd July and the new leader will be announced at 4:00 pm. Unlike the Tory contest, the Lib Dem race is not a foregone conclusion. Jo Swinson is the favourite but her opponent has strong support in London and the result is uncertain.
|Jo Swinson has been an MP since she was just 25 years old. No stranger to elections, she first ran as an MP for Kingston upon Hull East at the age of 21. A favourite in the media and tipped by many as the obvious choice for the role, she has stated she would ‘love to be Prime Minister’ and wants to ‘lead a new movement’.|
|Ed Davey has been a staple in the south west London Liberal Democrats since 1997. Known for his work to encourage women to stand for office, he is well liked by local campaigners and councillors alike. Davey’s campaign has been gaining momentum and there have been signs of a shift towards him, particularly after he had a strong showing at the hustings in London. In addition, the Lib Dems first-ranking London MEP candidate Irina Von Wiese has publically endorsed Davey. Davey said he ‘see[s] no reason to change our name, nor form any strategic pacts with other Remain-supporting parties, as we have only got to where we are now by being who we are and true to what we believe in’.|
Regardless of which candidate wins, both will largely maintain the party’s current direction. There are few serious policy differences between them, largely because party policy is decided by members at conference. Both candidates have stated that after Brexit the environment is their top priority. If the Lib Dems hope to win over floating voters who are toying with the idea of voting Green, they will need to persuade them with radical measures to tackle climate change: mitigating the threat from the Greens will be key to the Lib Dems continuing their recovery.
The key distinguishing factor between the two candidates is their differing attitudes towards collaboration with other parties. Swinson has welcomed a ‘new approach’ to politics which emphasises collaboration, and wants to informally work with other parties in Parliament’s ‘remain alliance’. With former Labour leadership contender and Change UK Spokesperson Chuka Umunna joining the party, and Sarah Wollaston and Heidi Allen reportedly considering the option, perhaps the biggest challenge for the new leader will be to harness this as an opportunity. If managed correctly, an inclusive strategy of welcoming new MPs could help the party to grow its presence in new areas. Swinson was also careful to specify that under her leadership, the party would not prop up a ‘Corbyn-led’ Government. However, she did not say the party would refuse to prop up a Labour Government under a different leader, also noting: “I have not said never in any future scenario, where things are different.” Davey’s position is the same in principle, in that he has also ruled out working with Corbyn, stating ‘I don’t trust him on Brexit, his own party don’t, and I don’t trust him on the economy either. We’re not going into coalition with these people’.
The electoral landscape
The Lib Dems have the potential to take Conservative and Labour seats. The Conservatives only have a majority of 45 in Richmond Park, and St Albans and Winchester are also in reach. Sheffield Hallam, Leeds North West and Bermondsey and Old Southwark are also targets. At the 2010 general election the party had 57 seats, and 23% of the vote, and it wants to reach this point again. They are making progress towards this goal, but there is still work to be done. An average of figures from four polling companies, YouGov, ComRes, Opinium and Ipsos MORI, showed an average voting intention of 18.25% for the Liberal Democrats. To reach upwards of 50 seats, the party will have to focus not just on target seats, but more broadly on taking back its traditional south-west heartlands like Devon North and Somerton and Frome. In the long term, the Lib Dems will also have to work to chip away at the Conservative majority in cities like Winchester and Guildford.
Post-general election and beyond
If the Lib Dems can significantly increase their number of seats, they are likely to once again hold a powerful position in the parliamentary arena, as neither of the two main parties currently looks likely to gain a majority. Given that the party was wiped out in the 2015 general election, it is extremely unlikely that the Liberal Democrats would join a Coalition Government again, nor could it support a hard Brexit Conservative Government. However, there is a possibility the party would prop up a Labour Government in a confidence-and-supply arrangement but for a price: the promise of a second referendum and possibly that Jeremy Corbyn be removed as leader. Both demands would split Labour opinion and possibly result in a further election if no other solution is possible. But this may be a situation that the Lib Dems would favour.