Can the next leader of the Liberal Democrats move the party away from their association to the Conservative-led coalition?

Vince Cable has announced that he will not be contesting the next General Election. This means that the Liberal Democrats are likely to have a new leader within the next year. With their vote share, seat share, popularity, membership and local successes slowly increasing, and there is still a possibility of a hung parliament, the party could be pivotal in determining the outcome of Brexit and who we have as our next Prime Minister.

Cable has announced that he is opening up the party to more than just Liberal Democrats, seeking to find a similar boost as the Canadian Liberals and Macron’s En Marche. He seeks to do this by allowing many people to join for free, vote for the new leader or even stand themselves. The likelihood is, however, that it will be an MP that becomes the next leader. The three favourites (in order of most to least likely, according to the bookies) are: Jo Swinson, Layla Moran and Ed Davey. This article will be an analysis, not a subjective piece, in order to inform people about each of these MPs; looking at their background, political views and their main campaign issues. Obviously, there is a lot of overlap between each candidate, all of them being socially liberal, environmentalist and anti-Brexit. However, I will try to set out the differences between them.

Jo Swinson

Jo Swinson is the MP for East Dunbartonshire in Scotland. This is where she went to a comprehensive school, later going on to study Management at the London School of Economics (LSE). After working for Hull’s local radio station (Viking FM), Swinson stood for election to the Commons in East Hull and then later stood for election to the Scottish Parliament. The people of East Dunbartonshire chose her as their MP in 2005.

In the coalition government, she was the Parliamentary Private Secretary (PPS) to Vince Cable while he was Secretary of State for Business, Innovation and Skills. Swinson then moved on to become Nick Clegg’s PPSs before becoming the Under Secretary of State for Employment Relations and Customer Affairs in 2012. She lost her seat in 2015, along with many other Liberal Democrats, but unlike many of her colleagues won it back in 2017. Since then Jo has been the Liberal Democrats’ Deputy Leader and Spokesperson for Foreign Affairs. Swinson has been described as on the right, economically, of the party.

This is mainly due to her involvement in the coalition government. Due to this involvement, she had to tow the line, voting for increasing the cap on tuition fees, against increased spending on welfare, against increasing the top band of Income Tax and against the implementation of a Mansion Tax. Why she voted this way, only she knows. Her supporters would say that she needed to in order to keep a stable coalition afloat during a time of instability. Her critics would say that she just ideologically supported the coalition’s austerity measures. The truth is probably somewhere between the two.

Jo has also championed the deregulation of street peddlers, allowing them more freedom to buy and sell goods to increase competition and keep prices low. She has been a vocal supporter of fathers’ rights when it comes to gaining increased paternity leave especially. Jo also supports a flexible labour market through the use of Zero Hour Contracts, in line with party policy, though they intend to reform them to end exploitation. She has also voted against reducing Capital Gains Tax but has been in favour of reducing Corporation Tax. Swinson has voted for many socially progressive policies. From voting against the Iraq War, voting for investigations after it took place, against the introduction of increased detention without trial and working hard along with her Liberal Democrat colleagues to bring about marriage equality in the UK. Jo is unapologetically anti-Scottish independence.

Her biggest competitor in her seat is the Scottish National Party (SNP) after all. It seems that she spends nearly as much time criticising the SNP as she does the Conservatives. But let’s not forget the SNP are in government in Scotland. She constantly calls out their hypocrisy, when they say that Brexit is an economic disaster while simultaneously saying that an Independent Scotland would manage alright on its own. Jo is also a proud feminist. She is opposed to positive discrimination to help deal with gender imbalances, and in her book, Gender Equality and How to Achieve It,  she writes how we can address these imbalances without having to discriminate against men, by making changes in our own lives.

She famously wore a t-shirt to the Lib Dem party conference which read “I am not a token women”. She was the first MP to bring her baby into the Commons chamber while in a debate and has been fighting for increased maternity and paternity rights throughout her career. (To see her dedication to this issue, look up her Ted Talk) Overall, Swinson seems to be bound to the successes, and failures, of the coalition government and no matter how much the party shifts, if she became leader she would still be held to her record in government. She does seem to fall more on the right of the party on economic issues and left of the party on social issues.

Could Swinson’s economically liberal, socially progressive and feminist views plant her as Cable’s successor? I’m sure many Liberal Democrats would he happy to see her as the first female leader of the party. However, Swinson is not the only woman seen as Cable’s possible successor.

Layla Moran

Layla Moran is the MP for Oxford West and Abingdon. She was born to Christian-Palestinian parents, (her Grandfather being the famous Palestinian writer Wasif Jawhariyyeh) making her the first ever MP of Palestinian descent to sit in the Commons. Moran went to a range of independent schools across the world, ending up in the UK studying Physics at Imperial College London.

