Voting opens this week for Lib Dem members to choose the next leader of their party. One figure has overwhelmingly dominated the race so far, both during public hustings and behind the scenes. Unfortunately, it has not been Ed Davey nor Layla Moran – but Keir Starmer. Both candidates are essentially engaged in a battle to see who would work more effectively with the new Labour leader.
As one Lib Dem donor put it to me: ‘I was worried about Ed but then in speaking to him I could see that he was keen on getting as close as possible to Starmer. That alleviated any fears I had.’ The Lib Dems seem to have decided that their next leader, whoever wins, will openly aim to help make Keir Starmer the next prime minister of Great Britain.
This raises the question: why don’t the Lib Dems just fold into the Labour Party? If you have decided that under any circumstances a Labour prime minister would be preferable to a Tory one, why not just join the red team for real and be done with it? The advantages would be plentiful if your aim is to get Starmer into Number 10, as well as personally helpful to sitting Lib Dem MPs and top 2019 candidates. The Lib Dems could ask for seats on Labour’s NEC and for their candidates to be prioritised in constituencies where they came second in December.
Lib Dems candidates would suddenly have the Labour machine behind them, and would not have to face Labour anywhere. The Liberal Democrats could become something like the Co-operative Party; they would take the Labour whip and their MPs would be available for cabinet positions, but they would retain something of a separate entity. From the inside, the Lib Dems could work to ensure Labour always remained as liberal as possible.
For Starmer, there could be advantages to having the Lib Dems fold into Labour. He would be the man who healed a 120-year rift on the centre-left of British politics, which in and of itself would be impressive. It would give his drive to move Labour back into the centre of British politics extra momentum, and potentially lead to troublemakers on the left stomping out of the party. Labour would become the only reasonable alternative to the Conservatives in a lot of seats that look tricky for Starmer’s party at present because of the Lib Dems’ presence. Lib Dem and Labour activists would work together as opposed to against each other, becoming in turn a much more potent anti-Tory electoral force.
At the moment, the Liberal Democrats are struggling to offer anything as a separate entity that is unique and necessary. I was member of the Lib Dems for a decade, and to this date have never voted for any other party at a general election. Even I cannot tell you what their USP is any longer. Brexit? Starmer is a Remainer and will take the most pro-European approach possible in British politics. A liberal voice? It is not clear what that signifies for the party these days. There is certainly a space for a pro-business, free market party, now that the Tories have become more statist – yet the Lib Dems are explicitly rejecting this path.
Finally, there is the argument that the Lib Dems can win where Labour cannot – but this just doesn’t stack up. Yes, there are places where a centre-right party could beat the Tories and where Labour would struggle, but the Lib Dems are not that party now, and are explicitly rejecting being that party. Once you’ve made it clear to the public that you are only really working towards a Labour-led government, why would any soft Tories vote for you? The ‘Lib Dems can win where Labour can’t’ no longer holds up to scrutiny.
The next leader of the Liberal Democrats will be announced on 26 August. Will one of their first acts be to declare that the party’s MPs will be accepting the Labour whip from here on out? From the looks of the race so far, that would be the wisest thing the new Lib Dem leader could do.