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Image: LazyLlamaMedia / Shutterstock

Lib Dems must be more than an anti-Tory force

Alex Davies
October 26, 2023

Like scores of Liberal Democrat members, I spent some of last week getting soaked to the skin in Mid Bedfordshire. 

Assiduous activists delivered thousands of handwritten envelopes, lovingly prepared by hundreds of volunteers. Inside a handwritten note from the party’s excellent candidate urged voters to recognise that only she could beat the Tories.

But it was not to be. Despite an enormous effort, the party came third. Labour decided (correctly, as it turns out) to run a proper ground campaign and prevailed in a seat held by the Conservatives since 1931.

The experience should be a salutary warning. As a three-way fight, Mid Bedfordshire was a microcosm of the national environment in which Liberal Democrats have to make their case at the next general election. 

On the airwaves – where most voters consume election campaigns – there is no ‘two horse race’ with the Conservatives. Rather Ed Davey has to be heard above both Sunak and Starmer.

There are some lessons to learn from the last time Labour was in the ascendant. Standing in front of the slogan “Take courage for the future”, Paddy Ashdown used his 1996 conference address to forecast the timidity of a Blair premiership.

“My fear is this,” he said, “that we shall see an election, and maybe a change of government - but we shall not see a change of direction. We shall still be starved of clear vision, a commitment to change, the courage to face up to what must be done. It is the first crucial role of this Party to see that that does not happen.”

There are several ways for Liberal Democrats to heed Ashdown’s rallying cry today. 

First, polling evidence is clear that there is broad based support – even among Leave voters – for the UK to rejoin the world’s biggest, borderless single market. Happily, doing so is also the biggest intervention any government could make to stimulate economic recovery and revive investment in public services.

On schools, Lib Dems have rightly set out £6bn-£9bn of commitments to give a shot in the arm to children’s life chances. On health, the party intends to offer everyone a right to see their GP within seven days and to introduce free personal care. On housing, building the 150,000 social homes a year promised by the party would require a significant increase in the grant available for their development.

These are all justified, liberal investments in the country’s future but none could be paid for with Labour’s hopeless slogan “Make Brexit Work”. Keir Starmer is not only opposed to single market membership but preposterously claims there is ‘no case’ for it.

The Lib Dems could argue that the British people cannot afford to pay for his political caution. Britain’s third party should be brave enough to say that only a ‘single market dividend’ will yield the billions needed to fund real change in the country.

Britain’s third party should be brave enough to say that only a ‘single market dividend’ will yield the billions needed to fund real change Quote

Secondly, there is a chance to lead the discussion on net zero. The most vivid of the Conservative retreats on the environment is not their tweaks to the timescale for phasing out new petrol and diesel vehicles. It is the brutal, myopic cancellation of high speed rail and the prime minister’s proposed fire sale of the land on which it was to be built.

Yet Labour is notably silent on whether it would revive a national ambition to link London and Glasgow with the fast, modern trains needed to make domestic flights obsolete. Despite the barrage of bad press for the project, more voters continue to support HS2 than oppose it, with the margin of support markedly larger among voters under the age of 50. Liberal Democrats should be proud to speak for them.

Thirdly, the party has in its leader a really impressive expert on the energy market and the transition to clean power. Starmer has promised to create a nationalised Great British Energy company but only Davey has the expertise to set up some tests for its success.

Just as Liberal Democrats capitalised on Vince Cable’s economic standing during the 2017-19 parliament, so now Ed Davey should be a leading voice on how – affordably and sustainably – to keep Britain’s lights on, homes heated and kettles boiling.

These are just three suggestions for giving the Liberal Democrats some edge on the national stage. The party could choose to adopt other distinctive ideas instead. What is clear is that a simple echo of Labour’s general antipathy to the Tories is insufficient in a three-way battle.

Activists will continue to give their time and energy to delivering rain soaked, heartfelt handwritten letters from great local candidates. But these are no substitute for compelling reasons to vote for the Lib Dem bird over the Labour rose. Now is the time to “take courage for the future” and pick some.


Alex Davies is a director at purpose-led communications agency Higginson Strategy. He was previously chief of staff to Sir Vince Cable during his leadership of the Liberal Democrats and is a former Lambeth councillor.

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