She then became a physics teacher at a range of schools, leading to her subsequent interest in education and politics. Moran stood as a candidate for the Lib Dems in the 2010 General Election and as a candidate for the London Assembly in 2012. She was elected to the House of Commons in 2017 and in that year she was made a member of the Public Accounts Committee. As Layla is new to the House of Commons, compared to Davey and Swinson, her voting record does not show her political views as clearly. However, she, along with most of the Lib Dems, was shocked in 2010 that Cameron was making out that there was little difference between his Conservative Party and the Liberal Democrats.

Being a newly elected MP, she has mainly been championing local issues such as campaigning to maintain a good standard of air quality in Oxford and holding the government to account on the proposed Expressway. A more national issue that she did become involved in was the ending of the Vagrancy Act of 1824, which allows local governments to prosecute rough sleepers. Oxford University Union were happy to see this issue, which they had made an important part of their agenda, being voiced in Parliament. Moran is seen as a possible contender because unlike Davey and Swinson, she is not bound to the coalition government. Her voting record is a clean slate. On top of this, she is the youngest of the three contenders and looks like a refreshing breath of fresh air for the party, with the only criticism being that she has less political experience compared to the others. With Moran as the leader though, when the Liberal Democrats are called out for their record in coalition, they would finally be able to say ‘that is not us anymore, we have moved on’.

That being with the assumption that the Liberal Democrats do want to distance themselves from the coalition. The main policy area that Layla takes interest in is education. She used her maiden speech to call out the closure of a Sure Start children’s center in Oxford and is in favour of scrapping Ofsted, removing league tables for schools and revoking the ‘charity’ status that private schools hold. Being an ex physics teacher; science and education are at the forefront of her mind, making her the right pick for the Liberal Democrats’ Spokesperson on Education, Science and Young People. Can Moran’s younger, newer and more energised approach win over Lib Dem members that did not like the coalition government? It could be possible that even members that did support the coalition think that in the eyes of the electorate, it is time to leave it in the past.

Ed Davey

The final contender is Ed Davey. Ed is the MP for Kingston and Surbiton in South London. He grew up, and was privately educated, in Nottingham. After which he graduated from Jesus College Oxford with a first-class honours in PPE. After working in a Pork Pie factory and Boots, he became an economics researcher for the Liberal Democrats, helping come up with policies such as increasing income tax by a penny per pound to fund education and the establishment of an independent central bank, which was then adopted by Blair’s government.

In the coalition, Davey was the Secretary of State for Energy and Climate Change and was seen as Nick Clegg’s successor as party leader until he (Davey) lost his seat in 2015. Due to his service to the nation (the coalition’s green policies were very effective, and are now slowly being repealed by the Conservatives), he got a Knighthood in 2016. When it comes to his political leaning, Davey is a liberal in more of the classical sense. He has been a critic of what he calls the “nanny state” and thinks that it should be the individual making most decisions that affect their life, not the government, or even big corporations for that matter.

Examples of this would be his opposition to a total ban on smoking in pubs and his resistance to New Labour’s restrictions on gambling machines. He has also accused the Conservatives of “declaring war on the internet”. Evidence of his classical liberalism is found in the praise he has received from the economically liberal magazine; The Economist and the libertarian think-tank; the IEA (Institute of Economic Affairs). His voting record is almost identical to that of Swinson’s, voting for less welfare and less tax, although throughout his career he has voted against increased tuition fees.

Davey was a contributor to the Orange Book, which was a reaction to the Liberal Democrats moving to the left under Charles Kennedy. Davey’s chapter focussed on localism and its ability to protect and enhance individual freedom. Other contributors to the book include Nick Clegg, Vince Cable and David Laws. Moving away from economic issues, Davey introduced the clause which repealed Section 28.

Section 28 was part of Thatcher’s education policy which prohibited homosexuality from being discussed in a positive light in schools. Davey is also an outspoken environmentalist. The idea he champions most tends to be that of Green Capitalism. This is the ideology that we can combat climate change through market forces while growing our economy; assisted and guided by government policy. This is seen by his record in government, setting up the EU Green Growth Group, reducing barriers to entry for small renewable energy firms and streamlining customer switching processes. However, he has been criticised by the right for being too interventionist and by the left for supporting fracking and nuclear power. Will this environmentalist, market-liberal approach to politics win over the Lib Dem membership to make him Cable’s successor?

A final word

No one really knows at the moment who will stand, let alone who will win. Jo and Ed are both highly experienced compared to Layla, but this experience comes with some baggage. The Liberal Democrats are far overdue a female leader, which one would hope puts Layla and Jo in good stead. All three have progressive social policy records, all three are highly popular on a local level and all three want a second referendum and were elected in 2017 off this mandate. It is also possible that due to Cable’s opening up of the party, other people could stand. However, outsiders are unlikely to want to stand the first time round and the membership are probably even less inclined to vote for them. With the Liberal Democrats being largely in favour of Ed’s Green Capitalism, Jo’s unionism and Layla’s emphasis on education (many of their members being current or ex-teachers), this contest could be anyone’s game, but hopefully this article got you up to date with the possible contenders.


Recommended Posts