Ed Davey's first job is to heal divisions in Lib Dem membership

Party’s under-30s are impatient for change and feel haunted by the coalition years

Ed Davey now faces his first political battle – healing a divided Liberal Democrat membership. For a leadership contest described politely by activists as “mellow”, internal party divisions crystalised this summer and activists grew more and more fractious.

The party hasn’t had much luck picking its leaders of late – this is election number four in five years and follows another period of turmoil after Jo Swinson’s 2019 election wipeout. They are on 11 MPs. Polling is at 6% nationally, yet the membership is a healthy 120,000.

The demands on the new leader are vast and neither candidate quite represented the full package members seemed to want. Just some of the faultlines on the horizon are familiar territory: does tacking to the left equal electoral success, is it wise to sever all links with the coalition years, what do they do about Brexit and how do they respect party structures and the old-timers who felt sidelined under Swinson?

However, a row igniting Lib Dem activists in the final days of the campaign was who has the best appeal for the youth vote. And with this comes the split between those wanting safety and stability after Swinson’s shoot-for-the-moon vision of becoming prime minister, and those pushing for bolder policies and a fresh face.

The party’s under-30s are deeply impatient for change, frequently referencing the Thornhill review into the election disaster that said the base had not been listened to enough. Davey “represents the past, the link to coalition”, some have said, and in his time as acting leader he has not cut through in the media. One member cruelly dubbed him “Sir Six Percent” – a nod to that dire polling.

This explains why Moran, 37, was a big draw for some. The half-Palestinian, pansexual, ex-teacher ticked a lot of boxes for members who even in their early 20s describe themselves unflatteringly as pale, male and stale. One member joked that under Moran they may even have the chance to be a little bit “cool”.

Daniel Newton, 22, from Hartford, who campaigned for her, said: “She’s done so much work with the climate strikes and with schools.

“It’s now about having a distinct vision and [to] hone in on education, the economy and environment.”

With Moran, who only came into parliament in 2017, they felt they could get a political clean bill of health free from the millstone of tuition fees and Cameron-era policy.

Jack Haines, a 22-year-old councillor in Hull, said being a young Lib Dem is like being constantly haunted by the past.

“I’m still hit with ‘you voted for the bedroom tax’ in the council chamber now. I just say: ‘I was in year seven at the time’. I want the party to move past that type of thing.”

The challenge now is “exciting policies” he said. “If we don’t, it’s a bleak future.”

Callum Clafferty, 18, who lives in County Durham and who backed Moran in part for her appeal to younger voters, said: “People still don’t think the Lib Dems care about young people … the tuition fees, the cuts to the carer’s allowance … it really is so frustrating. Success is winning back seats but what would be more successful to me is gaining back the trust of voters.”

Both men are loyalists though and would have happily worked with anyone. However, one young member said a Davey victory would be thoroughly deflating and rumbling in the background are members who may genuinely want to quit the party.

An older activist with more than 25 years’ experience said he was aware that Davey potentially had zero youth appeal but backed him because he thought he would always be the best option at an election.

On the immediate risk of members quitting, he said: “I could see some people going under Ed. For some members of the party it’s more of the same and not different enough. Of course the idea of a radical left party is naturally appealing to some but is it shoring up the soft Tory vote? We need to remember most of our target seats are those areas. Your Guildfords and Eastbournes, middle England.

“To the public this has probably been a boring election but for the party it’s probably been one of the more fractious internally.”

Davey, a former energy secretary and MP with more than 20 years experience in Westminster, served as acting leader from December 2019. He was beaten by Swinson in a landslide election last summer.

Overall, he shares similar policy ground with Moran and it hasn’t always been easy in this summer’s digital hustings to pull them apart. They both talk compellingly about the environment and support the climate strikes. They both want to promote other issues, not just discuss Brexit.

Sophie Thornton, 24, from Sheffield, who works for a learning disability charity, backed Davey but said any leader now has to think hard about the Conservative-facing seats. She said it would be wrong to assume that future success for the party could be built on only appealing to the left, which is what some say Moran bases her appeal on and won’t work when Labour’s leader is Keir Starmer.

The Twitter narrative had told her Davey was older, dull and boring but she said: “It’s just unfair. He has a very relevant personal story having been a carer himself but what really made me choose him was his environmental record – quadrupling renewable energy in this country.”

Guy Benson, from Fareham, who joined the party in 2017, said: “Last year if you’d said Lib Dem to someone, they’d have said we wanted to stop Brexit. We lost the argument on that.

“Education, the environment and economy should be our focus but I’d also add one more area – social issues and racial equality, the Black Lives Matter movement, these are progressive areas that we can stake out.

“And to the wider public – having a charismatic leader isn’t the be all and end all. Just look at Keir Starmer.”


Kate Proctor Political correspondent

The GuardianTramp

Related Content

Article image
Ed Davey's entirely inconsequential speech: the quintessential Lib Dem event | John Crace
New Lib Dem leader offers no great vision, no plans for alliances ... nothing much at all

John Crace

27, Aug, 2020 @2:41 PM

Article image
'Wake up and smell the coffee': Ed Davey elected Lib Dem leader
Former coalition minister says his party must start listening, after his win over Layla Moran

Heather Stewart Political editor

27, Aug, 2020 @6:04 PM

Article image
'We're the Lib Dems. Rebuilding after disaster is what we do'
After the postmortem, huge challenges loom as the party begins choosing a new leader

Peter Walker Political correspondent

19, Dec, 2019 @6:00 AM

Article image
My tactics 'saved the Lib Dems', Farron tells party conference
Former leader will say growth in membership and local election vote share shows success, as Vince Cable repeats prediction it is possible he could be PM

Jessica Elgot

17, Sep, 2017 @9:00 PM

Article image
Jo Swinson elected new Lib Dem leader
Swinson takes over from Vince Cable with party newly resurgent in the polls

Peter Walker Political correspondent

22, Jul, 2019 @5:02 PM

Article image
Liberal Democrats leadership race: the early runners and riders
The party has 12 MPs, but who has the best credentials to lead the party? We assess the main contenders

Jessica Elgot

14, Jun, 2017 @6:43 PM

Article image
'We have to stop no-deal': Ed Davey kicks off Lib Dem leadership bid
Exclusive: Former minister Ed Davey aims to broaden party’s appeal with climate focus

Jessica Elgot Chief political correspondent

30, May, 2019 @5:00 AM

Article image
Today at the Liberal Democrat conference
A controversial Brexit motion passed in Bournemouth, and Jo Swinson shared her thoughts on David Cameron

Peter Walker

15, Sep, 2019 @3:29 PM

Article image
Lib Dems must 'own failures' of coalition, says Jo Swinson
Deputy leader tells party it should have done more to stop policies such as bedroom tax

Jessica Elgot

16, Sep, 2018 @1:56 PM

Article image
Jo Swinson tipped as frontrunner for Lib Dem leadership
Deputy leader one of three expected to put name forward to replace Vince Cable

Jessica Elgot Chief political correspondent

15, Mar, 2019 @3:44 PM