The image of Ed Davey sat alone in the harsh fluorescent lights of a greasy spoon café is probably not the lasting impression the new Liberal Democrat leader was hoping to give after his first party conference in charge. But unfortunately, that may be the lasting impression.
As the fourth leader in five years, Sir Ed has a mountain to climb – the same one that bested his predecessors at base camp. After the heady days of Nick Clegg’s 2010 election campaign it has been steadily downhill for the party.
The Lib Dems have found themselves politically homeless – but that does not translate into being a shelter for the politically homeless voter. The party did not offer a viable alternative in 2019 to the Leave vs Remain fight already being fought.
The battlegrounds have now been drawn: Sir Keir Starmer and Boris Johnson are going to throw their kitchen sinks at the Red Wall seats that were former Labour heartlands won by the Conservatives in December. If 2019 was fought on Brexit, 2024 is going to be fought on what the Conservative Party have delivered for these working-class, former industrial areas, giving Labour the edge when the promised levelling up and investment is not delivered.
This leaves an open goal for Davey across this constituency. He should be looking towards seats like Lewes, Esher and Walton, and Wimbledon – what once was the party’s bread and butter.
Unfortunately, the Lib Dems have lost their raison d’être: to offer an alternative to the Tories or Labour.
Nick Clegg had so much energy behind him in 2010 because he was a shiny new thing, offering what appeared to be a real change to the Eeyore-like Gordon Brown and born-to-rule David Cameron. The party tried again and again to get that spark back after 2015, but to no avail.
Into the limelight steps Ed Davey, a former Coalition Cabinet Secretary with the look of a slightly younger Vince Cable. What is he offering to his beleaguered party? To rebuild as a party of “national relevance”. Not a very ambitious goal for a party that a year ago was describing Jo Swinson as the next Prime Minister.
The problem is a simple one to understand, but a hard one to tackle: people just don’t vote Lib Dem anymore. Looking back at the party, they have been at their best when they’ve been media attention grabbing oddballs, from the late Charles Kennedy holding his own on Have I Got News For You to Nick Clegg’s yet unreleased music video to a Carly Ray-Jepsen song.
So, what can Ed Davey do?
- Stop being a watered-down version of other parties – The Lib Dems need to be a credible alternative. The legacy of the coalition and accepting Tory defectors is going to be hard to shake, but it needs to be done.
- Focus on their core audience – These are Remainers who can’t swallow a so-called populist Boris Johnson; and would rather not have Labour in charge, even if Keir Starmer is quite appealing.
- Find something else to talk about – While a lot of voters were lured in by pro-EU policies of Lib Dems of yore, they’re kind of over it now. What they really want is a plan for holding the Government to account and keeping this country open and progressive. They need a new message.
The Lib Dems have four years to prepare, to be the Yellow Peril that had Tories across the UK shaking in their Hunter wellies. If not, another Lib Dem leader will be waiting in the wings, facing the same problems, but once again solving none of them.