The timing of the Liberal Democrats’ leadership hustings on Friday could not have been better for Jo Swinson and Ed Davey. The two leadership hopefuls took to the lectern on an historic day when YouGov recorded the once floundering party as leading in its latest polling. This, along with the party’s recent success in the EU elections, provided an exciting backdrop for Swinson and Davey to outlay their future vision for the party.
While the party’s current surge is attributable to its strong support for a second Brexit referendum, the party’s next leader must be able to craft a coherent vision and identity beyond this issue. When the dust settles, and people gradually move on from the Brexit question, the Lib Dems must be able to find a way to position itself as a viable alternative to Labour and the Conservatives. After seeing both the party’s candidates debate each other in London, there is a clear distinction between the two contenders. So who is best placed to take the Lib Dems beyond being merely being the 'bollocks to Brexit' party?
Davey, a former minister in the Cameron-Clegg government, made it clear that under his leadership, the Lib Dems would focus on climate change and the environment as its signature issue post-Brexit. With his newly minted catchphrase that the party should strive to “take the carbon out of capitalism” the former economist pointed the finger firmly at the City:
““In the City of London, we fund 15 per cent of fossil fuel investment, so we’re responsible in this capital for a huge amount of the climate crisis. We need to say to our debt markets, pension funds, stock exchanges and banks that you have to take the climate risk seriously. If you do that, we can switch pounds and euros from dirty, polluting, climate destroying fossil fuel investments and switch it to green technology.”
But Davey's Lib Dems wouldn't be just about trying to save the planet: police numbers would rise and so, too, would the availability of social housing. He also waxed lyrical about multinational tax avoidance. Davey's performance at the hustings in London showed he is an impressive candidate but is he really the man that can attract the younger voters and traditional Labour supporters the party badly needs to make itself a viable electoral force? As a 53-year-old political veteran with little mainstream name recognition, he may not be able to excite and engage the wider electorate.
Swinson, the oddsmakers’ clear favourite to be next leader, on the other hand seems to be in the opposite position. The 39-year-old MP for the Scottish seat of East Dunbartonshire is energetic and charismatic. Her appearances last week on Question Time and Newsnight also demonstrate a growing media profile.
But while Swinson demonstrated her marketability at the hustings, she failed to provide much clarity on what she really stood for. Sure, she’s anti-Brexit and has rallied hard for a people’s vote, but beyond that it was difficult to see much else that made her sound like anything but a Labour-lite candidate. She spoke numerous times about how “we need to reshape the economic model” and how “the economy isn’t working for people at the moment”, but what is her solution?
“I want business to be a force for good and I think our relationships with businesses need to change,” she told me after the event. “Like changing the company law so that publicly-listed businesses all have a social purpose. We also need to harness the technological revolution – this gets hardly any oxygen at the moment.”
Lib Dem members face a clear choice for who will lead them and will have to judge which leader will herald in sustained electoral success. However, it may be that the party will be unable to continue its recent surge into the long-term, regardless of who is at the helm.
The party has capitalised on Labour’s inertia and confusion on Brexit and rebranded itself as the party for second referendum supporters. This positioning attracted votes in the EU election from many who would usually choose Labour, however it is difficult to forecast if this would still happen once the issue of Brexit was off the table.
What's more, the party’s stance on Brexit will have likely alienated the 17.4 million people who voted to leave the European Union. This may already cut the party’s number of potential voters in half, making it difficult to attract enough votes to win a material number of seats in Westminster. While the party’s clear and simple messaging on Brexit has worked to its advantage in the short-term, it may well prove to be a long-term problem.